Looking through the Telectroscope: the material culture of the Victorian future

In a short story published in the Century Magazine in 1898 Mark Twain entertained his readers with a glimpse of the near future. “From the London Times of 1904” offered a tale of murder and botched justice constructed around a wonderful new instrument – the telectroscope. This was a device that could transmit vision, just as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, invented just over twenty years earlier, transmitted sound. Rumours about this kind of technology had in fact been circulating ever since the announcement of Bell’s invention at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It offers a fascinating instance of a technology that was always on the brink of being realized: no telectroscope was ever made as a matter of fact, and accounts of the invention are now usually treated as parts of the prehistory of television. In this paper I want to take a different tack and look at the telectroscope as an instance of the future in the making. In particular, I want to focus on the materiality of the future, and the objects out of which it was constructed.