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L'ère électrique. The Electric Age

Olivier Asselin
Silvestra Mariniello
Andrea Oberhuber

La pensée électrique/Electrical Thought

From a Post-Edison Time Machine to New Media Histories: Speculative Drawings, Uchronic Spaces of Graphic Propositions, and Time Travel1

David Tomas

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  • 1 This essay extends some ideas, on the basis of the same references, that were originally presented (...)

1Major western vehicles of transportation and communication, whether animal based (horse-drawn carriage) or mechanized (locomotive, automobile, airplane), are forward looking in the sense that the linkages and bridges they forge through space and time are oriented towards the future. An early 18th-century handbill crystallizes this logic, showing us how transportation systems impose order and direction on space and time by articulating a place of departure (Black Swan, Holbourn, London) with an arrival point (Black Swan, Coney Street, York). The articulation is governed by a timetable composed of Monday, Wednesday, Friday, a 5 a.m. departure time, and a journey of four days. This timetable is a compact expression of the spatio-temporal logic and the grid of transportation that controls the movement of human bodies according to set stages (London/York, Stamford, and Huntington). As the reference to a Newcastle Stage Coach journey suggests, although movement is temporally bound when measured against a precise point of departure, compass orientation is relative.

2The logic of directionality that governs a human body’s movement between points of departure and arrival, which exists even if the body is replaced with encoded proxies (telephonic transmission and photographic reproduction), is based on the articulation of present and future. The linkage transforms the future into a present as one arrives at one’s destination, at which time the future/present is instantaneously altered into a past as one passes through a precise physical or mental threshold, most often manifested in the exit from the vehicle or means of transportation. The articulation of present/future operates through a negation (or collapse) of the concrete presence of local (geographic) space, a condition triggered when the body is propelled through space by way of various systems of mechanical or electronic transportation at speeds that effectively separate it from the influence of local environments. The most efficient manifestation and expression of this negation of local presence is achieved through high-speed transportation in enclosed moving vehicles (railway carriage, airplane passenger cabin, automobile). In contrast to the negation of a local presence, these vehicles often preserve a suspended, liminal version of the present in an isolated compartment or otherwise encoded form. This future oriented spatio-temporal logic applies to the transportation technologies we are most familiar with—such as the locomotive, airplane, or automobile—which operate between points of departure and arrival on the basis of complex pre-existing geospatial grids (roads, railway system, flight routes) and timetables. The logic also applies to imaging systems that produce relatively stable representations (photography, cinematography) that can voyage in multidirectional and non-linear ways through space and time. These systems remind us that some modes of transportation and communication are not necessarily bound to the earth in the same ways that a railway locomotive and its carriages are, or an airplane is, through the imposition of a pre-established flight plan and path. They point to the fact that the dominant temporal/ spatial effects of transportation media and practices can be distorted by one’s position as producer or subject/voyager, or spectator/bystander.

  • 2 See, for example, Frank J. Tipler, “Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Vio (...)

3Other future oriented technologies of transportation/communication (such as the telephone or the computer) and associated systems of mass communication (the Internet) electronically transmit various forms of encoded visual/textual information in place of substantial bodies. In these cases, the timeframe is subtler and tighter as the linkages between present and future are forged at the speed of the electronic transmission of information. In order to break this logic’s stranglehold on our spatial practices, or the operations of our imaginations, the West has invented a category of machine that allows us to travel, figuratively and metaphorically, forwards and backwards in time in ways considered materially/ technologically impossible. These machines exist in hypothetical form in special kinds of imaginary spaces of the kind that are produced by literary or cinematographic processes of production. Alternatively, one finds them sometimes described within a discipline like theoretical physics, where they also exist in an imaginary form.2 However, in contrast to other modes of transportation, time machines can only exist suspended in an imaginary space between the worlds of speculative representation and theory. However, under certain well-defined conditions, these virtual cultural artefacts of the imagination can sometimes take surprising forms at the threshold of the intangible and the concrete. Under these circumstances, they are able to emerge from the world of the imagination to claim a unique position alongside existing modes of transportation/communication.

