Moral Panics Of 1878: NY Times Warns People About The Evils Of Thomas Edison's Aerophone

from the bust-the-snoot dept

We discuss moral panics, past and present, pretty frequently to make a key point: for all the fears you hear about today’s technologies, there were similar (almost always unfounded) fears for new technologies in the past. And, in retrospect, almost all of them look silly. Among my favorites were when chess or the waltz were going to undermine society. However, the NY Times’ archivist, Evan Sandhaus has an amusing example (via Mathew Ingram) concerning that time, back in 1878, when the NY Times editorialized against Thomas Edison’s phonograph and aereophone, for the fact that they could destroy everyone’s privacy. Here’s just the beginning:

You can read the rest at the link above or embedded below (oh yeah: and this was written in 1878, so contrary to the NY Times’ totally bogus copyright claim on the PDF below, the content is public domain). The whole thing is hilarious, first railing against Edison (who has apparently “invented too many things”) and then against the phonograph for destroying privacy and making it impossible for anyone to talk to anyone any more:


Something ought to be done to Mr. EDISON, and there is a growing conviction that it had better be done with a hemp rope. Mr. EDISON has invented too many things, and almost without exception they are things of the most deleterious character. He has been addicted to electricity for many years, and it is not very long ago that he became notorious for having discovered a new force, though he has since kept it care- fully concealed, either upon his person or elsewhere. Recently he invented the phone- graph, a machine that catches the lightest whisper of conversation and stores it up, so that at any future time it can be brought out, to the confusion of the original speaker. This machine will eventually destroy all confidence between man and man, and render more dangerous than ever woman’s want of confidence in woman. No man can feel sure that wherever he may be there is not a concealed phonograph remorseless gathering up his remarks and ready to reproduce them at some future date. Who will be willing, even in the bosom of his family, to express any but most innocuous and colorless views and what woman when calling on a female friend, and waiting for the latter to make her appearance in the drawing-room, will dare to express her opinion of the wretched taste displayed in the furniture, or the hideous appearance of the family photographs ? In the days of persecution and it was said, though with poetical exaggeration, that the walls had ears.

Thanks to Mr. Edison’s perverted ingenuity, this has not only become a literal truth, but every shelf, closet, or floor may now have its concealed phonographic ears. No young man will venture to carry on a private conversation with a young lady, lest he should be filling a secret phonograph with evidence that, in a breach of promise suit, would secure an immediate verdict against him, and our very small-boys will fear to express themselves with childish freedom, lest the phonograph should report them as having used the name of “gosh,” or as having to “bust the snoot” of the long-suffering governess. The phonograph was, at the time of its invention, the most terrible example of depraved ingenuity which the world had seen;

but Mr. EDISON has since reached a still more conspicuous peak of scientific infamy by inventing the aerophone–an instrument far more devastating in its effects and fraught with the destruction of human society.

Yes, now we move on to the aerophone. The true worry of the moralists at the NY Times. For the aerophone, you see, can make voices louder. Fear the innovation:

The aerophone is apparently a modification of the phonograph. In fact, it is a phonograph which converts whispers into roars. If, for example, you mention, within hearing of the aerophone, that you regard Mr. HAYES as the; greatest and best man that America has yet produced, that atrocious instrument may overwhelm you with shame by repeating your remark in a tone that can be heard no less than four miles. Mr. EDISON, with characteristic effrontery, represents this as a useful and beneficent invention. He says that an aerophone can be attached to a locomotive, and that with its aid the engineer can request persons to “look out for the locomotive” who are nearing a railway crossing four miles distant from the train. He also boasts that he will attach an aerophone to the gigantic statue of “Liberty.” Which France is to present to this country, provided we will raise money enough to pay for it, and that the statue will thus be able to welcome incoming vessels in the Lower Bay, and to warn them not to come up to the City in case Mr. STANLEY MATTHEWS is delivering an oration on the currency, or Mr. Cox is making a comic speech at Tammany Hall. Were the aerophone to be confined strictly to these uses, it prove a comparatively unobjectionable intstrument; but no man can loose a whirlwind and guarantee that its ravages shall be confined to Chicago, or to some other place where it may do positive good.

There is some talk about the threat of this horrible invention on “dumb wives” and “dumb husbands” which we will skip over here, and then it gets to the next fear: the public being overwhelmed with everyone blasting their speech for four miles with aerophones. Oh the cacophony.

Our present vocal powers are always used to their full capacity. Everybody talks with about the same volume of voice, and when the aerophone comes into use, people will universally talk as loudly as the instrument will permit. When ninety-nine people out of a hundred converse with the aerophone, there will be such a roar of conversation that the hundredth person, who may speak in his natural voice, cannot be heard. We can only faintly imagine the horrible results of the general introduction of the aerophone. Wives residing in suburban Jersey villages will call to their’husbands at their places of business in the City, and require information as to subjects of purely domestic interest. Mothers whose children have wandered out of sight will howl over a four-mile tract of country direful threats as to the flaying alive which awaits James Henry and Ann Eliza unless they instantly come home. From morning till midnight our ears will be tortured with the uproar of aerophonic talk, and deaf men will be looked upon as the favored few to whom nature has made life tolerable.

I love the fear of having to hear talk of “purely domestic interest.” And, in the end, could anything less that the entire destruction of society follow as a result?

