time travelling cell phone user
An alleged time-travelling cellphone user caught on film in 1928

Gregory’s last post on Babbage and railroads, illustrated by that arresting Montparnasse train wreck photo, got me thinking about Victorian visual technologies and their ability to register accidents as phenomena. At the same time, Daniel’s analogy between aircraft data recorders (black boxes), on the one hand, and Babbage’s proposal for their 19th-century railroad equivalents, on the other, got me thinking, too, about technologies with unexpected histories. We know that 19th century technologies like film and photography changed how people thought about time and experience, but there’s also something about 19th century technologies that makes them seem, themselves, prone to accidents of chronology. The conspiracy-theory subgenre of pseudoarcheological “out-of-place artifacts” seems like good fodder for the kind of alt-history thinking that Victorian studies has absorbed from steampunk.

All that led to this image from an internet meme about two Victorian technologies that seem to be unstuck in time, as the saying goes. It was popularized via a YouTube video posted by a Northern Irish filmmaker, George Clarke, who had noticed something strange in film footage shot in 1928. The footage shows passers-by on the street outside the Hollywood premiere of the Charlie Chaplin film The Circus, and was included as bonus material with a DVD release of The Circus. (This explains the wooden zebra in the foreground. You can also see the sign for the Chaplin film in the window behind.) The mysterious element was the woman in the background who appears to be talking on a cell phone. As the camera follows her for a few seconds while she walks down the sidewalk, it’s clear she’s holding something up to her left hear, and she appears to be speaking into it. Everyone knows there were no cell phones in 1928, but that didn’t prevent speculation about what we’re actually seeing here, including the notion that a time traveller—apparently a careless one—had been caught on film. There’s something appealingly J.J.-Abrams-meets-steampunk about it all. (There’s a similar example of a supposed present-day hipster who, for reasons known only to himself, felt compelled to travel back to 1940 to attend a bridge opening where he was caught on film.)

Sadly, the 1928 mystery was promptly explained by some historical research showing the device to be most likely a hand-held electronic hearing aid, possibly one  made by the Siemens corporation—who would, ironically, go on to make cell phones, but much later.

Although this image didn’t turn out to be a revelation about some previously unknown aberration in the history of technology, I’d suggest it has a different kind of value. Instead of offering a revelation about the past, it tells us something about us, specifically about the forms of desire we attach to the past, and the technologies that focus those desires. When we’re presented with this kind of mystery, there’s a passing moment before it’s solved when it exists for us as a mystery, as something that exercises our historical imagination, and estranges the past and the present in productive ways. It’s a moment of “productive unease,” as Julia Flanders describes it, similar to “the sense of friction between familiar mental habits and the affordances of [an unfamiliar] tool” (¶12). Everyone knows there were no cell phones in 1928, but other kinds of information technology did exist then. How did those technologies weave themselves into everyday life, like the street scene captured in this image? Would this woman have considered herself part of an information culture, even if she might not have articulated it to herself in those terms? Finally, to whom could she possibly be speaking? (I would like to think she is somehow talking to maverick physicist Nikola Tesla—played in my imagination by David Bowie, reprising his role from The Prestige—perhaps giving him a review of Chaplin’s new film.)

We can turn this image into a mirror to examine the nature of our own curiosity, too. Why was present-day speculation about the image so quick to explain the mystery device as a cell phone, an object from our present as opposed to some unknown communication device from an equally unknown future? Did she somehow bring a whole cellular network back in time with her? What kind of roaming plan did she have? The experience of the uncanny, as in the 1928 cell phone internet meme, is part of history’s predicament, as Certeau put it in The Writing of History, of constantly finding the present in our object and the past in our practice.


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