4In this essay I will discuss the relationship between speculative drawings, time travel, and the history of electricity. A sketch by Thomas Edison will serve as an example of how one might reinvent the history of media on the basis of a sketch’s creative potential and its ability to serve as a matrix of ideas that can be traced beyond an initial set of graphic parameters. I will focus on the matrix’s special nature, in particular its ability to serve as the generator of a new range of historical propositions, as opposed to a sketch that simply serves as a stepping stone in the process of understanding the historical understanding of a particular invention or event.

Speculative Drawings and Their Matrix of Possibilities

5In an important 1987 study, “Words, Images, Artifacts, and Sound: Documents for the History Of Technology,” Reese V. Jenkins discusses the importance of visual documentation for the historian. His primary focus is on Thomas Edison’s development of the phonograph, because of its significance in helping us understand the creative process in technological innovation. His study also illustrates the fundamental role of drawing in the invention and development of mass-produced information and communications technologies.

6For Jenkins, the peculiarity of design drawings resides in their capacity to function as “the documentary equivalents of verbal notes and drafts for literature or philosophy” (Jenkins 1987, 48). In this sense they represent various stages in an idea’s visual evolution, in which its plasticity is subject to the mind’s manipulation as it searches for an eventual solution to a specific problem, possibility, or set of possibilities.

7Whether considered in terms of broad cultural goals or serendipitous adventures, the novelty of these types of drawings is to be found in the relationships to the objects and processes they depict. Instead of functioning as illustrations of pre-existing things (although they can include prefabricated elements), these drawings register possibilities that are tracked and rendered visible through a process of graphic exploration. Each process of exploration is an extended perceptual frame, the shape of an idea that evolves not only through space and time but also as a function of space and time.

  • 3 See also my comments on the mechanical drawings associated with Charles Babbage’s 19th-century cal (...)

8Scientific representations and engineering drawings are a rich source of these possibilities because of their basic roles in crafting the models of reality that govern our understanding of the world and the fundamental tasks that they accomplish during the conceptualization and construction of the technical objects and machines that populate and animate our world. Their existence suggests that modern existence might extend in important and unacknowledged ways beyond the objects and processes that are associated with new scientific discoveries and technologies that serve as the building blocks for our societies or media for our histories and memories.3 They can extend beyond such concrete, visible manifestations of intellectual and material progress in a subterranean sense: through the stratification of obscure, often esoteric graphic representations that have served for the development of each scientific and technical process and object, whether they are located in sophisticated laboratories or in the mundane spaces of everyday existence (Latour 1990, 52–60).

9Leading imaging systems also serve as transportation and communications technologies through their ability to convey their subjects through space and time in various chemical or electromagnetic forms. The technologies and processes implicated in analogue and digital photography and cinematography exist in many forms insofar as their origins can be traced back to technical drawings and initial sketches. Thus the visual worlds they produce float on deposits of graphic activity, a subterranean world of representation that preserves the traces of the mind’s transportation along the trails of evolving ideas.

10Jenkins has pointed to the existence of this type of sedimentation and to the ideational matrix that serves as a common source of inspiration for the development of a group of important transportation and communications technologies devoted to transmission, storage, and retrieval of information: the telegraph, phonograph, and kinetoscope. He notes that Edison’s early work on the phonograph and kinetoscope reveal a common formal and ideational repertoire of technological references. For example, after he filed for a patent in mid-December 1877, Edison worked through the summer of 1878 exploring three different solutions to the storage and retrieval of sound. The first consisted of the storage of acoustic information on waxed paper or tinfoil media that was placed on rotating cylinders or drums. The second involved revolving discs composed of foil or wax paper. The third solution was based on paper ribbon, similar to stock ticker tape, that could serve for the transfer of impressions either onto its surface or edge (Jenkins 1987, 48). A series of notes on scraps of paper record these explorations. One dated December 3, 1877, illustrates all three.