The result will be the complete disorganization of society. Men and women will flee from civilization and seek in the silence of the forest relief from the roar of count- less aerophones. Business, marriage, and all social amusements will be thrown aside, except by totally deaf men, and America will retrogade to the Stone Age with frightful rapidity. Better is a dinner of raw turnips in a damp cave than a banquet at DELMONICO’S within hearing of ten thousand aerophones. Far better is it to starve in solitude than to possess all the luxuries of civilization at the price of hearing every remark that is made within a radius of four miles. It may be too late to suppress the aerophone now, but at least there is time to visit upon the head of its inventor the just indignation of his fellow-countrymen.

Frankly, the whole thing is so over the top and outrageous that it almost feels like parody of similar moral panics, but it does seem to be legit. Consider this when comparing it to today’s moral panics, like Google Glass, mobile phones in general, autonomous cars, personal drones and a variety of other technologies. Perhaps one day we’ll learn not to pre-freak out, but it doesn’t appear to be happening just yet.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Moral Panics Of 1878: NY Times Warns People About The Evils Of Thomas Edison's Aerophone”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Talk is likewise the bane of private life. With dumb wives there would be no need of divorce courts, and with dumb husbands home might become a blessed reality instead of a poetic dream.

no man can loose a whirlwind and guarantee that its ravages shall be confined to Chicago, or to some other place where it may do positive good.

If it’s not satire, it does a fairly good impression of it.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s sad, really. We’ve come a long way in terms of most of the social mores listed in the editorial. Yet, violent rhetoric as a first response to those you fear? That’s timeless apparently.

I wonder how many things is “too many” to invent for this guy? Would someone be OK at 5 inventions, but then face hanging if he made a 6th? Or, does that only apply when they threaten his need to operate in secrecy lest the woman he’s trying to woo learns of his real character?

Anonymous Coward says:

Aaahh Freak out!

Have you heard, about the new invention?
Listen to this, I’m sure you’ll be amazed
Big scary crap for everyone!
Its up to you, to stop it now!
Young and old protect them anyhow!
Just one look, and you too will agree
Its called Le Freak! Lets do it every day
Allow us, to lead the moral way

Aaahh Freak out!
Le Freak, C’est Chic
Freak out!

Anonymous Coward says:

Broadcasting monopolies should be abolished. The tragedy of the commons argument is just as bogus as the arguments made against any new technology, including the above, and were made by self serving industry interests at a time when only their voices were heard by bought politicians. In fact the above argument is a tragedy of the commons argument against megaphones.

OK, certain frequencies should be reserved for non-commercial specialty purposes, like GPS and emergencies, but all other frequencies should be publicly usable. No commercial broadcasting monopolies should be granted.

Peter says:

So... while you may ridicule them... this article from NYT is correct...

I mean… most of what the NSA is doing is exactly what this articles claims will happen. Sure – not with a phonograph.. but it’s it’s successor technologies.

If edison hadn’t invented it – someone else would have. But the fears expressed here are well placed. Just misdirected. The problem wasn’t edison… the problem is how people will use what he built… how governments will use it.

the response shouldn’t have been ‘hang edison’. it should have been strong liberty protections and strong controls over government use of technology. I only wish we’d held on to those protections now….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Satire much?

Of course someone like you is trying to pass this off as satire, just like, in 100 years, people will be saying the same thing about your comments, if anyone was to read them.

Surely this has to be satire? No one could really think like that could they? It must be satire. No sane person could have thoughts like that in a civil society.
it has to be satire.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Satire much?

It’s just a sign that this actually predated the internet.'s_law

If you’re not a regular reader of late 19th century NTY editorials, it’s easy to think they’re serious – and I’ll bet that there were plenty of the author’s contemporaries who did mean such things when they said them.

Yada says:

Edison the visionary?

I for one do not like Edison. He was not an ethical man. Even though I didn’t care for Nikola Tesla, he defrauded him on many occasions. His little trick of executing innocent dogs in a public forum to demonstrate the dangers of Tesla AC electric was barbaric.

Oh course the NYT was not to far off the mark. The precursor of the FBI (the BOI) and many other intelligence communities used Edison’s phonograph to violate many innocent people’s privacy.

The greatest coup was the recording of NAZI officer war criminals in a Scottish castle prison. The entire place was wired for sound using Edison’s invention to help win the war. We also used Edison’s marvel to make the world’s most secure communication system: SIGSALY. Still quite hard to break even today.

Thank goodness the NARA archives still has the Edison wax BOI recordings to prove that Tesla was actually helping the Germans before WW1 and may have actually been the causation along with his Serbian fellow countryman Gavrilo Princip, the man who actually started WW1.

So in effect NYT was right. Edison’s gadgets where a blessing and a curse. Don’t you just want to smash the ice cream man’s noisy amplifier truck and the local church that audio blasts faux-bell sectarian tunes even to non-believers (in them not God)? And how about those emergency service vehicles that turn up their Whalen amplifiers in the middle of the night on a quiet street with NO STREET TRAFFIC? Why so loud just to get to the Dunkin Donuts shop before it closes? 🙂

Edison was stone deaf. Now we know why he didn’t care how loud his gadgets could get.

Klaws says:

Re: Yes, of course it is

In case no one has noticed: the New York Times themselves use a technology where the thoughts of a person are recorded through the mere presses of a few buttons onto paper, permanently, and reproduced in a large number of copies, to be read and re-read by other persons all over the world.

Any you are afraid of some lame Aerophone? Lol.

Now, seriously. The real danger is that someone would invent some Aeronet, which would transcribe my own private thoughts at the mere presses of a few buttons and, though a "click" onto a rodent sitting on my desk, and make then available worldwide within a few seconds…now that would be scary!



Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...