As Breakthroughs in Digital Technologies Compel Scholars to Address Media consumption outside the traditional contexts of the theater and the home, media historians remind us that audio and visual technologies have always proliferated in other places, including churches and classrooms, hospitals and laboratories, factories and union halls, corporate offices and courtrooms. Within such alternative venues, media function as tools of education, justice, agitation, advocacy, professionalization, strategy, training, and proselytizing. These frequently overlooked institutional uses of media, beyond art and entertainment, remind us that the patterns of production, distribution, and consumption commonly invoked by terms like “the movies” and “television” represent only certain configurations within the broader field of media practice.
The five contributions to this issue showcase the diversity of these institutions and their audiences—from the military to midwives—as well as media’s place within a wide range of activities and uses: industry promotion, health and safety training, business communication, warfare, behavior modification, and styling of the self. Along the way, they offer insights into traditional media studies questions, including power struggles over distribution, formal innovation and experimentation, audience reception and the affective and sensory experience of lost technologies, the theater as a space constituted by particular social and cultural relations, and the sometimes tense relationship between entertainment and information uses of media.
In “The Artifice of Nineteenth-Century Phonographic Business Dictation,” Patrick Feaster revisits the claim that phonography developed into an entertainment medium because particular technological limitations—namely, its inability to correct mistakes—inhibited its utility as a business tool. Instead, Feaster uses nineteenth-century trade literature, technical correspondence, and other primary materials to problematize extant arguments about the development of phonography. Not only does Feaster show that many of phonography’s technological limitations would not have affected its use in the business sphere, he also demonstrates how the primary conception of the phonograph as a business tool necessitated the development of editing techniques—methods by which a dictator could effectively communicate to the stenographer the presence of mistakes. Feaster’s article demonstrates how the initial conception of phonography as a useful medium facilitated the development of rudimentary phonomanipulative sound-editing techniques—techniques that were not necessary in entertainment phonography of the period but that were everyday requirements in the realm of business dictation.
Similar to Feaster’s exploration of phonography’s usefulness prior to its better-known appropriation by the entertainment industry is Giles Taylor’s “A Military Use for Widescreen Cinema: Training the Body through Immersive Media,” which tells the story of the Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer, an antecedent of the 1950s Cinerama technology. The Waller trainer, a World [End Page 1] War II widescreen film technology developed to train antiaircraft machine gunners in the US and British militaries, presented its trainees with an immersive widescreen space that included a five-panel domed screen, sound effects, and dummy weaponry. Taking an archaeological approach, Taylor analyzes patents, public discourse, trade journals, and trainees’ testimonies to outline the intentions of the Waller trainer’s inventors and present a history of the device’s realization and implementation. Deviating from traditional understandings of film spectatorship and apparatus theory that posit the spectator as immobile and fixed, Taylor notes that the Waller trainer created a viewing space that invited its user to engage in an embodied, multisensory training experience. As an early interactive screen technology, the Waller trainer also presupposed new media technologies that invite participatory engagement and embodied interaction with the screen, such as haptic video games, virtual reality, 3D cinema, and touchscreens.
Shifting from discussions of technology to discussions of useful media texts themselves, “Corporate Discourses of Sponsored Films of Steel Production in the United States, 1936–1956,” by Sara Sullivan, analyzes a series of public relations films produced by United States Steel and Republic Steel. Placing the films within the historical context of public relations campaigns responding to the Depression, the New Deal, and the rise of industrial labor unions, Sullivan argues that the sponsored films of United States Steel and Republic Steel reflect the worldview of America’s elite corporate business class at the time. Still, Sullivan shows that while the films of both companies advocate for free-market capitalism, technological progress...