Fritz Lang First Depicted Artificial Intelligence on Film in Metropolis (1927), and It Frightened People Even Then

Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence seems to have become, as Michael Lewis labeled a pre­vi­ous chap­ter in the recent his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy, the new new thing. But human anx­i­eties about it are, if not an old old thing, then at least part of a tra­di­tion longer than we may expect. For vivid evi­dence, look no fur­ther than Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis, which brought the very first cin­e­mat­ic depic­tion of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to the­aters in 1927. It “imag­ines a future cleaved in two, where the afflu­ent from lofty sky­scrap­ers rule over a sub­ter­ranean caste of labor­ers,” writes Synapse Ana­lyt­ics’ Omar Abo Mos­al­lam. “The class ten­sion is so pal­pa­ble that the inven­tion of a Maschi­nen­men­sch (a robot capa­ble of work) upends the social order.”

The sheer tire­less­ness of the Maschi­nen­men­sch “sows hav­oc in the city”; lat­er, after it takes on the form of a young woman called Maria — a trans­for­ma­tion you can watch in the clip above — it “incites work­ers to rise up and destroy the machines that keep the city func­tion­ing. Here, there is a sug­ges­tion to asso­ciate this new inven­tion with an unrav­el­ing of the social order.” This robot, which Guardian film crit­ic Peter Brad­shaw describes as “a bril­liant eroti­ciza­tion and fetishiza­tion of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy,” has long been Metrop­o­lis’ sig­na­ture fig­ure, more icon­ic than HAL, Data, and WALL‑E put togeth­er.

Still, those char­ac­ters all rate men­tions of their own in the arti­cles review­ing the his­to­ry of AI in the movies recent­ly pub­lished by the BFI, RTÉ, Pic­to­ry, and oth­er out­lets besides. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Alien, Blade Run­ner (and even more so its sequel Blade Run­ner 2049), Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, and Ex Machi­na. Not all of these pic­tures present their arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent char­ac­ters pri­mar­i­ly as exis­ten­tial threats to the exist­ing order; the BFI’s Georgina Guthrie high­lights video essay­ist-turned-auteur Kog­o­na­da’s After Yang as an exam­ple that treats the role of AI could assume in soci­ety as a much more com­plex — indeed, much more human — mat­ter.

From Metrop­o­lis to After Yang, as RTÉ’s Alan Smeaton points out, “AI is usu­al­ly por­trayed in movies in a robot­ic or humanoid-like fash­ion, pre­sum­ably because we can eas­i­ly relate to humanoid and robot­ic forms.” But as the pub­lic has come to under­stand over the past few years, we can per­ceive a tech­nol­o­gy as poten­tial­ly or actu­al­ly intel­li­gent even it does­n’t resem­ble a human being. Per­haps the age of the fear­some mechan­i­cal Art Deco gynoid will nev­er come to pass, but we now feel more keen­ly than ever both the seduc­tive­ness and the threat of Metrop­o­lis’ Maschi­nen­men­sch — or, as it was named in the orig­i­nal on which the film was based, Futu­ra.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Metrop­o­lis: Watch Fritz Lang’s 1927 Mas­ter­piece

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Art & the Future of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Watch the Final Chap­ter of the “Every­thing is a Remix” Series

Hunter S. Thomp­son Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Com­ing Revenge of the Eco­nom­i­cal­ly & Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly “Obso­lete” (1967)

Ama­zon Offers Free AI Cours­es, Aim­ing to Help 2 Mil­lion Peo­ple Build AI Skills by 2025

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts the Future in 1982: Com­put­ers Will Be “at the Cen­ter of Every­thing;” Robots Will Take Human Jobs

Google Launch­es a New Course Called “AI Essen­tials”: Learn How to Use Gen­er­a­tive AI Tools to Increase Your Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.

Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Online Education in 1988–and It’s Now Coming True in the Age of AI & Smartphones

“I have nev­er let my school­ing inter­fere with my edu­ca­tion.” Though that line prob­a­bly orig­i­nat­ed with  a Cana­di­an nov­el­ist called Grant Allen, it’s long been pop­u­lar­ly attrib­uted to his more col­or­ful nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry con­tem­po­rary Mark Twain. It isn’t hard to under­stand why it now has so much trac­tion as a social media-ready quote, though dur­ing much of the peri­od between Allen’s day and our own, many must have found it prac­ti­cal­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble. The indus­tri­al­ized world of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry attempt­ed to make edu­ca­tion and school­ing syn­ony­mous, an ambi­tion suf­fi­cient­ly wrong­head­ed that, by the nine­teen-eight­ies, no less pow­er­ful a mind than Isaac Asi­mov was lament­ing it on nation­al tele­vi­sion.

“In the old days you used to have tutors for chil­dren,” Asi­mov tells Bill Moy­ers in a 1988 World of Ideas inter­view. “But how many peo­ple could afford to hire a ped­a­gogue? Most chil­dren went une­d­u­cat­ed. Then we reached the point where it was absolute­ly nec­es­sary to edu­cate every­body. The only way we could do it is to have one teacher for a great many stu­dents and, in order to orga­nize the sit­u­a­tion prop­er­ly, we gave them a cur­ricu­lum to teach from.” And yet “the num­ber of teach­ers is far greater than the num­ber of good teach­ers.” The ide­al solu­tion, per­son­al tutors for all, would be made pos­si­ble by per­son­al com­put­ers, “each of them hooked up to enor­mous libraries where any­one can ask any ques­tion and be giv­en answers.”

At the time, this was­n’t an obvi­ous future for non-sci­ence-fic­tion-vision­ar­ies to imag­ine. “Well, what if I want to learn only about base­ball?” asks a faint­ly skep­ti­cal Moy­ers. “You learn all you want about base­ball,” Asi­mov replies, “because the more you learn about base­ball the more you might grow inter­est­ed in math­e­mat­ics to try to fig­ure out what they mean by those earned run aver­ages and the bat­ting aver­ages and so on. You might, in the end, become more inter­est­ed in math than base­ball if you fol­low your own bent.” And indeed, sim­i­lar­ly equipped with a per­son­al-com­put­er-as-tutor, “some­one who is inter­est­ed in math­e­mat­ics may sud­den­ly find him­self very enticed by the prob­lem of how you throw a curve ball.”

The trou­ble was how to get every house­hold a com­put­er, which was still seen by many in 1988 as an extrav­a­gant, not nec­es­sar­i­ly use­ful pur­chase. Three and a half decades lat­er, you see a com­put­er in the hand of near­ly every man, woman, and child in the devel­oped coun­tries (and many devel­op­ing ones as well). This is the tech­no­log­i­cal real­i­ty that gave rise to Khan Acad­e­my, which offers free online edu­ca­tion in math, sci­ences, lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry, and much else besides. In the inter­view clip above, its founder Sal Khan remem­bers how, when his inter­net-tutor­ing project was first gain­ing momen­tum, it occurred to him that “maybe we’re in the right moment in his­to­ry that some­thing like this could become what Isaac Asi­mov envi­sioned.”

More recent­ly, Khan has been pro­mot­ing the edu­ca­tion­al use of a tech­nol­o­gy at the edge of even Asi­mov’s vision. Just days ago, he pub­lished the book Brave New Words: How AI Will Rev­o­lu­tion­ize Edu­ca­tion (and Why That’s a Good Thing) and made a video with his teenage son demon­strat­ing how the lat­est ver­sion of Ope­nAI’s Chat­G­PT — sound­ing, it must be said, uncan­ni­ly like Scar­lett Johans­son in the now-prophet­ic-seem­ing Her — can act as a geom­e­try tutor. Not that it works only, or even pri­mar­i­ly, for kids in school: “That’s anoth­er trou­ble with edu­ca­tion as we now have it,” as Asi­mov says. “It is for the young, and peo­ple think of edu­ca­tion as some­thing that they can fin­ish.” We may be as relieved as gen­er­a­tions past when our school­ing ends, but now we have no excuse ever to fin­ish our edu­ca­tion.

