Friday, January 6, 2017

The Perversity of Things: review #6 of X: Thought Experiments and Toys

Continuing with my review (#6 of X) of The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) - focusing now on pages 37-45 of Wythoff's rich 59-page Introduction to the 359-page volume.

Thought experiments have had a long and noble history in the evolution of human knowledge, ranging from Leonardo's sketches for devices that were not quite capable of being invented in his time, to Schrödinger's cat about quantum mechanics in our macro world which could never be implemented in actual reality.   Gernsback loved all modes of thought about what technology could accomplish, but as Wythoff details, Gernsback was unsurprisingly more like Leonardo than a quantum physicist.  Indeed, he favored more than sketches, and wanted writing in his magazines about devices that actually could be built, if often not quite performing as hoped or advertised.

Wythoff, much to my delight, has a quote from Gernsback about the first expressions of new technologies functioning as "toys".  You want to know why I think this is such a great book?  My first major, published article, reprinted half a dozen times, is entitled "Toy, Mirror and Art: The Metamorphosis of Technological Culture," which first appeared in 1977. Here's a link to a penultimate version, reprinted a decade later.  (I owe it another update, and will definitely put in a mention of Gernsback, with thanks and citation of Wythoff.)

The question with the technological toy is whether it will be developed any further.  One of the fascinating tidbits of history I did discover when I was researching TMA in 1976 was William Orton, President of Western Union Telegraph in 1881, who advised his hapless friend Chauncey Depew not to invest in Bell Telephone back then, five years after the telephone was invented, because it would never be more than a "scientific toy". (How hapless was Depew?  He was encouraged to run as a Republican against incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland in 1888 but declined because he thought Cleveland was unbeatable.  Republican Benjamin Harrison went on to win the electoral vote that year.)

Gernsback, of course, was keenly interested in developing toys into usable, revolutionary technologies.  Wythoff shows how often Gernsback failed in his immediate future.  But the backdrop of reading The Perversity of Things is how often Gernsback succeeded in the long run. His remote-controlled wireless Telimco didn't do much in the early 20th century - but as soon as I post this review I'm going to catch up with my latest series streaming on Netflix, without leaving my chair, unless I want another cup of tea.

And at some point after that, I'll be back my the next is my series of reviews of The Perversity of Things.

See alsoThe Perversity of Things: review #1 of X: Gernsback as Philosopher of Technology ... #2 of X: Learning by Doing ... #3 of X: The Evolution of Media ... #4 of X: Gernsback and the The First Amendment ... #5 of X: Amateurs vs. Corporations ... #7 of X: The Invention of Invention, and the Advent of Science Fiction ... #8 of X: Definitions and Fake News




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