07 August 2015

Arcane Technology in Arcane Museuems

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting two Connecticut museums:* the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum and the Vintage Radio and Communications Technology Museum of Connecticut, both in Windsor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what I ended up focusing on at both was our relationship with technology.

Tobacco spearing in Hadley, MA
courtesy the Hampshire Gazette
Tobacco farming is-- to me, anyway-- surprisingly low-tech. It is not an industry that has mechanized in any substantial way; a lot of the work still has to be done by hand. Tobacco is hand-picked and hand-sewn, the issue being that it's too fragile for machines to be any help in the process; the tobacco just ends up bruised. One of the things that happens is the tobacco gets "speared." Pieces of wood are run through stalks so that they can be hung up to dry.

One piece of equipment the Tobacco Museum had was a mechanical spearer, essentially, from the early 20th century. I think it was spring-loaded; the basic idea was that you'd hang a set of tobacco stalks on it, and then it would launch a spear through them with enough force to drive through half a dozen stalks at once. (I looked in vain for a picture of such a machine on-line, but was undoubtedly limited by my own knowledge of good search terms!) According to our excellent guide, it never worked, which is why one now sits rusty in the barn of the Tobacco Museum. The spear was launched with such force that if everything was lined up right and it did hit the stalks, it broke them apart.

I really like the image this conjured up in my mind, of the Victorian inventor (yes, I know, wrong period) spending his life chasing the concept of the Mechanical Tobacco Spearer, forever being stymied, but knowing, like any good Taylorite, that there has to be a way to make this ages-old process more efficient, ultimately sinking his life savings into something that never works. Sort of like a Thomas Hardy novel, except he gets trampled by the inevitability of mechanical progress.

old radio at the VRCM
courtesy New England Travels
Obviously technology was everywhere at the Vintage Radio Museum (not only did we get to see a Tesla coil up close, but we got to see our tour guide stick his hand in the electrical discharge), but what struck me there was the aesthetics of vintage radio equipment. Unlike the present day, where technology very much has its own aesthetic, old radios tried to blend in with everything else. The desktop computer I am composing this on is a big screen next to a big ugly tower. Even technology that tries to look nice doesn't try to look like anything other than technology. But vintage radio disguised itself; all that wood paneling is there to make it look like all the other wood objects in your living room.

One, I recall, had fake drawers on it even, to make it look like a cabinet. Another functioned secondarily as a drinks cabinet, with a gin dispenser on top and room for glasses. I guess the radios carried over this approach from the phonograph, which also worked very hard to blend in with the furniture and cabinetry. Somewhere along the line, this changed, and plastic and metal came to dominate, changing what we think of as "technology." Now, other objects try to imitate the aesthetics of technology!

Though probably my favorite things to see were 1) the actual telephone switchboard, which (like most things in the Museum) you could play with, 2) the refrigerator with in-built radio so mom can listen to the radio even in the kitchen, and 3) the vintage radio recording studio, complete with coconuts, among other objects, for Foley effects! It makes me want to make audio drama again. (Apparently American Experience used the studio to record parts of its episode on the Orson Welles The War of the Worlds; I'll have to check that out!)

* This is part of an ongoing effort by my friends and I to investigate Connecticut's complement of "arcane museums"; previous destinations include the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, and the Pez Visitor Center in Orange.

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