Find a tran­script of Asi­mov and Moy­ers’ con­ver­sa­tion here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts the Future in 1982: Com­put­ers Will Be “at the Cen­ter of Every­thing;” Robots Will Take Human Jobs

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It

Noam Chom­sky Spells Out the Pur­pose of Edu­ca­tion

The Pres­i­dent of North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Pre­dicts Online Learn­ing … in 1934!

Salman Khan Returns to MIT, Gives Com­mence­ment Speech, Likens School to Hog­warts

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.

Aldous Huxley Explains How Man Became “the Victim of His Own Technology” (1961)

Just a cou­ple of days ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook tweet­ed out a video pro­mot­ing, “the new iPad Pro: the thinnest prod­uct we’ve ever cre­at­ed.” The response has been over­whelm­ing, and over­whelm­ing­ly neg­a­tive: for many view­ers, the ad’s imagery of a hydraulic press crush­ing a heap of musi­cal instru­ments, art sup­plies, and vin­tage enter­tain­ment into a sin­gle tablet inad­ver­tent­ly artic­u­lat­ed a dis­com­fort they’ve long felt with tech­nol­o­gy’s direc­tion in the past cou­ple of decades. As the nov­el­ist Hari Kun­zru put it“Crush­ing the sym­bols of human cre­ativ­i­ty to pro­duce a homog­e­nized brand­ed slab is pret­ty much where the tech indus­try is at in 2024.”

One won­ders whether this would have sur­prised Aldous Hux­ley. He under­stood, as he explains in the 1961 BBC inter­view above, that “if you plant the seed of applied sci­ence or tech­nol­o­gy, it pro­ceeds to grow, and it grows accord­ing to the laws of its own being. And the laws of its being are not nec­es­sar­i­ly the same as the laws of our being.”

Even six decades ago, he and cer­tain oth­ers had the sense, which has since become fair­ly com­mon, that “man is being sub­ject­ed to his own inven­tions, that he is now the vic­tim of his own tech­nol­o­gy”; that “the devel­op­ment of recent social and sci­en­tif­ic his­to­ry has cre­at­ed a world in which man seems to be made for tech­nol­o­gy rather than the oth­er way around.”

Hav­ing writ­ten his acclaimed dystopi­an nov­el Brave New World thir­ty years ear­li­er, Hux­ley was estab­lished as a seer of pos­si­ble tech­nol­o­gy-dri­ven total­i­tar­i­an futures. He under­stood that “we are a lit­tle reluc­tant to embark upon tech­nol­o­gy, to allow tech­nol­o­gy to take over,” but that, “in the long run, we gen­er­al­ly suc­cumb,” allow­ing our­selves to be mas­tered by our own cre­ations. In this, he resem­bles the Julia of Byron’s Don Juan, who, “whis­per­ing ‘I will ne’er con­sent’ – con­sent­ed.” Hux­ley also knew that “it is pos­si­ble to make peo­ple con­tent with their servi­tude,” even more effec­tive­ly in moder­ni­ty than antiq­ui­ty: “you can pro­vide them with bread and cir­cus­es, and you can pro­vide them with end­less amounts of dis­trac­tion and pro­pa­gan­da” — deliv­ered, here in the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry, straight to the device in our hand.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Aldous Hux­ley Pre­dicts in 1950 What the World Will Look Like in the Year 2000

An Ani­mat­ed Aldous Hux­ley Iden­ti­fies the Dystopi­an Threats to Our Free­dom (1958)

Aldous Hux­ley Tells Mike Wal­lace What Will Destroy Democ­ra­cy: Over­pop­u­la­tion, Drugs & Insid­i­ous Tech­nol­o­gy (1958)

Aldous Hux­ley to George Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Hear Aldous Hux­ley Nar­rate His Dystopi­an Mas­ter­piece Brave New World

Aldous Hux­ley, Dying of Can­cer, Left This World Trip­ping on LSD (1963)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.

