Technological Turkeys

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In 1979 RCA announced that it was developing what it called Selectavision, a process that, using Thomas as Edison’s basic technique for recording sound but now hooked up to a television set, produced pictures as well. Edison, no doubt, would have loved it. The public did not.

Selectavision came onto the market in 1981, just when the VCR was catching on, and few people saw any reason to buy a machine that could play back but not record when they could buy one that did both for the same price. In 1983 RCA sold only 250,000 Selectavision machines, against 4,000,000 VCRs sold by RCA and others. The following year it canceled the project, losing $580,000,000 on what the company had once called its Manhattan Project. Certainly no one could argue that RCA hadn’t produced a bomb.

Selectavision represented the end of a very long technological trail, for it had been 102 years earlier, in 1877, that the original, brilliant idea had suddenly flashed into the mind of Thomas Alva Edison. He had an assistant make a gadget consisting of a grooved metal cylinder that rotated and moved freely along a shaft when the shaft was cranked. To either side were diaphragms with a stylus in the middle of each that could come into contact with the groove on the cylinder.

Edison wrapped the cylinder in tinfoil, placed the stylus in the groove, and, turning the crank, shouted close to the diaphragm, “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.” Then he placed the other stylus at the beginning of the groove and cranked the cylinder a second time. Partially deaf since childhood, the inventor heard nothing and thought the experiment had failed. But the others had heard. Faintly but unmistakably, the machine had spoken in Edison’s voice.

Gott im Himmel ,” said Edison’s assistant.

The idea that sound might be captured and preserved for posterity had been considered as early as the 1830s, when light was first being captured and preserved by photography. But it was forty years before Edison discovered a practical method of doing so, a method both simple and profound.

The sound waves of Edison’s voice caused the membrane of the diaphragm and its attached stylus to vibrate. As it moved along the groove on the cylinder, the vibrating stylus incised a pattern of hills and valleys in the tinfoil. When the cylinder was replayed, the pattern now made the stylus and the membrane vibrate, re-creating the original sound waves.

The inventor saw the commercial potential immediately, for he realized that “music can be crystallized as well.” He told a New York newspaper reporter, “I’ve made a good many machines, but this is my baby, and I expect it to grow up and be a big fellow, and support me in my old age.”

Edison’s machine caused an immediate sensation. President Rutherford B. Hayes was so astonished by it at a late-night demonstration in the White House that he insisted that his wife get out of bed to hear for herself. But while it was a sensation, it was still just a gimmick. It would be another decade before Edison’s invention was a viable commercial product.

In 1885 C. A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter discovered that wax worked much better than tinfoil as a medium for recording sound waves. In that decade also Emile Berliner first used a flat disk with a spiral groove rather than a cylinder with a helical one. Around 1900 lateral recording, in which the recording stylus vibrates back and forth rather than up and down as Edison’s had done, came into use and much improved the fidelity. By the time of the First World War, the 78-rpm record had completely displaced the cylinder and could play four and a half minutes on a side.

At about the same time, Lee de Forest invented the electrical amplifier, and by the early 1920s electronic methods had begun to replace acoustical recording and reproduction. In 1948 the long-playing record made it possible to play thirty minutes of uninterrupted music, and in 1958 stereo was introduced. By using both Edison’s original up-and-down motion and the later lateral motion, two channels could be recorded in the same groove. For the first time reproduced music began to sound much like live music.

But stereo was the last major elaboration of Edison’s seminal idea to be commercially successful. Twenty years later RCA pushed the technology one step farther still and stumbled into disaster. Today digital technology is fast replacing Edison’s analogue method of recording, and the digital videodisk, with its many advantages over videotape, is beginning to find the place in the market that Selectavision never found. CDs now outsell long-playing records, and in a few years the latter will be history. Thanks to Edison, however, the voices and music of a century will be with us forever.

