Life As We Know It

Looking back, it all seems so simple. Of course, movies would become a dominant form of entertainment. How could they not have? Anyone could have seen that one coming, obviously.

But that's why we read the archives. In 1924, Arthur D. Little, the founder of the first modern consulting company, tried his hand at futurology in July issue of The Atlantic. Ranging widely across the American technological landscape, he had a clear vision for the future of the country. But there was one area on which he chose to prevaricate: the moving picture.

Better yet, he reminds us of two nearly forgotten things: "the moving-picture van" and the "pallophotophone."

As best as I can tell from some Google Books searches, moving-picture vans drove around showing advertisements on their flanks. Public health officials even used them for outreach. Little was none too happy about it, though, saying they were "as welcome as a peripatetic billboard."

Though you don't know it, you're actually quite familiar with the pallophotophone and its descendants. A technology first developed by General Electric during World War I for recording radio signals, the pallophotophone recorded sound onto film, which could be synchronized with moving picture film. It could be used to make, as Little points out, "a moving picture whose characters talk." For him, though, its most important use would be political, as would-be statesmen used the technology to spread their messages. Not for, you know, Star Wars.

There's plenty more in Little's article, but savor the strangeness of this snippet first.

Whether the moving picture will develop or retrograde is not for one who has never seen Hollywood to say. The moving‑picture van, which, to larboard, starboard, and astern, compels attention to the virtues of toasted chewing‑gum or the lasting flavor of cigarettes, has arrived and is as welcome as a peripatetic billboard. We are soon to become familiar with the pallophotophone. Its symphonic name will from most of the community conceal the poetic fact that it is a moving picture whose characters talk. No longer is it necessary for our statesmen to tour the country. Their fences may be mended in the studio, and their constituents may simultaneously, in thousands of communities, view the candidate in a six‑foot close‑up as his argument is projected in a voice of twenty horsepower. It will handicap the would‑be senator who looks like a third‑class postmaster.

Read the rest of Little's "Life As We Know It."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

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