Watch an Enthusiast Drive the First Car Ever Made, the 1885 Mercedes Benz

In 1885, Karl Benz built what’s now con­sid­ered the first mod­ern auto­mo­bile. Accord­ing to the Mer­cedes Benz web­site, the car fea­tured a “com­pact high-speed sin­gle-cylin­der four-stroke engine installed hor­i­zon­tal­ly at the rear, a tubu­lar steel frame … and three wire-spoked wheels. The engine out­put was 0.75 hp (0.55 kW).” Two years after its inven­tion, Karl Ben­z’s wife Bertha proved that the car was ready for prime time, dri­ving her ear­ly Benz from Mannheim to Pforzheim. After that ground­break­ing dri­ve, the Benz went into pro­duc­tion, becom­ing the first com­mer­cial­ly avail­able auto­mo­bile in his­to­ry.

Above, you can watch a car enthu­si­ast known as “Mr. Benz” take the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry car for a spin. Below, watch a re-enact­ment of Bertha’s his­toric dri­ve.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent

The First 100 Years of the Bicy­cle: A 1915 Doc­u­men­tary Shows How the Bike Went from Its Clunky Birth in 1818, to Its Endur­ing Design in 1890

178,000 Images Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of the Car Now Avail­able on a New Stan­ford Web Site

A Fly­ing Car Took to the Skies Back in 1949: See the Tay­lor Aero­car in Action



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High-Tech Analysis of Ancient Scroll Reveals Plato’s Burial Site and Final Hours

Even if you can name only one ancient Greek, you can name Pla­to. You can also prob­a­bly say at least a lit­tle about him, if only some of the things human­i­ty has known since antiq­ui­ty. Until recent­ly, of course, that qual­i­fi­ca­tion would have been redun­dant. But now, thanks to an ongo­ing high-tech push to read hereto­fore inac­ces­si­ble ancient doc­u­ments, we’re wit­ness­ing the emer­gence of new knowl­edge about that most famous of all Greek philoso­phers — or at least one of the most famous Greek philoso­phers, matched in renown only by his teacher Socrates and his stu­dent Aris­to­tle.

Up until now, we’ve only had a gen­er­al idea of where Pla­to was interred after his death in 348 BC. But “thanks to an ancient text and spe­cial­ized scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy,” writes’s Son­ja Ander­son, “researchers say they have solved the mys­tery of Plato’s bur­ial place: The Greek philoso­pher was interred in the gar­den of his Athens acad­e­my, where he once tutored a young Aris­to­tle.” This loca­tion was record­ed about two mil­len­nia ago “on a papyrus scroll housed in the Roman city of Her­cu­la­neum,” which was entombed along with Pom­peii by the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD.

Like much else in those cities, this scroll was pre­served for cen­turies under lay­ers of ash. It was just one of many scrolls dis­cov­ered in a vil­la, which may have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, back in 1750. But for long there­after, those scrolls were more or less unread­able, hav­ing been so thor­ough­ly charred by the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius that they crum­bled to dust at any attempt to unroll them. But “recent break­throughs have allowed researchers to read the frag­ile texts with­out touch­ing them”: wit­ness the projects involv­ing par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tors and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

The research project that has deci­phered part of this scroll, a text by the philoso­pher Philode­mus called the His­to­ry of the Acad­e­my — that is, Pla­to’s acad­e­my in Athens — is led by Uni­ver­si­ty of Pisa pro­fes­sor of papy­rol­o­gy Graziano Ranoc­chia. Using a “bion­ic eye” tech­nique involv­ing infrared and X‑ray scan­ners, he and his team have also dis­cov­ered evi­dence that Pla­to did­n’t much like the music played at his deathbed by a Thra­cian slave girl. “Despite bat­tling a fever and being on the brink of death,” writes the Guardian’s Loren­zo Ton­do, he “retained enough lucid­i­ty to cri­tique the musi­cian for her lack of rhythm.” Even if you know lit­tle about Pla­to, you’re prob­a­bly not sur­prised to hear that he was point­ing out the dif­fer­ence between the real and the ide­al up until the very end.

