In the theatrical world, history is a very important element. Ask a stagehand about any of the theater’s workings and you will get not just a functional description but a lesson on its origins. This knowledge is a gift handed down from veterans to apprentices. Broadway today dazzles audiences with high-tech visuals and cutting-edge delivery systems, but the core stagecraft would be easily recognized by the ancient Greeks who started it all.
The audiovisual integration industry does not seem to place the same importance on historical connections. Ours is a transitory space for technology where the focus is on looking forward. Most of our time is spent learning the latest platforms and delivery topologies in order to successfully implement them in the field. When we do look back, it is generally out of a need to interconnect with a legacy system or unit. We figure out the essential info, make it work, and move on.
I have always felt that we need to understand the roots of the audiovisual industry. If we choose to forget or ignore how the business that feeds us came to be, we lose the opportunity to innovate. Our technical experiences create the framework through which we understand the systems we design and install. Having a working knowledge of historical solutions and motivations allows a far more expansive perception to innovate with.
Our trade organizations have provided only a passing acknowledgement of the stories of those who explored solutions and how the experience brings people together. It’s time to bring AV history out of the dusty boxes stored in the attic and really look at why we do things the way we do.
The Past Is Present
Where did we come from as an industry? Is AV simply an outgrowth of the need for public address systems or the Hi-Fi stereo enthusiasts? Well, yes and no. The answer goes back beyond the days of the early telephone. Have you ever wondered why the 1/4-inch TRS plug is called a phone connector? The truth is that many of the “modern” methodologies used to deliver content have their origins in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Let’s look at a few examples of how our cutting-edge technology is not really so new.
Multiplexing signals is the foundation of cable television, cellular phone systems, Ethernet/wireless, and our modern content delivery systems. One would hardly suspect that this technology was developed in the era of the telegraph. Folks like Alexander Graham Bell experimented with acoustic telegraphy to create near speech sounds. Bell’s 1872 research not only led to the development of the telephone transducer (microphone), but also laid the foundation of AI used by Bell Labs to develop the voice recognition system “Audrey” (for “automatic digit recognizer”) in 1952.
The telegraph and telephone were the information superhighways of their day, transmitting information like stock quotes to firms via Gray’s Printing Telegraph. Multiple clients on a single service also require the ability to connect business directly; the matrixed switchboard made it possible for everyone to have a connection. The ability to route signals between a provider and client proved to be the magic app of the time, and C.E. Scribner’s “jack-knife” TRS connections made it possible. Now, business folks were able to communicate information, proposals, or news directly—a process that must have seemed as improbable as traveling at the speed of sound. A sonic boom indeed.
Whenever a communication network is built, there are people who will piggyback on it to provide entertainment for fun and profit. Therein lies the moment of conception for the audiovisual industry. There is a long history of engineers using telegraph systems to create and transmit music. Elisha Gray—who helped launch electrical, communications, and data networking distributor Graybar as a supplier to the Western Union Telegraph Company—was an inventor of the acoustic telegraph, a method of multiplexing telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire by assigning each message a different audio frequency. Graham Bell, who also worked in the field of acoustic telegraphy, modified a melodeon, a kind of pump organ, to transmit music between two stations.
It did not take long for those of means to demand remote access with this new technology. Edward P. Fry is among the first to listen to a “streaming” live event. Fry, who became suddenly invalid, did not want to give up his beloved opera. In 1880, he had a special phone line installed that enabled him to listen to the live performances, a rudimentary headphone atop his head and a libretto in hand.
Today, subscription services are ubiquitous, but among the first to provide content on demand was Thaddeus Cahill and his telharmonium. The device is one of the first purpose-built electromechanical musical instruments; it used large dynamos and tonewheels to create the sounds. In 1906, the 210-ton unit provided ambient music to several Manhattan hotels and department stores.
Every new medium is driven to mass adoption by the content it provides. This was as true for the telegraph as it is for DirecTV. Of the media most desired by audiences, sports ranks at or near the top of the list. As early as the late 1890s, operators were transmitting baseball action to their hometown newspapers, which displayed the action on giant boards mounted atop their buildings. In this way, folks could watch a game “live” from hundreds of miles away.
Toy or Tool?
How is this knowledge of our forebears more than the equivalent of an old man playing with HO scale model trains and pretending to be an engineer? I have found it to be a source of creative inspiration. On multiple occasions, it allowed me to find that unique standout element for a client’s interactive display. It has also provided a means to understand new technical topologies, as the evolutionary fundamentals always point to the right answer.
Why are we not making AV history an essential skill set?