We can point to several presidential elections as pivotal ones — 1960 saw the first televised presidential debate, 1952 saw the first widespread TV advertising, etc. But 1908 may top them all.

That year, NPR reports, both major party presidential candidates, William Howard Taft (R) and William Jennings Byran (D), recorded a series of short speeches on wax cylinders produced by Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company. These cylinders were then sent around the country so that, for the first time, large numbers of voters could hear the voices of the candidates even when the candidates were nowhere near their state. Better still, a penny arcade in New York reportedly dressed up two mannequins to look like Taft and Bryan and played the recordings sequentially to simulate a presidential debate for visitors.

So the election of 1908 isn’t necessarily the cause of modern soundbites or the reason that the lengthy campaign speeches of the 19th century were supplanted by quick punchy ads in the 20th century. But they’re all part of the same trend. The speeches that were sent out by cylinder were short because the medium was limited and expensive to use. Same with TV ads. What makes 1908 an important turning point is that it reflects the challenges of a truly mass campaign. Candidates could previously travel by rail to much of the nation and give detailed speeches, but they still couldn’t hope to be heard by as many voters as wax cylinders, radio, television, or the Internet would ultimately reach. To really put the candidates in touch with the voters, communication had to be shortened and simplified.

(h/t John Dickerson)

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.