The author of this article proved to be wildly optimistic in predicting that a majority of U.S. homes would have wired audio-visual service by 1930, but his ideas were realized with the widespread adoption of cable television beginning in the 1960s.
The Independent, October 17, 1912, pages 886-891:
[What gives this prophecy both timeliness and corroboration is the first demonstration of a new form of primitive home theater, which combines the kinetoscope, phonograph and telephone, and promises to be of very great value in large halls.--EDITOR.]
THERE are two mechanical contrivances, one now taking its first unsteady steps in the commercial world, the other still in inventors' laboratries, each of which bears in itself the power to revolutionize entertainment, doing for it what the printing press did for books. They are the talking motion picture and the electric vision apparatus with telephone. Either one will enable millions of people to see and hear the same performance simultaneously, by the "seeing telephone" and the telephone, or successively from kinetoscopic and phonographic records of it, with the result that a matchless production may be attended for almost nothing. Furthermore (if we may use a dogmatic style, but offering proof), these inventions will become cheap enough to be, like the country telephone, in every home, so that one can go to the theater without leaving the sitting room. From this fact we may call both devices the home theater.
One of them bears entertainment into the home by the telephone wires. To witness a play, speech, lecture, music or dance one will simply throw a switch or two and the voices will be heard, while a picture in motion, naturally colored and apparently three dimensional, will be projected on a wall of the room. A view of moving objects has already been telegraphed by Professor Rösing, of St. Petersburg, and by a number of other inventors, but their apparatus is not yet perfected. The other home theater, the combined phonograph and kinetoscope, is now in commercial use. To come into our homes it needs only to have its reproducing apparatus cheapened; the records can be borrowed from a library. Or, still more conveniently, it can be combined with the electric home theater, so that a person wishing to see a certain production may simply telephone the library to play their records of it into his wires.
The home theater has been a dream of Bellamy, Wells and other prophets, but now it is a thing invented twice over. Its forms are both crude, of course. But are our locomotives like Stephenson's, or our automobiles like those of the nineties? One element, the phonograph, is already often mistakable for a human voice, and the kinetoscope is being adapted to color photography and stereoscopy. The screen of the future home theater will not have the flat, flickering, black and white pictures of today, but scenes like those in the ground-glass plate of a camera, fresh and bright with blue sky and green foliage, or the tints of a close-by face. And by stereoscopy the scenes will be more yet--three dimensional, not flat pictures, but vistas of reality. To this add music or the natural voices, and you have the home theater of 1930, oh ye of little faith! It is just as certain that the home theater will be improved as it is that color printing has been improved.
The electric form of home theater, to describe it more fully, sends sight and sound instantaneously from a central stage to millions of homes, using wires which also serve for telephone and telautograph. The sound is increased by a microphone, so that one can hear plainly anywhere in a room, and the moving colored stereoscopic picture is thrown on a wall. At the other end of the wire actors play on a stage of a central theater, which at first will serve a city and its suburbs, and then, as the difficulties of long-distance transmission are overcome, an urban district and then a time belt or a whole lingual country. If the actors need an applauding audience for inspiration one can easily be secured, but this is not used today by the motion picture producers. The writer has seen Florence Turner, leading woman of a moving picture company, playing tragedy before an audience of a few managers and bystanders and the camera. It is usual in pathetic scenes to have sad music from a violin off stage, but Miss Turner needed none. She played sheer emotion herself, so that the group stood wordless and the only sound was the low metallic purring of the shutter. She knew well that she was playing to millions all over the world.
In the same central plants, and often from the same productions, the records for the disk and film theater will be prepared. There are two French companies already producing these "film parlants" for use in motion picture theaters. Toward making them cheap enough for the home Edison has brought out his school kinetoscopes, in which the apparatus is simplified and the 1,000 foot reel put into 75. Films have always been rented, not sold, and the public libraries, some of which are already lending out phonograph and piano-player records, will without doubt see the value of supplying home theaters to homes. They will lend records over the counter and also supply printed catalogs, so that one can have any play that is in the main city library by merely looking up its shelf number and telephoning for it to be played into one's wire. But this very convenient combination of the two forms of theater suffers from having the mechanical imperfections of both systems.
The peculiar ability of the disk and film theater is to preserve, to halt time. We shall see the actors of the past play again, dead orators will speak, the Panama Canal can be reopened. Independence of time again enables it to represent the supernatural, by merely concealing an interval, as when in moving pictures we see a man vanish into the air. And by doctoring films centaurs, elves, earthquakes, murder, everything to be seen on canvas or in joke books will become the material of the playwright.
