Skip to main content

Multimedia, 1895

June 2024
1min read

I believe it was Harry Truman who said “the only thing new under the sun is the history you don’t know.” Frederick E. Alien’s column “Behind the Cutting Edge” in May/June 2000 certainly shows this to be true. I’m hoping you’ll have Mr. Alien’s column available on your Web site, for it would be of enormous help to students in a class I teach called “Exploring the Digital Future.” I spend the first week of class giving a lesson in what I call “A History of the Future.” We start with the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition and move into the 1990s by week’s end. The point of this lesson is precisely the point of Mr. Alien’s column: that many so-called cutting edge technologies were designed many years before. Here is an example:

Two years after the Chicago fair opened, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine appeared. The inventor and early film pioneer Robert Paul took note of the novella and contacted Wells. Initially, Paul was intrigued that Wells utilized certain “cinematic” or kinetoscopic techniques in his story. The two men met and hoped to go one better than just linear moving pictures: They wanted to create a device that would allow paying customers to visit the past, present, and future. In 1895, Wells and Paul patented their novel form of entertainment: a machine that would give the spectator the ability to travel from past to future to present, in any order. This would be achieved by a series of moving platforms, magic lantern slides, projected motion pictures—“successive instantaneous photographs after the manner of the kinetoscope,” Paul called it—and sound effects.

What Wells and Paul were hoping to create was nothing less than an Edwardian interactive multimedia presentation. Alas, the enabling technology that would have allowed this “Time Machine” to be constructed was either too expensive to utilize or just didn’t exist in 1895.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate