Technology changes constantly. In recent centuries, at least, people have become used to marvels appearing that they couldn’t imagine when they were growing up. People encounter new technology. How do they react? How did they react to (very old) new technology?
Early Movies: A Major Innovation
I read an interesting paper on reactions to early movies (1890s/1900s). Specifically, the author was looking at whether people panicked at the sight of a train coming towards them on the big screen. Apparently, this is known the ‘train effect’ in movie circles.
Stephen Bottomore, the author, shares fairly credible stories of viewers being startled by activity on the screen.
The first sight of films, particularly of train films, might have been an unpleasant experience for some viewers, but equally there were probably many others to whom a little shock was a welcome thing.
The stories of cinemas full of panicking customers seem a little far-fetched. Although “some people may have had a very real perceptual shock when they saw such a film” (Bottomore, 1999, page 196). I find more remarkable than some finding the movies a bit startling how quickly people got used to them. People adapted quickly to (very old) new technology.
People Coped With (Very Old) New Technology
The author concludes the paper in a measured way. Some people were a bit weirded out but most coped. What then explains the notion of mass panic hitting movie audiences? Some stories are revealing.
During the Boer war
there was an anecdote of a British soldier standing up in a film show and shouting angrily at the figures of Boers on the screen… he [later] declared `I thought it was all real’. The story subsequently appeared in the local newspapers and served to boost audiences for the show. It was only discovered later that the man, a civilian, had been costumed in the soldier’ s uniform and had been paid £5.Bottomore, 1999, page 183)
Technology has changed dramatically. The willingness of some entrepreneurs to generate publicity through outrageous stories has changed less.
Read: Stephen Bottomore (1999), “The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the ‘train effect’,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 19 (2), 177-216.