via Smith­son­ian Mag

Relat­ed con­tent:

Researchers Use AI to Decode the First Word on an Ancient Scroll Burned by Vesu­vius

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tors, 3D Mod­el­ing & Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

Orson Welles Nar­rates an Ani­ma­tion of Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry

Plato’s Dia­logue Gor­gias Gets Adapt­ed into a Short Avant-Garde Film

How 99% of Ancient Lit­er­a­ture Was Lost

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.

What Would Happen If a Nuclear Bomb Hit a Major City Today: A Visualization of the Destruction

One of the many mem­o­rable details in Stan­ley Kubrick­’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb, placed promi­nent­ly in a shot of George C. Scott in the war room, is a binder with a spine labeled “WORLD TARGETS IN MEGADEATHS.” A megadeath, writes Eric Schloss­er in New York­er piece on the movie, “was a unit of mea­sure­ment used in nuclear-war plan­ning at the time. One megadeath equals a mil­lion fatal­i­ties.” The destruc­tive capa­bil­i­ty of nuclear weapons hav­ing only increased since 1964, we might well won­der how many megadeaths would result from a nuclear strike on a major city today.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nobel Peace Prize, film­mak­er Neil Hal­lo­ran address­es that ques­tion in the video above, which visu­al­izes a sim­u­lat­ed nuclear explo­sion in a city of four mil­lion. “We’ll assume the bomb is det­o­nat­ed in the air to max­i­mize the radius of impact, as was done in Japan in 1945. But here, we’ll use an 800-kilo­ton war­head, a rel­a­tive­ly large bomb in today’s arse­nals, and 100 times more pow­er­ful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshi­ma.” The imme­di­ate result would be a “fire­ball as hot as the sun” with a radius of 800 meters; all build­ings with­in a two-kilo­me­ter radius would be destroyed, “and we’ll assume that vir­tu­al­ly no one sur­vives inside this area.”

Already in these cal­cu­la­tions, the death toll has reached 120,000. “From as far as away as eleven kilo­me­ters, the radi­ant heat from the blast would be strong enough to cause third-degree burns on exposed skin.” Though most peo­ple would be indoors and thus shel­tered from that at the time of the explo­sion, “the very struc­tures that offered this pro­tec­tion would then become a cause of injury, as debris would rip through build­ings and rain down on city streets.” This would, over the weeks after the attack, ulti­mate­ly cause anoth­er 500,000 casu­al­ties — anoth­er half a megadeath — with anoth­er 100,000 at longer range still to occur.

These are sober­ing fig­ures, to be sure, but as Hal­lo­ran reminds us, the Cold War is over; unlike in Dr. Strangelove’s day, fam­i­lies no longer build fall­out shel­ters, and school­child­ren no longer do nuclear-bomb drills. Nev­er­the­less, even though nations aren’t as on edge about total anni­hi­la­tion as they were in the mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry, the tech­nolo­gies that poten­tial­ly cause such anni­hi­la­tion are more advanced than ever, and indeed, “nuclear weapons remain one of the great threats to human­i­ty.” Here in the twen­ty-twen­ties, “coun­tries big and small face the prospect of new arms races,” a much more com­pli­cat­ed geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion than the long stand­off between the Unit­ed States and the Sovi­et Union — and, per­haps, one beyond the reach of even Kubrick­ian­ly grim satire.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Chill­ing Footage of the Hiroshi­ma & Nagasa­ki Bomb­ings in Restored Col­or

Why Hiroshi­ma, Despite Being Hit with the Atom­ic Bomb, Isn’t a Nuclear Waste­land Today

When the Wind Blows: An Ani­mat­ed Tale of Nuclear Apoc­a­lypse With Music by Roger Waters & David Bowie (1986)

Inno­v­a­tive Film Visu­al­izes the Destruc­tion of World War II: Now Avail­able in 7 Lan­guages

The Map of Doom: A Data-Dri­ven Visu­al­iza­tion of the Biggest Threats to Human­i­ty, Ranked from Like­ly to Unlike­ly

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.

