My initiation to media history methodology started a week ago, with this book:
I found How to Have Fun with Radio on November 8, when I accessed Ebays website and selected the Electronics category, then specified my search in the Vintage Electronics, Books, Manuals and Magazines section. The book was listed among the first options. Its auction was ending in three hours. The cover picture looked intriguing, as well as the sellers description:
“1938 Gernsback “How to have fun with Radio” No.6 32 page booklet. Very interesting book, but I would not try any of the experiments: “Radio electric chair”, “Hearing radio through your teeth”, etc. I will combine shipping for multiple auctions (seller description, November 8, 2010).
I subscribed to Ebay.ca, placed my bid and monitored the auction from time to time. I won it since I was the only bidder, paid for it on the same day, and got it by mail two business days later.
The cover illustration and the book’s description appealed to me the most and informed my choice initially. Ive often been interested by DIY cultures, alternative modes of appropriation of objects and the ways these practices sometimes aim to reconfigure political, economic and scientific (or expert-related) relations in their own ways. As a form of tinkering with new technologies, radio experimentation seems to prefigure computer hacker cultures with its focus on the imaginative, unhindered, fun and self-gratifying aspects of technological exploration.
When contacted, the items seller, radiocorner, answered some of my questions very promptly. He also gave me ample information on how to find out more about the Gernsback’s educational series. My terrain is getting barely excavated.
Many observations can be made by inspecting the item itself. The books size, 6.5 x 5, was smaller than expected. The cover pages came loose from their staple binding but the overall content was in good condition. The book features fifteen experiments to be performed with radio sets employing three or more tubes – the more tubes the better marketed to the typically inventive young American (Gernsback, 1938: 1). The books price (10 cents), the thinness and grain of the paper, the quality of the printing, the soft bind as well as the page layout suggest that the publication was intended to be produced in quantity, thus to being both accessible and affordable. The introduction offers advice pertaining to security and efficiency in handling the apparatus and suggestions on where to find and how to handle radio parts. Each experiment is explained on a page, sided with illustrations on another. Experimenters need to be familiar with electronics to understand the steps involved in each of them, as I probably wouldnt be able to reproduce any of the activities without consulting several books beforehand.
I performed Internet searches on Hugo Gernsback, and was pleasantly surprised to find ample resources about him. Massie and Perry portray him as an inventor, a business man and a publisher, and argue that
he may have been one of the most influential figures promoting radio experimentation and adoption by amateur hobbyists in the 1910s and the 1920s, and in campaigning for regulatory directions for radio in the days before the establishment of the Federal Radio Commission (2002: 264).
According to the authors, The father of science fiction and namesake of the Hugo Award for science fiction writing, as he is well-known to science-fiction readers, deserves more attention for his efforts in promoting and popularizing radio experimentation through the various magazines and books he published on the subject. His influence on specific inventors and regulatory decisions (2002: 279) also requires further exploration.
For this purpose, many primary source material reproductions are available online, as well as in university archives. The Syracuse university library hosts a publicly available Hugo Gernsback archive composed of manuscripts, magazines, letters, manuals, and so on (Special Collections Research Center, 2010). Gernsback’s own biography, assumed to have been written during the 1950s but only published in 2007, was found in Gernsbacks publishing company offices when they closed in 2002 (Hidden Knowledge, 2009).
Problems of interpretation surface when I start linking together issues of circulation and distribution of the book, and not only the significance but also the relative importance or relevance of its contents for the understanding of radio from a media history perspective. Modes of online search and acquisition of historical artifacts seem to ease access to a variety of objects, collections and archives. But historical research methods inspired by these possibilities must also rigorously take into account both online and offline contexts of production and circulation. In other words, successive layers of meaning corresponding to the uses, times and places these artifacts are embedded with are also constructed with the different kinds of archival and retrieval methods the objects went through.
Auction websites such Ebay also inform this circulation network, and the kinds of experiences they offer though the selection and purchase of an item can be integrated to a media history research project. Nevertheless, an online hunt for media artifacts can also require a lot of time, further interaction with sellers and should be combined with other research methods. A research budget might not necessary, as Massie and Perry point out: often scanned images of text and photos accompany the online sales, especially when items are sold through the auction method (2007: 98) Nevertheless, methodological and ethical issues pertaining to online selling should also be taken into account when attempting to find artifactual information on the Web (ibid.).
How to Have Fun with Radio can be tied to significant developments in the history of science and technique, as well as the history of technology. Looking at relationships between radio experimentation and the radio experimental literature would help gain further insight on the ways the radio industry developed and was standardized later on. Government regulation, advertising and buying trends, the development of the radio press, its literary public and the circulation of particular publication formats participated in the ways wireless communications and the radio, as consumers products, were appropriated by various kinds of actors. From the 1910s onward, technical developments in radio were also paralleled by the promotion of a hobbyist cultural experiment which didnt last for long, but left its trace (Massie and Perry, 2002: 264).
especially considering his position as publisher of Modern Electrics and Electrical Experimenter helped gain the attention of such scientists as Guglielmo Marconi, Robert Goddard, Nicloa Tesla, Reginald Fessenden, and even Thomas Edison (Banks, 2004).
Banks, M. A. (2004). Hugo Gernsback: The man who invented the future. Part 2. Writing, publishing and inventing. The Citizen Scientist Weekly Index (Online). 10 September 2004 issue. Retrieved from http://www.sas.org/tcs/weeklyIssues/2004-09-10/feature1/index.html.
N.A. (2010). Hugo Gernsback Papers, A description of his papers at Syracuse University. Special Collections Research Center, Mansucript Division, Syracuse University. Retrieved from http://library.syr.edu/digital/guides/g/gernsback_h.htm.
Gernsback, H. (1938). How to Have Fun with Radio. Gernsbacks Educational Library No. 6. (32 pages). New York: Radio Publications.
Hidden Knowledge, publishers of electronic books. (2009). Publishers: Hugo Gernsback. Retrieved from http://www.magazineart.org/publishers/gernsback.html.
Perry, S. D., & Massie, K. (2002). Hugo Gernsback and radio magazines: An influential intersection in broadcast history. Journal of Radio Studies, 9(2), 264-281. Retrieved from http://heinonlinebackup.com/hol-cgi-bin/get_pdf.cgi?handle=hein.journals/jradstud9§ion=28.
Perry, S. D., & Massie, K. (2007). A Historiographic Look at Online Selling: Opening the World of the Private Collection. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 13(1), 93-103. doi: 10.1177/1354856507073632.