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Max Morath : The American Renaissance
Max Morath My own view is that the turn of the century, particularly in America, represented a period that will someday be compared to the Renaissance in that within a period of very short time, 15-20 years, most of the break-throughs in technology occurred that now influence our lives so heavily. Everything since then has been engineering. You break through and record sound. Now everything since is engineering. You improve it, but when you first did it, it was a miracle. You capture sight, you capture motion. Motion picture comes about this time. Now everything since is engineering. It's technology. Sure, the picture's better, but the idea of seeing people move on a screen is new. A horseless carriage in 1900? All of these things came remarkably within a short time. The electric light, for heaven's sake. The electric current, the dynamo, again, just a few years before this, right around the turn of the century. Serendipity that it happened to be around 1900. It could have been 40 years earlier or 40 years later. It happened to be right at the turn of the century. I think that's remarkable and I think that this little piece, oddly, captures all that. No one was paying much attention, but certainly at the time people thought all of these things would benefit mankind, and by the way, a lot of them did. All you gotta do is go back and read about, for instance, let's talk about horse manure. Twenty thousand pounds of it were generated in the City of New York around that time, around 1900. You talk about pollution? The automobile was hailed as the savior of our city streets. You know that one of the reasons that women's skirts went up was because of the advent of the automobile and the self-started so they could drive a car? I mean it changed everything in life.

My feeling, from the reading I've done and a few of the old timers that I've talked to and still can talk about it, was that it was just wonderful. And wasn't it great that we could telephone somebody and wasn't it great that you had an automobile and could take a drive in the country and wasn't it wonderful that the trains were not transcontinental and that you could buy a phonograph record of Enrico Caruso and all of these things? Yes, I think that that generation saw these things as totally positive.

I think the big difference between those people in 1900 and us today, as we see the Computer Revolution, let's say, or we see the Space Program, I think that, again, carefully you use the word "miracle". To them, these miracles that everyone said couldn't happen, couldn't happen -- remember, flight is only three years away -- the Wright Brothers are just three years away from 1900 -- can't happen. It's against the laws of God. These things all took place in that form of -- of a miraculous nature. Now today we read about the Mars landing or we read about a space probe and we think, "Oh, gosh, isn't that great." But it's logical. It started here and it moved here. Same way with flight. The jets will be faster and the movie will now be in digital and all of these things. Okay, that's just progress. That's engineering. It's not a miracle. And I love to read things from the period that talk about this miraculous quality as if it were almost metaphysical. The acceptance of mystery having to do with something that everywhere now call or perhaps they called "technological". It's a cross-over of some kind between, in my view, the human spirit and what man, the makers, can do. And, again, the remarkable thing to me is not so much that these things happened, but that they coalesced around 1900.

I think it had very little to do with the sociology of the time, with the economics of the time. It had to do with these break-throughs. Do you realize that when the phonograph broke through just prior to 1900, that there were touring groups that went out with an old cylinder phonograph and the horn that you yelled into and the little mica diaphragm that transcribed, and they'd go to a town and they'd rent a hall and people would come and they'd play the phonograph and there'd be a dog barking. (Barks Twice and Claps) And people would applaud. And then the leading citizens of the town would come up. The mayor would come up and they'd instruct him and he would say, "Hello?" And they'd play it back, "Hello?" (Claps) And people would applaud. It didn't last very long. It lost its miraculous quality, but there were -- I've seen a dozen articles about "What if we'd have had this at Gettysburg so we could hear him? What if we'd have had it at Golgatha and we could have heard what he really said? From now on, we'll hear them. From now on." But it started in 1878.

That speculation about, "Whew, I wish we could have heard George Washington. I wish we could have heard Lincoln. I wish we could hear Christ speaking." Now it's all taken for granted. Again, we're all fascinated by the developments of it, but I keep using the word "engineering". Tape recording was an engineering break-through. Digital sound is an engineering break-through. And, by the way, it's very interesting. You start in 1900 and you can go right to the present day and read the trades and read the magazines and they say, "Finally we have the human voice reproduced so that you can't tell the difference." In 1900 they said, "It will never get any better. This is exactly the way this person sounds." It goes on and on and we're still conned by it.

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