The disk and film theater can easily use natural scenery, for the players have time between scenes to travel from one spot to another. A natural setting is more beautiful, more correct, and may even be authentic. A recent motion picture drama about the battle of Lexington was fought over again on the bridges and fields of the original. As for beauty, we may use the Piazza San Marco and the Alhambra's Court of Lions and every lovely spot between Lake Tahoe and the Vale of Kashmir. The scene painter's poor versions laid aside, we need only give the actors temporary eminent domain over our places of interest and beauty to make as great an advance in scenery as our present stage has made over the Elizabethan.
The electric theater as well will come to use natural scenery somewhat when it has been adapted to "see" in the twilight of the evening and in moonlight, so that a troupe can play to evening audiences without the necessity of being 30 degrees to westward of them, and still more when we have learned to superpose actors upon a record of natural scenery. But instantaneity is a recommendation also. By the electric theater a whole nation will be able actually to see an inauguration, a launching, a ball game, or a first performance. It will not seem a mechanical device, but a window or a pair of magic opera glasses thru which one will watch the actors or doers.
Since the two forms of home theater are better for different purposes they will doubtless exist side by side. The electric form will publish the more timely and popular productions; the disk and film those involving the supernatural or past actions. The electric will be the cheaper and more convenient and it had fewer problems to solve to become available in the home, but the disk and film has a few years' start of it.
The two forms will often be combined by playing records into wires, not only at libraries, but also at the central electric plants, on anniversaries, for instance, to recall the events being celebrated or the great man who in one sense had died.
There will be wide variety of offerings, even in the communal electric theater, for there will be many stages in a producing plant, each connected with the telephone centrals of the country, from which last one could have whichever of the productions one desired. On some evening of 1930 we may find in the newspaper such a program as the following:
Tschaikowsky's "Pathetic Symphony," by the Eighth Telharmonic Orchestra. Popular Music, Telharmonic, instrumental and vocal. "Coppelia," by the National Corps de Ballet of South America. "Francesca of Rimini," grand opera. "Antony and Cleopatra," by William Shakespeare. Thirty dramatic sketches. A reading by Shaemas O'Sheel of some of his poems. "When Sappho and Alcæus Sang," reënacted history. Recent Finds at Herculaneum, by Guglielmo Ferrero. The Annual Metropolitan Exhibit, First Section of Paintings, with comments by X, Director of the Museum. Los Angeles at the Moment; glimpses from various viewpoints in the city, with ciceroni. Winnipeg vs. Gary, championship baseball game. "The Management of Monopolies," by Y, candidate for the Presidency.
Lectures can be interesting in the home theater; suppose we hear Ferrero on Herculaneum. We adjust the telephone and he appears on the wall before us, speaking in a quiet tone. Soon he shows us one of the new-found statues, turning it around, now holds a seal ring under the magnifier, now calls up people attired like the old Herculaneans, now introduces us to the officials in charge of the work.
Let us hear an act of "Francesca of Rimini." The overture is grander than any music today, and different--it is from a telharmonic orchestra. Singing begun, we note that the words are clearer, for our being so close; in addition, the libretto is thrown line by line on the base of the screen. We note too that perfect understanding and the nearness of the singers make the acting more significant and less theatrical. Delicacy is the rule.
Let us switch to "Antony and Cleopatra." We find it being played in all its thirty-eight scenes, for the actors need only walk from one prepared stage to another; and the expense of extra costumes and scenery hardly counts in a national theater. The plays of 1930 are written with still more scenes, for the best way to tell a story is to tell its every important incident. The old motion picture shows had an average length of scene of about fifty seconds.
If we elect the thirty dramatic sketches we shall find that brief scenes have made very short plays possible, even ones of three seconds. To skim the cream of a plot there are five-minute versions of a tale with a sting in it, and bits briefer still which are actings-out, electrifications, so to speak, of our anecdote, our joke with a picture and our story told in pictures. Some are sympathetic, most are satirical, and all are lightning character sketches.
Some dramas are to be much longer than any of today, since convenience and cheapness allow shows of more than one sitting. That History of Greece is to take a year, in instalments each evening from seven till a quarter past. The limits of drama have been made as wide as those of literature, which are the single word and the ten-volume novel. In drama and opera, too, the breaking up of these restrictions as to time, scenery, the supernatural, etc., which only hamper the playwright's thought have made drama more perfectly bendable to teaching and entertainment.
