This blog made its debut just under two and a half years ago, and since then I’ve published a new post every two and a half weeks on average, bringing the total—if we include this one—to fifty. That’s a nice milestone to have reached, and it gives me a good excuse to reflect on what’s gone on here so far and what sort of a blog this is shaping up to be. I had some idea of what I wanted it to be back at the beginning when I created an “about” page for it. It was, I wrote,
a place I’ve set up to discuss and share some of my ongoing explorations in historical media, documents, inscriptions, et cetera. In some cases, the emphasis will be on educing them (i.e., making them sensorily accessible), often in ways not envisioned by their creators—for example, by converting phonautograms or telegrams into sound, or by presenting stereoviews as animations. In other cases, my emphasis will be on interpreting and understanding them. Much of the time, I’ll be examining objects in my own personal collection; in fact, unless I state otherwise, you can assume that I own any photographs or phonograms or ephemera I describe and discuss. My broad purpose here will be to take historical media that may at first seem impenetrable or mysterious and attempt to make them meaningful and interesting.
I’d say this blog has since lived up to my intended mix of eduction and interpretation, but it’s the eduction piece that seems most to have captured people’s imaginations, judging from viewer statistics. In fact, one of my most viewed posts has been an article I wrote about the concept of eduction itself, called—logically enough—“What is Eduction?” I suspect a lot of people have been stumbling across it by mistake when they mean to search on the phrase “what is education?” and get the spelling wrong. But I still think it’s a useful concept: namely, that any media object needs to be actualized in order for us to sense its content meaningfully, say, by exposing a printed page to light, playing a record, projecting a film, or pulling up a GIF on a computer screen. That step is what I call eduction, and by expanding it to cover all media objects, I want to expose continuities between “machine-readable” formats and other ones where critics have tended to see only discontinuities. Ultimately, I’d like to try to work up an “eductionist” theory and history of media—one which acknowledges that how we go about making media content perceptible can sometimes be as culturally significant as how it’s created beforehand or interpreted afterwards. Think of the implications of carrying a lamp into the recesses of a cave to make aurochs paintings visible in prehistoric times and you’ll get the idea.
By the same token, there’s plenty of room for creativity in our own strategies for educing legacy media—all the more so given the tools available to us in the digital age, which make experiments easy to carry out that would once have been prohibitively difficult or time-consuming. Much of what I’ve been sharing on this blog has involved eduction against the grain: making inscriptions sensorily accessible in ways that run contrary to their creators’ intentions, much as reading against the grain entails interpreting sources in ways that subvert their creators’ intentions. To make the most of our world documentary heritage, I’d like to suggest we try to think outside the box on both fronts.
A prime example of eduction against the grain is the playback as sound of waveform images on paper. I describe a technique for carrying that out here, with an important addendum here. Waveforms on paper were mostly intended by the people who made them to be studied visually as graphs, but by using this technique we can listen to them as well, which often lets us understand them better in turn. To illustrate the point, here’s an example from Edward Wheeler Scripture’s Researches in Experimental Phonetics (1906), converted into a playable audio file in a couple different ways (first as displacement data and then as velocity data). Does hearing the information, as opposed to just seeing it, make a difference in your ability to make sense of it? I’d wager that it does.
Meanwhile, we’re not limited to making waveforms talk and sing, as cool as it is to be able to pull that off. I’ve also written here about paleospectrophony, or the practice of converting historical inscriptions into sound by interpreting them spectrographically: as graphs of time against frequency. This approach can be applied either to “real” sound spectrograms—
—or to other inscriptions that graph time against frequency more or less strictly, examples of which can be found dating back over a thousand years:
In terms of sonification (which, unlike some theorists, I understand as the strategy of assigning sonic parameters to represent things other than themselves), I’ve shared the playback of some early Morse Code messages—here’s “MESSAGE FROM MRS MADISON SHE SENDS HER LOVE TO MRS WETHERED,” as actually transmitted from Washington to Baltimore in May 1844—
—and a record made of the discharge of an electric fish in the 1870s, about the same time people also began trying to listen to such natural electrical phenomena by telephone.
