Building Media History from Fragments

Phillip Roberts (University of York), ‘Building Media History from Fragments: Ephemeral Technologies and Material Economies’


In the nineteenth century new markets and applications for optical technologies were opening up. Most scholars talk of media manufacturers and retailers, but it was rarely the case that professionals specialised in only one form of media or, indeed, that they specialised only in media. The most famous magic lantern manufactures of the early-nineteenth century were scientific instrument manufacturers and opticians dealing primarily in spectacles, microscopes, telescopes and other scientific instruments. Many were also part of the market for public attractions, exhibiting solar microscopes and optical novelties to the general public. Thaumatropes and phenakistoscopes were manufactured and sold by printers. Music boxes were made by watchmakers. Photographic equipment was sold by chemists. The materials and labour required input from metal workers, brass founders, japanners, boxmakers, printers, artists, copper engravers, wood merchants and cutters. Every constituent part of a media instrument invokes a broader field of materials and practices that are not primarily provided by media professionals. Existing research is far too attached to the notion of media as its own market and its own specialisation, when in reality it was fully embedded into many different material and economic networks.

My research addresses the media economies of the nineteenth century and aims to reveal the many interrelated material and commercial networks that made different modes of media practice possible. I will show the various different practitioners associated with the manufacture of different media objects, drawn from close material analysis of objects in the National Science and Media Museum and other collections, and supported by further archival research. I will show how those markets that we now view as media were connected to a diverse array of economic, commercial, manufacturing and distribution networks and practitioners.

We build media history through a patchwork of surviving machines and fragments of information. What is known of past media formations is fleeting and prone to mutate as new data emerges. I will address two key questions: 1. How are the histories of media constructed from the shifting and fragmented historical record? 2. how are media technologies supported by obscure infrastructures that enable their practice? I will discuss my methods for uncovering the media formations of the past and show how new information on material economies of media in the nineteenth century can be extracted from the historical record.


Phillip Roberts is a researcher working with the National Science and Media Museum and University of York. He is writing a history of the magic lantern in the nineteenth century, aiming to show the many interrelated causes of the late-century lantern industry and its ongoing effects on visual media over the following decades. He has published work in Film HistoryCultural PoliticsThe Science Museum Journal, The Magic Lantern and Early Popular Visual Culture and is the editor of three special issues on media culture.

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