Visual Mass Media
Humans like to both watch and listen to something at the same time. For at least 140,000 years, humans have been entertained and informed by watching and listening to the things going on around them (Poe, 2011). But whether it was watching other humans or listening to the sounds of the forest, it had to happen in the moment, as there was no artificial way to convey images or sounds. It wasn’t until about 40,000 years ago that we know our ancestors first began to explore visual media including drawings, paintings, and sculptures. We later know that performing arts became a popular visual medium in societies like ancient Greece, for example, where plays were an important but still relatively new and controversial form of entertainment. Plato’s early critiques of theater mirror those that have been targeted toward television and movies more recently.
Plato decried the fact that playwrights seemed to focus their plots on the most unpleasant and unrefined aspects of society, such as lust, greed, and violence. What Plato may not have realized was that the Greek playwrights were continuing a theme that started with the earliest producers of visual media. The drawings, paintings, sculptures, and plays produced until that point shared some human themes—namely, sex, food, drink, wealth, and violence. I’m sure Plato would not be pleased to learn that these themes continue today in more modern forms of visual media like television and movies. Although we can see that visual media have long been a part of human history, they didn’t constitute a mass medium until the late 1800s and early 1900s with the advent of motion pictures and television.
Technology Leading to Visual Mass Media
As with the birth of any mass medium, technological advances had to take place to move us from interpersonal or group engagement with visual media to mass engagement. In the 1830s, the technologies needed to create photographs were put together in Europe, and photos were in regular circulation by the 1840s. By the late 1800s, photographs could be mass-produced and included in existing print-based mass media like books, newspapers, and magazines. As soon as photographic technology began to circulate, people began to experiment with its limits to see what other potential it held. In the late 1870s, experiments with serial photography were under way, which was the precursor to motion pictures (Dirks, 2012). In the 1890s, Thomas Edison commercialized film, creating a motion picture company and demonstrating the new technology at expos and fairs and inviting guests to come watch short movies of people doing mundane things—for a fee, of course. At the same time, advances in sound recording and wireless transmission of sound were occurring, which was essential to bring together the audio and visual elements of modern movies and television. Movies became the first mass medium to combine audio and visual electronic communication. Movie technology developed more quickly than television because it didn’t have to overcome challenges presented by electromagnetic transmission and reception.
As was the case with radio, several people were simultaneously working to expand the technology that would soon be known as television. The earliest television was mechanical, meaning that it had to be turned or moved rather than relying on electronics. In 1884, Paul Nipkow invented a mechanical television-like device that could project a visual image of the then famous Felix the Cat. It took a while for this crude version of a television to be turned into a more functional electronic version. In 1923, Vladimir Zworykin improved on this technology, followed closely by John Baird and Philo Farnsworth (Poe, 2011). Collectively, these men are responsible for the invention of television, which was the first mass medium capable of instantly and wirelessly transmitting audio and visual signals.