We modern movie-goers are so accustomed to visual effects in films that it’s almost difficult to imagine the awe people felt when they first witnessed such things as traveling shots and fade-outs. But, just as soon as moving pictures became a new form of entertainment at the start of the 20th century, some creative individuals began pushing it to new levels. One was Percy Smith, a London native who found his career as an educator boring and unfulfilling. He turned to the medium of film by going to work for Charles Urban, another cinematic pioneer, before creating his own films. Smith began experimenting with a variety of innovative techniques. Among them was time-lapse.
In 1910 Smith shot the world’s first time-lapse film, Birth of a Flower, which showed an array of different flowers blossoming. It became an international sensation. Smith’s name may have been lost to movie history, but his desire to stretch filmmaking into unknown regions helped transform a novelty into an art form.
Those of us who make our living via computers can’t imagine going back in time even to word processors, much less manual typewriters. Even discs of linoleum byproducts known as records now seem ancient. But, less than a century ago there were plenty of people who hadn’t quite adapted to the concept of something we now take for granted: electricity.
Electricity has a lengthy and complicated history. You might as well ask who invented the wheel or the toothbrush. Sitting in my parents’ home are four relics of a seemingly bygone era – kerosene lamps. They belonged to my paternal grandparents; my father recalls the lamps being put to use during World War II “lights out” drills.
Yet, with the exception of some rural areas, electricity had become relatively commonplace by the 1940s. Just two decades earlier, however, electric companies began making concerted attempts to convince both businesses and individuals of electricity’s usefulness. Here’s an ad that ran in the October 5, 1920 issue of the “New York Tribune,” in which the New York Edison Company (now ConEdison) states its case:
“Never before have the questions of economy and efficiency in production been of such importance as now in the industrial life of the country. This is true in the large plant as all as in the small shop. Electricity is proving the most effective agency in solving these various problems as they arise.”
By 1900, 30 electricity companies existed in the New York City area. In 1920, New York Edison constructed a power generation facility that could generate up to 770,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh). Today New York City uses about 100,000 kWh per minute.
One unfortunate side invention? Utility bills!
Anyone who thinks cell phones are as new as reality TV shows underestimates the genius of our forebears. In 1912, German technicians invented the “Pocket Telephone,” a device meant to communicate primarily with police. An announcement from Berlin read, in part:
“In consequence of the enormous expansion of the German capital, there are many outlying districts which are rendered unsafe through insufficient policing, and the pocket telephone was readily adopted as a partial solution of this problem. The new system is greatly favored as an adjunct to the police system generally, however, for every policeman is provided with a pocket telephone and can communicate with headquarters or other city departments whenever he finds it necessary.”
The item was actually a microphone that the individual would attach to a “contact device,” which would then connect with authorities. Of course, the user didn’t have the cherished privacy of a telephone booth. But, the technology was advanced enough to pick up even soft tones. The entire thing was about three-quarters of an inch thick and weighed approximately 7 ounces.
As creative and forward-thinking as they were, though, I don’t think the phone’s inventors could have foreseen texting and picture-taking phones. That took a real leap of perverted thinking.