1930s Phonograph Doubled as an Alarm Clock, Letting People Start Their Day with Their Favorite Record

The Deutsches Uhrensmuseum introduces the French-made Peter Pan clock above as follows:

Even as early as 1930, people were trying to find a way to replace the unpleasant sound of the alarm clock. The inventor of this gramophone alarm clock had a brilliant idea. The gramophone works like the standard alarm clock of those days; however, instead of a bell, the gramophone motor switches on when the alarm goes off and your favourite record begins to play to the lively crackling sound of a typical gramophone. The motor plays this side of the record twice in succession. The opened lid of the box serves as a resonator. Even the name is what dreams are made of: Peter Pan Alarm Clock. Who would not want to be a child again and fly off to Never Never Land?

This great find comes from the always interesting Twitter feeds of jazz critic Ted Gioia and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. You can watch the clock in action below.

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Hyperland: The “Fantasy Documentary” in Which Douglas Adams and Doctor Who‘s Tom Baker Imagine the World Wide Web (1990)

Thirty years ago, the internet we use today would have looked like science fiction. Now as then, we spend a great deal of time staring at streams of video, but the high-tech 21st century has endowed us with the ability to customize those streams as never before. No longer do we have to settle for traditional television and the tyranny of "what's on"; we can follow our curiosity wherever it leads through vast, ever-expanding realms of image, sound, and text. No less a science-fiction writer than Douglas Adams dreams of just such realms in Hyperland, a 1990 BBC "fantasy documentary" that opens to find him fast asleep amid the mindless sound and fury spouted unceasingly by his television set — so unceasingly, in fact, that it keeps on spouting even when Adams gets up and tosses it into a junkyard.

Amid the scrap heaps Adams meets a ghost of technology's future: his "agent," a digital figure played by Doctor Who star Tom Baker. "I have the honor to provide instant access to every piece of information stored digitally anywhere in the world," says Baker's Virgil to Adams' Dante. "Any picture or film, any sound, any book, any statistic, any fact — any connection between anything you care to think of."

Adams' fans know how much the notion must have appealed to him, unexpected connections between disparate aspects of reality being a running theme in his fiction. It became especially prominent in the Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency Series, whose wide range of references includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan — one of the many pieces of information Adams has his agent pull up in Hyperland.

Adams' journey along this proto-Information Superhighway also includes stops at Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Picasso's Guernica, and Kurt Vonnegut's theory of the shape of all stories. Such a pathway will feel familiar to anyone who regularly goes down "rabbit holes" on the internet today, a pursuit — or perhaps compulsion — enabled by hypertext. Already that term sounds old fashioned, but at the dawn of the 1990s actively following "links" from one piece of information, so common now as to require no introduction or explanation, struck many as a mind-bending novelty. Thus the program's segments on the history of the relevant technologies, beginning with U.S. government scientist Vannevar Bush and the theoretical "Memex" system he came up with at the end of World War II — and first described in an Atlantic Monthly article you can, thanks to hypertext, easily read right now.

Though to an extent required to stand for the contemporary viewer, Adams was hardly a technological neophyte. An ardent early adopter, he purchased the very first Apple Macintosh computer ever sold in Europe. "I happen to know you've written interactive fiction yourself," says Baker, referring to the adventure games Adams designed for Infocom, one of them based on his beloved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels. Though Adams' considerable tech savvy makes all this look amusingly prescient, he couldn't have known just then how connected everyone and everything was about to become. "While Douglas was creating Hyperland," says his official web site, "a student at CERN in Switzerland was working on a little hypertext project he called the World Wide Web." And despite his early death, the man who dreamed of an electronic "guidebook" containing and connecting all the knowledge in the universe lived long enough to see that such a thing would one day become a reality.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Download Free Doctor Who Backgrounds for Virtual Meetings (Plus Many Other BBC TV Shows)

Enthusiasm for British television is a force of nature. That goes even more so for British television fandom outside Britain. All of us have known someone, or indeed been someone, who shifted their cultural allegiances wholesale after watching a single episode of, say, Monty Python's Flying Circus. But even that hugely influential comedy series commands only low-intensity worldwide devotion when set alongside Doctor Who, which has aired on the BBC in one form or another since 1963. One can express one's membership in the global Doctor Who fandom in many ways, now including, in this period of all-digital professional and social interaction, one's choice of virtual backgrounds on Zoom or other videoconferencing software.

You can, in other words, make a call from inside the TARDIS. The expansive interior of the Doctor's time-traveling space ship — which, as fans know, materializes in different lands and eras as a humble London police box — is just one of the free virtual backgrounds now offered by the BBC.