"The play--the play's the thing!" as Shakespeare said, and he ought to know. For proof he might have put it. that all the players are merely men and women. Drama is the Art of human life, and of all arts the most universally appreciated. When freed from cost and trouble and the crudeness of motion pictures it will be the dominant art, and the chief recreation in most people's lives.
Opera, when understandable and not prohibitively costly, will perhaps stand next in popularity, but the other classes of music will rival it. The dance and the art exhibit will amount to far more than they do to-day. The lecture will be developed into an art, and oratory be reborn when for the first time in history it will be worth while for a really great man to give his genius to a speech intended for ordinary people, not legislators. The great write, that they may give their thought to millions. But a page of print is something less than the author himself.
Home-theater art will be better than any to-day. For not only will the bad and mediocre artists be massacred in their thousands and the great heaped with honor and riches, but the great will be introduced to a new competition, that with the great dead. Sight and sound records mean that the actor, singer, dancer, musician and orator will, like the painter, writer and composer be inspired by the masters of the past, and taught and competed with.
The moral tone of the home theater will be excellent. For the electric form, like the motion pictures, but in much greater degree, will be supported by family audiences. And the disk-and-film form will be dominated by these and the public libraries, in the main, and for the rest the inevitable concentration of the producing industry will make easy the protection of the innocent public. Some such body as the present National Board of Censorship for Motion Pictures will be given legal power to review all productions and either delimit or forbid their circulation.
There will be enormous educational value in the home theater, just as there is in the analogous inventions of printed words and printed pictures. From these two we have derived almost all our education, including a rough knowledge of the visual aspect of almost every important thing and person that is or has been on the earth. But would our knowledge of Greek history, for example, be so rough, so hazy, if we had watched and listened to that long historical drama of Greece, where every fact was presented in the most interesting and vivid form, and the really essential part of history, the civilization of the epochs, was portrayed as it could be by no other medium? And lectures, giving us all of Naples but the smell, and all of chemistry but the drudgery, will cover well nigh every field of knowledge almost as attractively. The home theater will be of far more educational value than the motion pictures, good as they are, and be attended twenty times as often. The State will probably require that each house or apartment contain a branch of the electric theater, on the principle of self-preservation which calls for a compulsory school attendance law. But even in the most ignorant homes compulsion can stop with the installation.
Outside of education lies culture, the appreciation of beauty in ideas, aspects, sounds and gestures. The home theater will impart culture--remember that we shall be wakened from sleep by Hoffmann playing, to wander thru the Louvre with Chase, and in the evening sit at the feet of Maeterlinck, or before the great artists of the stage.
To make room for its own life the home theater will strike right and left among our institutions. The theaters and nickelodiums, of course, and orchestras, will almost all go, as already the melodrama houses have been practically abolished by the "pictures." The novel and the short story will fall from their pinnacle, the all-story magazines are already feeling the motion pictures' competition. The schoolhouse Edison is preparing to invade with his educational films--how far will these replace the teacher when to sight are added speaking and color, depth and perfection? What about churches, the rural ones especially, in competition with national churches which offer glorious music and the best preachers in the land? What will happen to our political forms when a candidate must appeal directly to all the electorate, revealing his personality his close range appearance and normal voice? Will representative government survive this nation-wide extension of the neighborhood in which a man can be known?
The home theater, in contrast to most modern developments, will tend powerfully to preserve the home, as the newspaper has by superseding the Athenian barber shop, the Roman forum and the Queen Anne coffee house. And to those who live in small towns and the country the home theater will be a minister of life.
How soon shall all this come to pass? The chief obstacles to the home theater's growth are not on the mechanical side, but the human. The public must be taught the value of the novelty, new orders of playwrights must be trained up and great companies must be developed in a totally new business and controlled.
But a limited use will come soon. The disk and film form, being already in five-cent theaters, ought to reach some private homes by the end of the decade. Of the electric theater a fairly complete form for sound has been in use in Budapest for a dozen years. It is called the Telephone Herald, and distributes hourly news, editorials, speeches, language lessons, music of all sorts and the audible part of the town's best plays. In this country a similar thing has been in Wilmington for two years, and is now appearing elsewhere, and the telharmonium will open this winter in New York. If the industries, political included, which the electric theater threatens, do not forbid it to be born, as they endeavored to strangle the telharmonium, it ought to appear in a few theater buildings about five years from now, and be in the majority of homes within twenty.
NEW YORK CITY.