Lost Knowledge: Reanimating Dead Media

Lost Knowledge: Reanimating Dead Media

This is our new weekly column exploring the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those slightly off to the side). Each Tuesday, we’ll look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” is also the theme of MAKE Volume 17 (due on newsstands March 10, 2009)

Back in the Internet Pleistocene of the mid-1990s, sci-fi author (and now MAKE columnist) Bruce Sterling launched something, in bOING bOING print and online, called the Dead Media Project. The idea started in response to all of the tech hype of the time (over virtual reality, multimedia, the Internet, CD-ROM) and the likelihood that a lot of today’s tech would turn into tomorrow’s landfill catch of the day. In a Dead Media modest proposal, Bruce outlined a book he wasn’t in a place to write but he challenged others to write it, a Dead Media Handbook of all the media tech that had gone the way of the dodo bird, a “naturalist’s field guide for the communications paleontologist.” He even offered a “crisp fifty dollar bill” to the first person to publish such a book. Nobody took him up on the challenge of a book, but a lot of people joined the Dead Media mailing list and began helping Bruce and fellow sci-fi author (also a MAKE contributor) Richard Kadrey collect “Dead Media Working Notes,” virtual 3 x 5card/screen-size morsels of research on everything from Incan quipo knot tying to pigeon post to dead Internet hardware and computer formats.

The Dead Media Project itself died in 2001, but the archives are still online, stowed on a number of servers. One Dead Medianaut, Garnet Hertz, hosts a contemporary site called Dead Media Research Lab. He’s working on a Dead Media Handbook as a doctoral dissertation in Visual Studies (Media Theory & History) at the University of California Irvine. He hopes to have a publishable tome by next year. So maybe Bruce will finally have to fork over that fifty. A crying shame it’s taking so long.


Here is a brief sampling of material from the Archives, followed by links to Dead Media resources. Sadly, at least one of the Dead Media sites has itself been trammeled by the Jack-booted march of progress, built upon an early multimedia plug-in no longer supported. Others are 404. Soon we’ll need a meta-Dead Media Project to discuss all of the dead formats in which Dead Media Project resources are trapped.



00.1 : Dead medium: The Inca Quipo
From: Bruce Sterling
Source(s): History of the Inca Empire: An account of the Indians’ customs and their origin together with a treatise on Inca legends, history and social institutions by Father Bernabe Cobo Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton University of Texas Press 1979 Third reprinting 1991. This book is an excerpt from “Historia del Nuevo Mundo” a much larger manuscript completed in 1653 by Bernabe Cobo, a Peruvian Jesuit

p 252:

“In place of writing they used some strands of cord or thin wool strings, like the ones we use to string rosaries; and these strings were called *quipos.* By these recording devices and registers they conserved the memory of their acts, and the Inca’s overseers and accountants used them to remember what had been received or consumed. A bunch of these *quipos* served them as a ledger or notebook. The *quipos* consisted of diverse strings of different colors, and on each string there were several knots. These were figures and numbers that meant various things. Today many bunches of very ancient *quipos* of diverse colors with an infinite number of knots are found. On explaining their meaning, the Indians that know them relate many things about ancient times that are contained in them. There were people designated for this job of accounting. These officials were called *quipos camayos,* and they were like our historians, scribes, and accountants, and the Incas had great confidence in them.”



07.4 Dead medium: The Talking View-Master
From: Dan Howland
Source(s): personal observation; thrifted one this past weekend. TALKING VIEW-MASTER. Manufactured by GAF (General Aniline & Film). Circa 197?. Two-tone beige plastic. 125mm X 125mm X 200 mm. Power supply: two C batteries.

While the View-Master is not a dead medium, this 1970s variation certainly is. The Talking View-Master uses a special disc set consisting of a standard View-Master disc (fourteen 10mm X 12mm [16mm film?] slides making up seven stereoscopic views, sandwiched between two 9cm cardboard discs) and a smaller, free-spinning phonorecord behind it.

The two discs are inserted into the viewer/player, the first scene is located by pressing and releasing a lever, and a red reset button is pushed. Then a Sound Bar on the front of the machine is pushed, which activates the “turntable” motor and presses the stylus into the first track. Thereafter, the stylus will advance to each subsequent track with every press of the Scene Change Lever.

On this model, only the motor which spins the phonorecord is electrical; the sound is transmitted mechanically from the stylus to a speaker cone. In order to allow enough light to reach the slides through the translucent record, there is a single sheet of clear plastic (65mm X 100mm) molded into two fresnel lenses on the side facing the light source. This is not an entirely successful solution; with common household light sources like lamps, it is difficult to get an equal amount of light to each eye.



34.6 Dead medium: Pneumatic mail (Part One)
From: Dan Howland
Source(s): Scientific American, December 11, 1897

(((Dan Howland remarks: The following essay, in true Victorian style, is more than a bit windy, but this very specific article could aid in exhuming many early pneumatic mail systems. Some paragraphs have been re- arranged for clarity.)))

The transmission of matter through closed tubes by means of a current of air flowing therein is not by any means a novel idea, although its successful application to commercial purposes is of recent date. For the earliest suggestion of pneumatic transmission we must go back to the seventeenth century and search among the records of that venerable institution, the Royal Society of London.

Here we find that Denis Papin presented to the society in the year 1667 a paper entitled the ‘Double Pneumatic Pump.’ He exhausted the air from a long metal tube, in which was a traveling piston which drew after it a carriage attached to it by means of a cord.

At the close of the eighteenth century a certain M. Van Estin propelled a hollow ball containing a package through a tube several hundred feet long by means of a blast of air; the device, however, was regarded more as a toy than a useful invention.

Of more practical value were the plans of Medhurst, a London engineer, who published pamphlets in 1810 and 1812 and again in 1832, when he proposed to connect a carriage running inside the tube with a passenger carriage running above it.

(((Jules Verne’s recently unearthed 1863 novel, *Paris in the 20th Century* proposed a similar transit system, in which a train would be pulled by magnetic attraction to a metal object in a pneumatic tube.)))



11.8 Dead medium: Baird Mechanical Television, Part One: Technical Introduction

From: Trevor Blake

…Television achieves the illusion of motion in a similar but unique fashion. Rather than refresh the entire image at once, as film does with each cell that passes in front of the projector’s light, television refreshes an image one line at a time in a scanning process. Within the cathode ray tube, an electron gun scans a single line of an image from one side to the other, then scans the line underneath it, until it has scanned an entire image.

The Nipkow disk is an earlier, mechanical means of achieving the same side-to-side, top-to-bottom scan process. It consists of a disk that rotates on its axis. A series of evenly spaced, uniformly sized holes are cut into the disk, spiraling in toward the center. The disk is housed in a box with a small viewing window: the outermost hole of the disk will form the outermost scan line visible in the viewing window, and each additional hole will form additional scan lines.

The rotation of the disk as seen through the viewing window provides scanning from side to side, and the spiral placement of the holes provides scanning from outermost to innermost scan line. A light source which can be varied in intensity is placed on the opposite side of the disk behind the viewing window. As the light flickers and the disk rotates, television is achieved.

Mechanical television cameras and receivers alike use the Nipkow disk, but where the receiver uses a flickering light to produce an image, the camera uses a photosensitive cell to generate an image. The rotation of the disks is synchronized by part of the transmission signal (which has included radio, short wave and telephone) or direct wiring. The disks rotate at around 900 rpm and initially produced television two inches square…

Dead Media Resources

The original Dead Media Proposal
The Official Dead Media Archives
Dead Media Research Lab

Lost Knowledge: Manual typewriters

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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