Through the Looking Glass

The next time you complain about a boring Zoom meeting, think about Morris Markey’s visit to New York’s Bell Laboratories in the spring of 1931, when he marveled at what was, perhaps, the “apotheosis” of American industry: a two-way video telephone.

May 9, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Mass-market television in the U.S. was still two decades away, but what Markey saw demonstrated in 1931 was a glimpse of the future, seeing and conversing with another man three miles away via a long wire that transmitted images from a fantastic array of spinning discs and neon tubes:

TECHNOLOGY’S MATERNITY WARD…The original Bell Labs building at 463 West Street in New York. It was the birthplace of talking movies, television, radar and the vacuum tube. (att.com)
DEFINITELY NOT HI-DEF…At left, this is most likely where Morris Markey sat for the demonstration of early video phone technology. At right (click image to enlarge), a July 1930 article in Popular Science Monthly described how the transmitting apparatus worked. (earlytelevision.org/books.google.com)
BUT WILL IT SELL?…Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, became the world’s first television personality in 1927 when his voice and face (inset) were transmitted to an audience at Bell Laboratories in New York City. At the time, AT&T, Bell’s parent company, was doubtful about television’s moneymaking potential. (edn.com)
SPINNING WHEELS…Whirling metal discs, pictured at left, perforated with tiny holes, cast a series of horizontal beams of light across a viewer’s face (right), which were then transmitted to a receiver. (earlytelevision.org)

Despite its gee-whiz factor, many, including the folks at Bell Labs, seemed doubtful that the technology would come into wider use or be profitable any time soon, if ever. Markey noted that his little demonstration required many millions of dollars in research and development, but he was prophetic in suggesting that such technology might come to be dreaded if it ever came into common use.

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Uplifting Sight

That a bra and girdle maker should become the topmost tenant at the new Empire State Building was not lost on E.B. White, who commented thusly…

…and while viewers wouldn’t actually see a giant bra atop the skyscraper, many were nevertheless interested in getting a closer look at some of the building’s details, as reported in “The Talk of the Town”…

OVER THE MOON?…The moon gained some keen competition from telescope viewers when the Empire State Building climbed its way into the sky. (Pinterest/tech-notes.tv)

 *  *  *

Channelling Marlene

Film critic John Mosher wasn’t over the moon when it came to the acting of Tallulah Bankhead in Tarnished Lady, however he surmised it was likely the director’s fault for trying to exploit Bankhead’s passing resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. Mosher noted that lighting and staging flattering to the German actress just didn’t work with the belle from Alabama.

MIRROR, MIRROR…Tallulah Bankhead (left) might have pondered who was the fairest in the land, but the New Yorker’s John Mosher found her to be no match for German actress Marlene Dietrich (right, in 1931’s Dishonored) when it came to screen presence. (IMDB)

Despite Mosher’s blah review, Paramount touted Bankhead’s successful portrayal of a “tarnished lady” in this ad from the same issue:

Mosher, however, found redemption in another film making the rounds, Warner Brothers’ Svengali starring John Barrymore:

YOU ARE GETTING VERRRY SLEEPY…in 1931’s Svengali, 17-year-old Marian Marsh played the artist’s model Trilby, who is transformed into a great opera star by the sinister hypnotist, Svengali, played by John Barrymore. Also pictured is Bramwell Fletcher, who portrayed Trilby’s love interest, Billee. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

After a long absence Peter Arno’s Whoops Sisters returned to the pages of the New Yorker, not as a cartoon panel but as shills for the Cunard Line…

…whether traveling by boat or train, you might have considered bringing along “Salvo,” an early version of a popular game that today we call “Battleship”…

…Salvo and other Battleship-type games were originally played on pieces of paper like this…

…and here’s an ad for ice cube trays that exploited the popularity of the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” syndicated newspaper feature…

…on to our cartoonists, Ralph Barton rendered Albert Einstein as his latest “Hero”…

…and interpreted the latest headlines in his “Graphic Section”…

…among the delicate set, we got a bit risqué with Gardner Rea

…and nearly apoplectic with Gluyas Williams

Otto Soglow’s Little King, on the other hand, reigned with a steady hand…

…and we end with I. Klein, and a little bauble for the Missus…

Next Time: The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley…

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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