In fact, they've made available not just one TARDIS background but six: the 1980 version, the 1983 version, two views of the 2019 version, and two views of it as it appeared in the 1976 serial-within-the-series The Masque of Mandragora. If none of this means anything to you, you might consider browsing the BBC's other virtual-background categories, which feature empty sets from the network's other science-fiction productions as well as its sitcoms, light-entertainment programs, children's shows, and sports broadcasts.

No Brits will be surprised at the presence of an entire category of backgrounds from the long-running soap opera EastEnders: the laundrette, the Branning Brothers car lot, and of course the Queen Victoria pub. But non-Brits will probably opt to make their video calls from familiar places created for more widely traveled programs, like the dining room at Fawlty Towers or Eddy and Patsy's wine-filled refrigerator. Personally, I yield to none — or at least to no other American — in my appreciation of Yes Minister, a political satire that has only grown more incisive over the decades; I'd surely make my calls from one of the five Whitehall office sets the BBC has put up. Browsing its complete selection of virtual backgrounds, even the most obsessive British-TV aficionados will come across sets from shows of which they've never even heard. Luckily, many of us now have the time to binge-watch them all.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Earliest Known Motion Picture, 1888’s Roundhay Garden Scene, Restored with Artificial Intelligence

No image is more closely associated with the birth of the motion picture than a train pulling into the French coastal town of La Ciotat. Captured by cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, the 50-second clip frightened the audience at its first screening in 1896, who thought a real locomotive was hurtling toward them — or so the legend goes. Those early viewers may simply have felt a technological astonishment we can no longer muster today, and certainly not in response to such a mundane sight. That goes double for the slightly shorter and older Lumière Brothers production La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière a Lyon. Though it depicts nothing more than workers leaving a factory at the end of the day, it has long been referred to as "the first real motion picture ever made."

That qualifier "real," of course, hints at the existence of a predecessor. Whereas La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière a Lyon premiered in 1895, Louis Le Prince's Roundhay Garden Scene dates to 1888. With its runtime under two seconds, this depiction of a moment in the life of four figures, a younger man and woman and an older man and woman, would even by the standards of the Lumière Brothers' day barely count as a movie at all.

Equally disqualifying is its low frame rate: just seven to twelve per second (which one it is has been a matter of some dispute), which strikes our eyes more as a rapid sequence of still photographs than as continuous motion. Even so, it must have been a thrill of a result for Le Prince, an England-based French artist-inventor who had been developing his motion-photography system in secrecy since early in the decade.

We now have a clearer sense of the action captured in Roundhay Garden Scene thanks to the efforts Youtube-based film restorationist Denis Shiryaev, who's used neural networks to bring the historic film more fully to life. Taking a scan of Le Prince's original paper film, Shiryaev "manually cut this scan into individual frames and centered each image in the frame," he says in the video at the top of the post. He then "added a stabilization algorithm and applied an aggressive face recognition neural network in order to add more details to the faces." There followed adjustments for consistency in brightness, damage repairs, and the work of "an ensemble of neural networks" to upscale the footage to as high a resolution as possible, interpolating as many frames as possible. We may feel startled by the lifelike quality of the result in much the same way as 19th-century viewers by the Lumière Brothers' train — which, as we've previously featured here on Open Culture, has also received the Shiryaev treatment.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider: The Rise and Fall of BowieNet (1998)

When we consider the many identities of David Bowie — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke — we often neglect to include his transformation into an internet entrepreneur. In line with Bowie's reputation for being ahead of his time in all endeavors, it happened several tech booms ago, in the late 1990s. Foreseeing the internet's potential as a cultural and commercial force, he got ahead of it by launching not just his own web site (which some major artists lacked through the end of the century), but his own internet service provider. For $19.95 a month (£10.00 in the UK), BowieNet offered fans access not just to "high-speed" internet but to "David Bowie, his world, his friends, his fans, including live chats, live video feeds, chat rooms and bulletin boards."

So announced the initial BowieNet press release published in August 1998, which also promised "live in-studio video feeds," "text, audio and video messages from Bowie," "Desktop themes including Bowie screensavers, wallpaper and icons," and best of all, a "davidbowie e-mail address (your name@davidbowie.com)." While the dial-up of the internet connections of the day wasn't quite equal to the task of reliably streaming video, many of BowieNet's approximately 100,000 members still fondly remember the community cultivated on its message boards. "This was in effect a music-centric social network," writes The Gardian's Keith Stuart, "several years before the emergence of sector leaders like Friendster and Myspace."

Unlike on the the vast social networks that would later develop, the man himself was known to drop in. Under the alias "Sailor," writes Newsweek's Zach Schonfeld, "Bowie would sometimes share updates and recommendations or respond to fan queries." He might endorse an album (Arcade Fire's debut Funeral earned a rave), express incredulity at rumors (of, say, his playing a concert with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson to be beamed into outer space), crack jokes, or tell stories (of, say, the time he and John Lennon sat around calling into radio stations together). As Ars Technica's interview with BowieNet co-founder Ron Roy confirms, Bowie didn't just lend the enterprise his brand but was "tremendously involved from day one." As Roy tells it, Bowie kept BowieNet fresh "by exploring new technologies to keep fans engaged and excited. He always preached [that] it's about the experience, the new."

