Emergent Technologies, Corporations, and the Development of Democratic Masses: The Phonograph as Case Study (67566)

Session Information: Social History
Session Chair: Nengher Vang

Sunday, 28 May 2023 14:05
Session: Session 3
Room: Room 707
Presentation Type:Oral Presentation

Do corporate interests participate in American elections in pursuit of profits? Undoubtedly so – but the profit-driven selling of candidates and issue positions by “big business” is hardly a new thing in American politics. Indeed, as far back as 1900, “big media” firms – most notably, Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company, the Victor Talking Machine Company, and the Columbia Phonograph Company – were already leveraging technological advances in mass communication to derive profits from American political campaigning. Foreshadowing the rise of for-profit American political broadcasting by several decades, phonograph companies generated enormous profits by selling wax cylinders featuring presidential candidates’ speeches. Intended to “multiply the candidate,” as one Edison advertisement claimed, these ready-to-play “canned speeches” featuring the voices of William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt transformed campaign tactics by allowing contenders to “speak” directly to individual voters through a machine. Edison boasted of selling upwards of 600,000 of Bryan’s recordings alone, making clear both the democratic potential and financial profitability of broadcasting candidates’ messages through mass media. Drawing on letters, advertisements, newspaper articles, and other period sources, this paper explores the rise and development of phonographic mass political communication in early twentieth-century America and how it both shaped electoral politics and foreshadowed current political communications companies. More broadly, the paper will examine the national and international uses of the phonograph in its early attempts to construct democracies and educate voters through the use of mass media technology to illuminate the ongoing debate over impact of social media.

Susan Spellman, Miami University, United States
John Forren, Miami University, United States

About the Presenter(s)
Dr Susan Spellman is a University Associate Professor/Senior Lecturer at Miami University in United States

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Posted by Clive Staples Lewis

Last updated: 2023-02-23 23:45:00