Life As We Know It

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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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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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