It helped that Bowie wasn't simply looking to capitalize on the rise of the internet. As the 1999 ZDTV interview at the top of the post reveals, he was already hooked on it himself. "The first thing I do is get e-mails out of the way," he says, describing the average day in his online life. "I'm e-mail crazy. And then I'll spend probably about an hour, maybe more, going through my site." Even in the early days of "the controversial mp3 format," he showed great enthusiasm for putting his music online. He continued doing so even after technology surpassed BowieNet, which discontinued its internet service in 2006. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic keeps much of the world at home, many high-profile artists have taken to the internet to keep the show going. David Bowie fans know that, were he still with us, he'd have been the first to do it — and do it, no doubt, the most interestingly.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When IBM Created a Typewriter to Record Dance Movements (1973)

Increasingly many of us in the 21st century have never used a typewriter — indeed, have never seen one in real life. But despite being deep into its obsolescence, the machine has a long cultural half-life. Seeing typewriters in classic and period films, for example, keeps an idea of their look and feel in our minds. Naturally it gets entangled with the romance of the writer, or rather the Writer, whom we imagine pounding away on a culturally iconic model: an Underwood, an Olvetti. "If Olivettis could talk, you'd get the novelist naked," writes Philip Roth in The Anatomy Lesson. From the then-new electric IBM typewriters, however, you'd hear "only the smug, puritanical workmanlike hum telling of itself and all its virtues: I am a Correcting Selectric II. I never do anything wrong."

Yet we underestimate the influence of the IBM Selectric, on not just writing but late-20th-century American life in general, at our peril. Introduced in 1961, this technologically revolutionary typewriter replaced the old "typebars" — those thin metal arms that whack a letter onto the page with each keystroke — with a "typeball," a "compact unit containing all the letters and symbols of a keyboard, rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking."

So writes IBM's Justine Jablonska in an essay on the versatility of the typeball, which could be swapped out and modified according to the needs of the user. In 1973, IBM could say even to those users who needed to type out not words, sentences, and paragraphs but dances that, yes, there's a typeball for that.

Developed in collaboration with New York City’s Dance Notation Bureau, this unusual typeball "had special Labanotation symbols, developed in the 1920s by Hungarian dancer/choreographer Rudolf Laban to analyze and record movement and dance." Each symbol's location "showed which part of the body — arm, leg, torso — was to be used. The symbol’s shape indicated direction. The symbol’s shading showed the level of an arm or leg. And its length controlled the time value of a movement." In total, writes Karen Hill at Zippy Facts, Labanotation had "88 different symbols, which could be arranged to form a complete vocabulary for recording movement of any kind, from ballet and modern to ethnic, even folk." Beyond dance, the system could also record "movements in areas like sports, behavioral sciences, physical therapy, and even industrial operations."

This particular typeball showcased the Selectric's versatility, but some had higher hopes. In a 1975 paper, dance scholar Drid Williams compares its potential impact to that of "Gutenberg's invention several centuries ago," signaling that "the graphic linguistic sign can now be joined by its obvious counterpart, the printed human action sign." But she also expresses regret that "'the ball' is being looked on by many as a mere practical aid to recording human movement and it is being associated with specialist fields like dance. As usual, concern with the syntagmata obscures the real issues of the paradigms." Indeed. A more practical-minded assessment comes from Charles Ditchendorf, employed at the time at IBM’s Office Products Division. "To the best of my knowledge," Jablonska quotes him as saying, I didn’t sell one." But then, when has dance ever been enslaved to the market?

via Ted Gioia on Twitter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Experience New York City’s Fabled Mid-Century Nightclubs in an Interactive, COVID-19-Era, Student-Designed Exhibit

It’s been over a month since public health precautions led almost every school in the United States to switch to online instruction.

While there are obviously much greater tragedies unfolding daily, it’s hard not to empathize with students who have watched countless special events—proms, commencements, spring sports, performances, hotly anticipated rites of passage—go poof.

In New York City, students in Parsons School of Design’s Narrative Spaces: Design Tools for Spatial Storytelling course were crestfallen to learn that their upcoming open-to-the-public exhibition of group and solo projects in the West Village—the centerpiece of the class and a huge opportunity to connect with an audience outside of the classroom—was suddenly off the menu.

Multidisciplinary artist Jeff Stark, who co-teaches the class with Pamela Parker, was disappointed on their behalves.

Stark’s own work, from Empire Drive In to Miss Rockaway Armada, is rooted in live experience, and New York City holds a special place in his heart. (He also edits the weekly email list Nonsense NYC, an invaluable resource for independent art and Do-It-Yourself events in the city.)