11Jenkins recognizes that these “drawings are the basic evidence of the design ideas and their evolution in the Edison laboratory” (1987, 48). Although the design was finally narrowed down to the cylinder, because it “had the advantage of better control of speed and tracking,” Jenkins observes that “Edison... demonstrated a persistent pattern of preference for the cylinder form throughout his creative corpus.” He notes that “some of his cylinder phonograph drawings reveal a form parallel to a lathe—a commonplace form in Edison’s shop environment” (1987, 48). Jenkins catalogues a similar visual repertoire in the case of the kinetoscope that includes formal correspondences and visual analogies that link telegraphy and stock printers with phonography and early cinematography (1987, 50–55). He concludes the discussion with the following observations:

As historians penetrate into the earliest visual and verbal documentation of Edison’s designs and observe their evolution, they become increasingly aware of the social, cultural, personal and technical considerations that inform the evolution of design and shape the resulting commercial product. Furthermore, they are reminded that to understand the creative process and the factors shaping design, they must examine failures and so-called “wrong directions.” As one watches a film today, who would imagine that Edison’s original conception derived from the cylinder phonograph? (1987, 55)

12This latter comment brings us back to a sketch’s creative potential, its graphic zones of possibilities, and its ability to serve as a matrix of ideas.

13Although Jenkins is not concerned with the creative implications of his discussion beyond pointing to the richness and pertinence of visual and even acoustic documentation for the historian of technology, his discussion suggests that there are other ways of exploring and using the graphic elements and debris that are stockpiled within the foundations of science and technology. His discussion points, in particular, to some new ways of reinventing history for non- or transdisciplinary objectives. In these cases, existing sketches could serve as platforms for the development of a new range of visual propositions, as opposed to simply serving as stepping stones in a process of deepening one’s historical understanding of a particular invention or event.

14The telegraph, phonograph, and cinematograph were perceived as powerful new extensions of the human senses. It is no surprise, therefore, that Edison should have introduced the first motion picture caveat (October 8, 1888) with the following statement: “I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear” (quoted in Jenkins 1987, 52). However, the analogy is anticipated in Edison’s laboratory sketches, where, in Jenkins’s words, “the microimages are [deployed] in a spiral [on a rotating drum] just like the grooves on the cylinder phonograph. Although Edison does not make it explicit, the eyepiece is a visual stylus for the kinetoscope.” But there is more: the “motors on the shutter mechanism reflect the dual electromagnet form from telegraph sounders, relays, his printing telegraphs and his electric pen” (1987, 52).

15The repertoire that Jenkins uncovers is part of a matrix in which the human senses are articulated, differentially and transversally transformed into ideas that operate in anticipation of, and eventually in parallel with, the technologies of transportation and communications that they eventually engendered. Thus Edison’s December 3, 1877 diagram consists of a complex of sketches, the graphic impressions of “elementary” ideas that have taken a material/spatial form. But they are also a basic repertoire or matrix of elementary ideas and forms that bridge and link technologies. These basic patterns are significant because they unite potential, hypothetical, and existing technologies together in a more complex pattern that would extend to other sketches that harbour related elements. They are also important because they can be used, at a later date, to mine the sedimentation of representations that are at the foundation of actual artefacts and thus provide ways of reinventing them on the basis of a different pattern of ideas that exist in a common matrix.

Toward a New Media History

16Instead of investigating the various characteristics of a given technology’s primary communications channel (the photographic, cinematographic, televisual, or videographic image), one could focus on the pattern of ideas that articulates its material components in ways both seen and unseen. One could explore a pattern like an unconventional archaeologist, who would be interested only in tracing spatial and temporal relationships situated in a sedimentation of historical data. This archaeologist’s sole interest would be in exposing arbitrary narratives that would emerge as a consequence of this exploration. The archaeologist might be bold enough to couple two-dimensional patterns together in order to create novel three-dimensional propositions. The conventional idea of a new technology would be undermined and basically transformed by this archaeological activity. Nonlinear and transdimensional methods of association would replace the linear temporal sequences that nourish an evolutionary commodity-based model of history. Since this model sustains the idea that new technological forms create privileged sites for previously unexperienced sensory activity, this belief would also be undermined through a displacement in point of view and the creation of networks and patterns that bridge space and time through idiosyncratic pathways. The networks could plot out parallel histories, and the patterns could serve as propositions for uchronic technologies. From this viewpoint, Edison’s December 3, 1877 sketch would serve as an important portal to alternative histories of the phonograph, telegraph, stock printer, and the cinematograph, as well as previously unimagined hybrid technologies.

