17 May 2011 /

electricity made visible

By geoffrey batchen

In Electricity Made Visible, Geoffrey Batchen argues that the history of new media is much older and much more complex than more popular readings would suggest. He extends Lev Manovich’s position that sees new media emerging from the interaction between history of cinema and computing (symbolised by the invention of Konrad Zuse's Z1 digital computer in 1936 which used 35mm film with punched holes to convey programming instructions) and goes back in historical lineage to include photography and the use of the electric telegraph simultaneous to the early computer and photo-media.

In effect, early facsimile machines could make copies across vast distances using electricity by 1838. More famously, Samuel Morse declares: “if... the presence of electricity can be made visible... I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance”.  He achieved this by translating the code of the English alphabet into the numerical code of dots, dashes and spaces derived from breaks in the flow of electricity. By 1867, Jean Lenoir had achieved this with images by translating the presence and absence of light into binary data. These few examples demonstrate the longer and more significant history of ‘new media’ (and even serve to dispute the term itself).

The essay is published in essay published in New Media Art, edited by Lucy Kimbell, Arts Council of England 2004, pp. 26-44.

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