I’ve also explored the process of converting historical “phonographic” texts—written in ostensibly phonetic scripts—into sound using modern speech synthesis software, as with this 1844 address by Isaac Pitman:
On the visual front, this blog has explored a few techniques for taking stereoviews such as this—
—which I thought was a big improvement over the widespread practice of mere back-and-forth alternation (see also Tiffany Chan’s HASTAC blog post on this topic). However, I soon found I could get more compelling results with image-morphing software in which the user manually defines corresponding points in two images:
—including subjects captured together with their reflections in water (this example is from a daguerreotype taken in 1845)—
—and pairs of images not taken quite simultaneously:
In breaking news, I’m excited to see that Ryan Baumann of the Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing has just been tweeting some results of “fully-automated optical flow based morphing” inspired—as he kindly writes—by some of the image-morphing experiments on this blog. If this approach to animating historical images can be conveniently automated, maybe it will become as easy and popular as using the New York Public Library’s online Stereogranimator! I’ll be watching eagerly to see where this goes.
There’s plenty we can do with pairs of two related images, but when the quantity of related images increases, so do our options for educing them. We’ve also animated some larger groups of simultaneously-captured images—
—and brought “lost” motion pictures to life from the printed page—
—as well as miscellaneous radially symmetrical artworks, such as this ancient Greek dish:
Another major theme here has entailed applying face-averaging software to historical subjects, for instance by creating “averaged” portraits from multiple contemporaneous images of famous people (do you recognize this guy?)—
—or tracking the development of artistic conventions (behold the average female face in Western European painting as it evolved from 1360 to 1459, abstracted from hundreds upon hundreds of sources)—
—or investigating the rise of the “say cheese” smile through yearbook portraits—
—or the “fashionable face” of American fashion magazines as it’s changed from decade to decade—
—or the “average” Miss America over the years:
We’ve also tried out the idea of displaying time-based graphs as motion pictures (below you can see a horse’s pulse at top and breathing at bottom, as recorded by Carl Ludwig in 1846 or 1847):
In short, experiments with eduction against the grain have been a big part of what’s gone on here at Griffonage-Dot-Com. Some running strategies have been:
- Taking sources that represent change over time and displaying them as change over time.
- Interpolating between data points to create smooth transitions.
- Averaging multiple data points to make entries along a timeline more reliably representative.
There’s a lot of room here for productive analogies between image processing and audio processing. For instance, the idea of expanding the duration represented by each spot along a timeline to increase its individual “representativeness” at the expense of time precision can be applied both to video processing, as described here—
—and to audio processing, as described here—
But Griffonage-Dot-Com hasn’t only been about eduction, which I consider just one tool in the well-equipped media archeologist’s toolkit. I’ve also been writing here about historical findings of other kinds, made through more conventional means: among other things, that the much-contested lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in print as part of a longer poem by Edith Goodyear Alger published and copyrighted in 1901; that Alexander Graham Bell anticipated the strategy of video scan lines way back in 1882; that James Davis of North Carolina claimed to have invented a recording telephone in the 1860s, and made that claim in early April 1877, before either Charles Cros or Thomas Edison had put forward the idea of playing back recorded sounds; that the principle of using a thin membrane to transduce sound was being exploited in South America long before European scientists figured it out; and that a phonautograph was first imported to America in 1859 and might still exist.
Many of my posts along these lines have begun with me trying to make sense of some particular artifact or document I’ve come across, leading me to a story I’ve decided is worth telling.
Thus, I’ve showcased a penmanship sampler from the 1860s by a writing instructor who apparently tried to pass himself off to rural Vermonters as an expert in the nonexistent “Strongsonian System” of handwriting; a recording of a proof-of-concept mobile phone conversation from 1948, when that sort of thing was still an almost unheard-of novelty; and some pages from a picture book drawn in the 1880s by the physician at a poorhouse in Dayton, Ohio, for his grandson, who was orphaned as a teenager and went on to become an inmate in the same poorhouse.