17To approach historical documents in this way would amount to a reinvention of media history, since an ephemeral product such as a sketch could be treated as a hub of interfaces: a matrix of technological propositions in the form of graphic ideas that spread out in space and time as they are used in different sketches; an intersystem of secondary proposals that might function as primary propositions in other contexts/times/spaces.

18Edison’s sketch is not just a surface that supports traces of images and handwriting; it is a common place that promotes comparison and exchange between complementary visual propositions. This context generates a much wider vision (that of the repertoire), in which the propositions are united together in terms of their similarities (the design of a phonograph), while their differences (cylinder, disk, and tape) lead elsewhere. The three sketches are also composed of interfaces (phonograph, cylinder, disk, and tape, stylus, waxed paper, tinfoil, paper tape, etc.) that lead to a general repertoire that was consolidated and exploited by one man, and beyond this use to a rich and volatile culture of ideas that can be explored and reactivated. This repertoire can function as an interface between an existing history and the parallel uchronic spaces of graphic propositions, the elements for other media histories.

19Jenkins’s examples are focused on isolated technologies in order to open them up to multiple technological and sensory origins. However, the consequences of his argument are richer and more inventive, because they lead to plural views of the nature of technological design and innovation. By treating historical artefacts in transversal and often deviant and anti-disciplinary terms, one opens them up to other historical possibilities that are not necessarily governed by a unilateral teleology of progress that places the new in the forefront of human experience. Another consequence of his argument is that we cannot view and measure a technology’s historical position and value through a simplistic and essentialist lens of the “new.” A “new” technology is never entirely or essentially “new”; it is almost always a different and sometimes radical configuration of old and existing elements. Progress is therefore never completely future oriented, nor are its technological or scientific viewpoints always forward looking. As Jenkins suggests in Edison’s case, innovation is rooted in an archive of ideas, preconceptions, influences, and predispositions. It is also subject to the dictates of an existing culture and its social and economic forces.

20Innovation is the complex product of a fusion of pre-existing elements or references and original ones, old and new analogies. Technological innovation is therefore more accurately portrayed in terms of a concrete manifestation of a conjunction of ideas that otherwise circulate in a culture and its various subcultures in the present but also in relation to a past as virtual, parallel, uchronic futures. Ideas can coalesce into many forms through the movement of a pen or pencil, and they can be oriented in many directions at once. The choice of one direction over another is subject to many dictates and pressures, including simple curiosity and a historically tuned imagination.

21We have an unfortunate predisposition to treat innovation predominantly in terms of a concept of the new that is tied to the future. This leads us to conceive of its manifestation in purely material terms and as the end product of research and development. Jenkins and sociologists like Bruno Latour (1988, 1990) and Michael Lynch (1985, 1990) suggest, on the contrary, that innovation can take many different forms and can be registered in different ways. If they have pointed to the critical importance of taking account of visual data, of a notion of “visual-spatial thinking” (Jenkins 1987, 55) in artefact design and construction as well as in processes of scientific and technical experimentation, then the new must also be spatialized in similar visual and conceptual terms along the sinews of ideas that hold things together in complex matrices that extend beyond the confines of individual artefacts.

22Latour’s, Lynch’s, and Jenkins’ arguments and examples suggest that there are other ways of conceiving instruments and technologies than those most often associated with a culture of progress and its novel products. Jenkins, for example, briefly mentions the defamiliarizing effects of listening to tinfoil recordings on replicas of Edison’s cylinder phonographs (1987, 55). This is one novel effect of temporal and spatial relocation. But there are other more radical consequences when one begins to transpose technical propositions from various points in space/time with the objective of consolidating them at another point.