The problem with Selectavision was that it pushed a technology to its limits when another, better technology was already beginning to supplant it. This is hardly the first time this has happened. In fact, exactly the same thing occurred in the history of sailing ships, with similar economic but quite different emotional results.

The full-rigged ship had come into being in the late fifteenth century. Over the next three centuries it was slowly refined and became the single greatest instrument in the spread of European civilization and power around the world. By the second decade of the nineteenth century the standard commercial sailing ship was bluff-bowed and full-bottomed to maximize its cargo space, with a length-to-beam ratio of only about three to one. Such characteristics did not make for speed.

But some ships—privateers in the War of 1812 and the recently outlawed slavers among them—needed speed more than they needed cargo space. American naval architects, just beginning to convert their profession from an art to a science, began to produce them.

Vessels called Baltimore clippers first appeared about this time and were famous for both their beauty and their speed. But Baltimore clippers were not true clipper ships, being small and usually rigged as topsail schooners. And it was not the rigging but the hull—with its sharp, overhanging bow and deep draft at the stern —that made the Baltimore clipper so speedy. It was only a matter of time before someone adapted its hull to a full-rigged, three-masted ship.

Exactly which ship was the first true clipper is much disputed among maritime historians. Carl C. Cutler, whose Greyhounds of the Sea , published nearly sixty years ago, is still the definitive work on clippers, awards the title to the Rainbow , built in New York for the China trade in 1845.

Because of the great distance to the Orient and the need to coordinate sailing schedules with the monsoon, speed was important on this route. In addition, there was much competition every year among New York and London merchants to deliver the first tea of the new crop. The early clippers were ideally suited to moving this high-value cargo.

Indeed, clippers could not economically transport any freight that was not high in value, for the price of their great speed was greatly restricted cargo space. As the race for speed among the clippers heightened, their hulls grew more and more extreme, their bows and sterns narrower. A true clipper had only about 55 percent of the cargo space available to an ordinary ship of the same length.

Except in special circumstances the magnificent full-rigged clippers couldn’t make money.

With their deep drafts, clippers were “stiff” and so could carry much more canvas than other ships their size. The Lightning —appropriately named, for she was one of the fastest of them all —could carry fully 117,000 square feet of sail, more than two and two-thirds acres. All this sail area, of course, required a relatively large crew, and this further narrowed the possible profits.

The clippers, though, were only as fast as their captains were willing to drive them. And the clipper captains were as famous in their day as sports stars are now, competing just as fiercely to wring the last ounce of speed from the magnificent ships beneath their feet. Even in the laconic language of ships’ logs one can sense the passion. On March 1, 1854, the master of the Lightning wrote: “wind South, strong gales … 18 to 18½ knots per hour, lee rail under … distance run in 24 hours 436 miles.” No sailing ship had ever traveled farther in a single day; it would be another thirty years before a steamship could make such sustained speeds.

Had the China trade remained the clippers’ only purpose, they would be only a minor part of the history of sail. But the California gold rush changed everything. Suddenly thousands of people wanted to get to the gold fields as soon as possible and at any cost, while merchants were desperate to get merchandise to a market where eggs cost a dollar each and whiskey was forty dollars a quart. Larger and still faster clippers were built to meet this sudden demand. Flying Cloud made the New York-San Francisco run around the Horn in only eighty-nine days, a record never equaled under sail, except once by herself.

It could not last. As the gold rush waned and steam technology improved relentlessly, the clippers made less and less economic sense. In 1853, 120 clippers were launched in American yards. Two years later only 42 slid down the ways, while 1859 saw the launching of the last 3 ever built in this country.

When pushed to its limits, Edison’s sound-recording technology produced a soon-forgotten commercial turkey called Selectavision. The full-rigged sailing ship, when pushed to its limits, produced a flotilla of uneconomic swans. Except in special circumstances the clippers couldn’t make money and therefore they lasted hardly longer in the marketplace than Selectavision. But they live on still in the American folk memory, for they were and remain the most beautiful and romantic creations of humankind ever to cleave the waves of the ocean sea.