It was terrible, but it was wonderful!

March 18, 2008

In 1928, a cartoon character was born. An early Mickey Mouse made his debut in May of that year, in a silent flop called /Plane Crazy/. In November, in New York City’s Colony Theater, in the first widely distributed cartoon synchronized with sound, /Steamboat Willie/ brought to life the character that would become Mickey Mouse. Synchronized sound had been introduced to film a year earlier in the movie /The Jazz Singer/. That success led Walt Disney to copy the technique and mix sound with cartoons. No one knew whether it would work or, if it did work, whether it would win an audience. But when Disney ran a test in the summer of 1928, the results were unambiguous. As Disney describes that first experiment, “A couple of my boys could read music, and one of them could play a mouth organ. We put them in a room where they could not see the screen and arranged to pipe their sound into the room where our wives and friends were going to see the picture. “The boys worked from a music and sound-effects score. After several false starts, sound and action got off with the gun. The mouth organist played the tune, the rest of us in the sound department bammed tin pans and blew slide whistles on the beat. The synchronization was pretty close. “The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!”

— Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture

I’ve just started reading Free Culture (yup, on my phone), and it’s really good. If, like me, you’re very into all this CC-licensing and democratisation of content, but don’t actually know too much about the legal, historical and cultural background, you should give it a try too.

The above quote seemed startlingly appropriate to much of booktech and the wider internet’s attempts to do cool, new things and do them now. The results aren’t always pretty, but they’re often thrilling, and groundbreaking, and point the way to more exciting and new things. Of course, “terrible and wonderful” is not a good pitch to anyone corporate, which is why it’s taking the big guys a long time to turn the boat around.

But not, of course, Penguin. Head over to and check out the first installment of their six web-based tales, a Google Maps-based adventure from Charles Cumming. Sure, I’m not wild about aspects of the interface (the neophobes should have a field day with all the ‘reticulating splines’) but this is about as new and exciting as it gets.

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