Uchronic Media Practices

23A uchronic history of media would begin with sketches like the one produced by Edison on December 3, 1877. Insofar as these sketches describe non-existent technologies—non-existent, that is, in the sense that they have never existed—one could construct parallel or uchronic instruments of transportation/communication on their basis. These technologies would have unique relationships to the past and future, since they represent a set of possibilities that have and have not been superseded by newer or radically different ones. They would therefore function as chronotopic narratives in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense of representing a context where “time” has thickened, where it has taken “on flesh,” to become “visible,” and where “space” has become “charged and responsive to the movements of time and history” (Bakhtin 1982, 84). Although Bakhtin’s definition of the chronotope was conceived in relation to the novel, it can also apply to the kinds of network of ideas that are associated with Edison’s December 3 drawing, since their chronotopic status would be a function of the network of ideas that they represent and the technological narratives they are able to generate. Insofar as a network serves as a medium for the movement of ideas between different technologies, it too serves as a transportation and communications system for the mind’s movement from one location in space and time to another. This movement creates the possibility of unique historical/technological narratives along the axes of ideas and in the shape of unexpected propositions and objects.

A Chronotope of Space/Time Technical/Cultural Possibilities


  • 4 I use the term “electronically powered” in a self-reflexive sense: The computer is the product of (...)

25Computing technologies can now produce an environment in which a complex matrix, such as the one that is partially revealed in Edison’s December 3, 1877 sketch, can be mapped in detail in relation to other sketches produced by Edison, his contemporaries, and his successors. Once rendered visible, the matrix could serve as a point of departure for alternative ways of constructing and using technology, and therefore for other possible worlds. In this sense, the matrix would function as an electronically powered meta-chronotope.4 Edison’s sketch would serve as a portal in this matrix. A mind could access this matrix through this portal, and it could travel through the space/time matrix of the history and possibilities of electricity to emerge in different locations as defined by alternative solutions to a range of problems. Insofar as these solutions are defined by pre-exisiting historical data, they map uchronic worlds in terms of the possibilities of a post-Edison time machine.

26Speculations concerning the nature and technologies of time travel have been confined to the world of science fiction or advanced physics. Edison’s sketch and similar visual propositions embody a different model for time travel, one that is post-historical and uchronic in nature. One can even imagine, under purely graphic circumstances, that it would be post-technological in nature.



Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1982). “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.” In Michael Holquist, ed., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Austin: University of Austin Press, 84–258.

Jenkins, R. (1984). “Elements of Style: Continuities in Edison’s Thinking.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 424, 149–162.

Jenkins, R. (1987). “Words, Images, Artifacts, and Sound: Documents for the History of Technology.” British Journal for the History of Science 20, 39–56.

Latour, B. (1988). “Opening One Eye while Closing the Other... A Note on Some... Religious Paintings.” In G. Fyfe and J. Law, Picturing Power: Visual Depiction and Social Relations. London and New York: Routledge, 15–38.

Latour, B. (1990). “Drawing Things Together.” In M. Lynch and S. Woolgar, Representation in Scientific Practice, Cambridge: MIT Press, 19–68.

Lynch, M. (1985). “Discipline and the Material Form of Images: An Analysis of Scientific Visibility.” Social Studies of Science 15, 37–66.

Lynch, M. (1990). “The Externalized Retina: Selection and Mathematization in the Visual Documentation of Objects in the Life Sciences.” In M. Lynch and S. Woolgar, Representation in Scientific Practice. Cambridge: MIT Press, 153–186.

Tomas, David. (2004). Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies. London: Continuum.

Notes de fin

1 This essay extends some ideas, on the basis of the same references, that were originally presented in Chapter 7 of my book, Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies (London: Continuum, 2004).

2 See, for example, Frank J. Tipler, “Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation,” Physical Review D 9 (1974): 2203–2206. This example is particularly interesting in the context of the following discussion of Edison’s use of cylinders or drums in connection with the development of the phonograph and kinetoscope because it involves a spinning cylinder.

3 See also my comments on the mechanical drawings associated with Charles Babbage’s 19th-century calculating engines in Chapter 4 of Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies.

4 I use the term “electronically powered” in a self-reflexive sense: The computer is the product of an electrical culture, an instrument for this culture’s propagation and evolution, and also a means of exploring its historical and post-historical or uchronic possibilities.


© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2011

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