Who’s Behind These Scammy Text Messages We’ve All Been Getting?: The Search Engine Podcast Demystifies the Global Scam

You have received those odd text mes­sages from a stranger. (“Hi, This is Ani­ta. Have you received the Panam­era parts yet?”) You know the mes­sages are spam, but you don’t quite under­stand the angle of the scam. Above, the Search Engine pod­cast works with Bloomberg reporter Zeke Faux to break down the con oper­a­tion. The sto­ry turns out to be more com­pli­cat­ed than it first appears. It involves cryp­to, but also human traf­fick­ing and forced labor com­pounds in Cam­bo­dia and Myan­mar. We’ll just leave it at that and sug­gest you lis­ten to this unnerv­ing pod­cast episode. You can hope­ful­ly stream it above or find it on your favorite pod­cast platform—e.g., Apple and Spo­ti­fy.

How Photos Were Transmitted by Wire in 1937: The Innovative Technology of a Century Ago

When did you last send some­one a pho­to? That ques­tion may sound odd, owing to the sheer com­mon­ness of the act in ques­tion; in the twen­ty-twen­ties, we take pho­tographs and share them world­wide with­out giv­ing it a sec­ond thought. But in the nine­teen-thir­ties, almost every­one who sent a pho­to did so through the mail, if they did it at all. Not that there weren’t more effi­cient means of trans­mis­sion, at least to pro­fes­sion­als in the cut­ting-edge news­pa­per indus­try: as dra­ma­tized in the short 1937 doc­u­men­tary above, the visu­al accom­pa­ni­ment to a suf­fi­cient­ly impor­tant scoop could also be sent in mere min­utes through the mir­a­cle of wire.

“Trav­el­ing almost as fast as the tele­phone sto­ry, wired pho­tos now go across the con­ti­nent with the speed of light,” declares the nar­ra­tor in breath­less news­reel-announc­er style. “It’s not a mat­ter of send­ing the whole pic­ture at once, but of sep­a­rat­ing the pic­ture into fine lines, send­ing those lines over a wire, and assem­bling them at the oth­er end.”

Illus­trat­ing this process is a clever mechan­i­cal prop involv­ing two spin­dles on a hand crank, and a length of rope print­ed with the image of a car that unwinds from one spin­dle onto the oth­er. To ensure the view­er’s com­plete under­stand­ing, ani­mat­ed dia­grams also reveal the inner work­ings of the actu­al scan­ning, send­ing, and receiv­ing appa­ra­tus.

This process may now seem impos­si­bly cum­ber­some, but at the time it rep­re­sent­ed a leap for­ward for mass visu­al media. In the decades after the Sec­ond World War, the same basic prin­ci­ple — that of dis­as­sem­bling an image into lines at one point in order to reassem­ble it at anoth­er — would be employed in the homes and offices of ordi­nary Amer­i­cans by devices such as the tele­vi­sion set and fax machine. We know, as the view­ers of 1937 did­n’t, just how those ana­log tech­nolo­gies would change the char­ac­ter of life and work in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. As for what their dig­i­tal descen­dants will do to the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, as they con­tin­ue to break down all exis­tence into not lines but bits, we’ve only just begun to find out.

via Kids Should See This

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

Watch a Local TV Sta­tion Switch From Black & White to Col­or for First Time (1967)

Cre­ative Uses of the Fax Machine: From Iggy Pop’s Bile to Stephen Hawking’s Snark

The His­to­ry of Amer­i­can News­pa­pers Has Been Dig­i­tized: Explore 114 Years of Edi­tor & Pub­lish­er, “the Bible of the News­pa­per Indus­try”

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.