This year’s class projects stemmed from visits to the City Reliquary, a small museum and civic organization celebrating everyday New York City artifacts. Students were able to get up close and personal with Chris Engel’s collection of photographs, menus, promotional materials, and souvenirs documenting the heyday of New York’s supper club nightlife, from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Student Rylie Cooke, an Australian who aspires to launch a design company, found that her research deepened her connection to artifacts she encountered at the Reliquary, as she came to appreciate the fabled Copacabana’s influence on the popular culture, food, and music of the period:

... with COVID-19 it became important to have this connection to the artifacts as I wasn't able to physically touch or look at them when Parsons moved to online for the semester. I am a very hands-on creative and I love curating things, especially in an exhibit format.

Rather than scrap their goal of public exhibition, the class decided to take things into the virtual realm, hustling to adapt their original concepts to a purely screen-based experience, The New York Supper Club: From Nightlife to Social Distancing.

The plan to wow visitors with a period-appropriate table in the center of their West Village exhibition space became a grid of digital placemats that serve as portals to each project.

Cooke’s contribution, A Seat at the Copacabana, begins with an interview in which baseball great Mickey Mantle recounts getting into a cloakroom brawl as he and fellow New York Yankees celebrated a birthday with a Sammy Davis Jr. set. Recipes for steak and potatoes, Chicken a la King, rarebit, and arroz con pollo provide flavor for a floorshow represented by archival footage of “Let’s Do the Copacabana” starring Carmen Miranda, a Martin and Lewis appearance, and a dance rehearsal from 1945. The tour ends at the Copa’s current incarnation in Times Square, with a vision of pre-socially distanced contemporary merrymakers salsa-ing the night away.

(Navigate this exhibit using toolbar arrows at the bottom of the screen.)

Student Hongxi Chen’s investigations into The China Doll nightclub resulted in an elaborate interactive immersive experience on the topic of cultural appropriation:

The China Doll… was founded in 1946 by Caucasian stage producer Tom Ball, who deemed it the only “all-oriental” night club in New York. While the club sometimes played off “Oriental” stereotypes, and titled one of its shows “Slant-Eyed Scandals,” they featured Asian dancers and Asian singers presenting popular songs in a way New Yorkers had never seen before. The Dim interactive experience unfolds with the story of Thomas, a waiter at the China Doll.

As a junior in Parsons’ Design and Technology program, Chen had plenty of previous experience forging virtual environments, but working with a museum collection was new to him, as was collaborating on a virtual platform.

He sought Stark’s advice on creating vivid dialogue for his fictional waiter.

Jiaqi Liuan, a Design and Technology MFA student and veteran of the Shanghai production of Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s immersive retelling of MacBeth, helped choreograph Chen’s China Doll dancers in an homage to The Flower Drum Song's Fan Tan Fannie number.

Chen stayed up until 7 am for two weeks, devouring open source tutorials in an attempt to wrangle and debug the many elements of his ambitious project—audio, video, character models and animation, software, game engines, and game server platform.

As Chen noted at the exhibition’s recent Zoom opening (an event that was followed by a digital dance party), the massive game can be a bit slow to load. Don't worry, it’s worth the wait, especially as you will have a hand in the story, steering it to one of five different endings.

Chen, an international student, could not safely return to China and has not left his student apartment since mid-March, but gamely states that remaining in the same time zone as his school allowed him to communicate efficiently with his professors and the majority of his classmates. (Cooke is back home in Australia.)

Adds Chen:

Even though we are facing a difficult circumstance under the pandemic and had to pivot our original ideas into a virtual presentation, I’m glad that our class was able to quickly change plans and adapt to the situation. This… actually inspired me a lot and opened up ways to invite and connect people with virtual artwork.

Other highlights of The New York Supper Club: From Nightlife to Social Distancing include Ming Hong Xian’s exploration of the famous West Village country music club, The Village Barn (complete with turtle races) and What Are You? a personality test devised by Mi Ri Kim and Eleanor Melby, to help visitors determine which classic NYC supper club best suits their personality.

(Apparently, I’m headed to Cafe Zanzibar, below, where the drinks are cheap, the aspirin is free, and Cab Calloway is a frequent headliner.)

Stark admits that initially, his students may not have shared his swooning response to the source material, but they share his love of New York City and the desire to “get in the thick of it.” By bringing a Generation Z perspective to this historical ephemera, they stake a claim, making work that could help the City Reliquary connect to a new audience.

Enter The New York Supper Club: From Nightlife to Social Distancing here.

Explore the City Reliquary online here, and join in the civic pride by participating in its weekly Instagram Live events, including Thursday Collectors’ Nights.

(All images used with permission of the artists and The City Reliquary)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her contribution to art in isolation is a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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