Also—if I can throw out a few more teasers for those who haven’t yet read these posts—a CDV photograph of a sketch of a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati where a grisly unsolved murder took place in 1876; a group of hoax articles from the 1890s and 1900s about a scientist who had supposedly taken a phonograph with him into the ocean depths to record the sounds of marine life; a group of home cylinder phonograph recordings all made by the same family in rural Nebraska between 1908 and 1911; a prototype musical graphophone record from about 1885; an unpublished play manuscript by the well-known phonographic humorist Cal Stewart (“Uncle Josh”); a set of newspaper correspondence from 1815 in which “Santa Claus” was understood to be a woman, and the wife of St. Nicholas; a host of previously unidentified phonograph patents; and a rare silhouette drawn in the 1820s or 1830s by Prosopographus, the first mechanism billed as taking people’s likenesses automatically without the intervention of a human hand (although in fact it didn’t).
One topic I’ve particularly wanted to cover—and plan to deal more with here in the future—is the history of “recording” media being used for purposes of illusion and artifice. So far I’ve written one piece comparing the artifices of early photography and early phonography and another exploring a photographic device I call the Rhode Island Window, where a fake window frame was used to hold multiple interchangeable painted background scenes.
Some of my posts have dealt with topics that have a pretty narrow niche audience, such as efforts to decipher mysterious technical markings on Berliner gramophone discs or peculiar patterns in the assignment of early record catalog numbers. I write about them here because, heck, I think they’re interesting, and after all, where else am I going to write about them? But some topics have found more resonance. In one recent post, I shared a scan I’d made of a copy of the piano sheet music for the previously unknown “Northern Indiana Normal School March” which I’d just picked up on eBay, recognizing “Northern Indiana Normal School” as an older name for my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University.
The music has since been arranged for band, and I’m told it will be revived locally in concert performance later this year. How cool is that? In another post, I published an obscure manual from 1890 describing the secret of how to etch gramophone discs; there are now efforts underway to replicate the technique based on it. It was also nice to see my claim that the Edinburgh photographer James Ross may have shot the world’s first motion picture covered in The National, a Scottish daily newspaper.
On a more general note, I’m duly flattered by Sharon Black’s kind words at Comm-Pilings: “Seriously,” she writes, “this is the coolest website I’ve seen in a long time.” And I’m grateful to everyone who’s reblogged, tweeted about, and otherwise helped to lure unsuspecting people towards the stuff I’ve been writing and sharing here.
As to whether this has been a “successful” blog—well, it doesn’t have the kind of mass following that would generate any significant amount of advertising revenue, it that’s what you mean. But it’s allowed me to put a variety of ideas and discoveries and experiments out there where interested people can find them, and I think it’s been getting a respectable amount of traffic considering how little I’ve done in terms of promotion. Here’s a graph of monthly views and visitors as of July 27th:
As Blog Post #50 was approaching, it occurred to me to check whether my posts were being safely archived in the Wayback Machine, that great counterweight to the ephemerality of the Internet. Some were, but some weren’t. To fill in the gaps, I methodically used the “Save Page Now” feature to archive whichever posts weren’t yet archived, including my own linked mp3s and pdfs (otherwise hosted at phonozoic.net), and also outside pages I’ve referenced from my blog posts whenever they still existed and weren’t blocked by inhospitable robots.txt files. Hopefully it will now be possible for someone to experience this blog reasonably well through the Wayback Machine in years to come even if the “current” version falls apart for some reason or another. In closing, then, here’s a Table of Contents with links to the “current” version of each post I’ve published to date, as well as to the version(s) at Archive.org:
- Historical Stereoviews as Tweened Animated GIFs (February 8, 2014); archived
- Dolley Madison Sends a Telegram (February 20, 2014); archived
- P’HTROWH! Old Phonographic Scripts Meet Modern Speech Synthesis (March 10, 2014); archived
- “Twin” Tintypes as 3D Animated GIFs (May 3, 2014); archived
- Animating Alleged Early 3D Images: Leonardo da Vinci and Chimenti (May 4, 2014); archived
- Animating Larger Groups of “Identical” Tintypes (June 12, 2014); archived
- Edith Goodyear Alger: Lyricist of “Happy Birthday To You”? (June 20, 2014); archived
- Face Averaging as a Historical Technique (July 1, 2014); archived
- Face Averaging and Art History (July 19, 2014); archived
- Strongsonian Penmanship; or, The Writing Master’s Bluff (July 27, 2014); archived
- Two Hundred Forgotten U. S. Phonograph Patents (1878-1912) (August 1, 2014); archived
- Animating Historical Images With Image Morphing (August 18, 2014); archived
- Artifices of Early Photography and Phonography (August 21, 2014); archived
- Fragments of a Handmade Child’s Picture Book, circa 1880 (August 27, 2014); archived
- The Fishy Phonograph of Professor Kollicher (September 4, 2014); archived
- Did James Ross of Edinburgh Shoot the World’s First Motion Picture? (October 11, 2014); archived
- What is Paleospectrophony? (October 15, 2014); archived
- How to etch gramophone discs: a manual from 1890 (November 9, 2014); archived
- Cracking the Code: Technical Markings on American Berliner Discs, 1899-1900 (November 18, 2014); archived
- The House Where Uncle Jake Allen Was Murdered (November 24, 2014); archived
- How to “play back” a picture of a sound wave (November 27, 2014); archived
- “Say Cheese!”: Using Face Averaging to Track the Rise of the Photo Smile (December 18, 2014); archived
- What is Eduction? (January 17, 2015); archived
- A Musical Graphophone Disc from 1885 (January 28, 2015); archived
- Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist (February 13, 2015); archived
- Filling in the Gaps: Some Discographic Inferences (March 15, 2015); archived
- Moon Phase Animations (AD 650-1650) (March 20, 2015); archived
- “Brenna Record”: Audio Snapshots from Rural Nebraska (1908-1911) (March 27, 2015); archived
- Primeval Animations and the Voynich Manuscript (April 1, 2015); archived
- A Memoir about Midi (May 24, 2015); archived
- More Tintype Animations (June 6, 2015); archived
- The Non-Western Roots of Modern Audio Technology (June 13, 2015); archived
- Alexander Graham Bell and Motion Pictures (1882) (July 13, 2015); archived
- Cal Stewart’s “Hoosier Hollow” (August 3, 2015); archived
- Eye Reflections as Accidental Stereoviews (September 22, 2015); archived
- Bringing Historical Images of Water Reflections to Life (October 11, 2015); archived
- Historical 3D Fun With Anaglyphs (October 24, 2015); archived
- Hear a Mobile Phone Conversation from 1948! (November 7, 2015); archived
- Time-Based Graphs as Moving Pictures (1786-1878) (December 4, 2015); archived
- Queen Santa Claus and Her Husband (1815) (December 23, 2015); archived
- The Fashionable Face: A Work in Progress (January 30, 2016); archived
- Film Fragments in Old Magazines (1896-1922) (February 24, 2016); archived
- James Davis and His Recording Telephone (March 29, 2016); archived
- The Rhode Island Window, Forgotten Device of 1860s Photography (April 30, 2016); archived
- The Valparaiso University March (1896) (May 20, 2016); archived
- The First Phonautograph in America (1859) (May 25, 2016); archived
- Listen to an Electric Fish from the 1870s! (June 30, 2016); archived
- Averaged Portraits of U. S. Presidents, 1789-1829 (July 4, 2016); archived
- Calculating Velocities: another step in “playing” waveform images (July 16, 2016); archived
- My Fiftieth Griffonage-Dot-Com Post