Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Electronics In The 18th Century

Tales so tall they'd make the Baron Munchausen blush!
Songs Goethe will want to programme into his Palm Pilot!
Wigs! Anecdotes!
Fake harpsichords and bizarre Special Guests!

Thanks to techno-pollution by time-travelling salesmen from the last four decades of the 20th century, cultural historians are beginning to discover electronics in the 18th Century. Did you know, for example, that the French revolution really was televised (though only on PBS, so nobody was watching), Benjamin Franklin was a big Gary Numan fan, and the Marquis de Sade had a really sick website?

The Earl Of Amiga, a time-travelling periwigged fop, proudly presents a musical investigation into this phenomenon with the help of a plastic harpsichord, some jaggy early 1980s computer graphics, the songs of his alter ego Momus, a couple of analog synthesisers, and celebrity guests in the role of great men and women from the Age Of Reason.

The first four KnitActive presentations of 'Momus as the Earl Of Amiga Presents Electronics In The 18th Century' have now been archived on the KnitActive website (click 'Archives'). Here are a few of the tall tales which have so far linked the songs in this multimedia cabaret production, which is taking place in New York every Sunday this April before transferring to Fez in May. The Duke of Atari is played by Torquil Campbell.

Welcome to the 18th Century!

Welcome to 'Electronics in the 18th Century'. I am the Earl of Amiga and this is my friend, the Duke of Atari.

I say friend, but it hasn't always been so, has it, Atari? As heads of two rival clans of computer pioneers, we used to be locked in such fierce strife that the clash of our claymores filled Glen Coe. It all went back to our screen resolutions. I had a superior polygon rendering capacity, but Atari's screen refresh rate and printer resolution was better. Froggit, the game in which you play a frog trying to cross a road traversed by treacherously jaggy red and green cars, played better on my screen. But Llamatron, the game in which you have to explode as many llamas as possible, was definately superior on his.

All this controvery was laid to rest without too much bloodshed, though, when Microsoft came along and made us both history. Which is one reason that when we discovered secret conduits in time which led back to the 18th Century, we started spending more and more time there. The other was that the rents are much cheaper in the 18th Century, less than a dollar per square foot -- and that's per year, not per month. And, if you can scrape together $2.50 you can have a whole staff of servants too, including a very pretty scullery maid, if you're a rascal.

The Marquis De Sade's Website

Time travelling salesman have been going back to the 18th Century from about the year 1970, the year Unix programmers designate, mysteriously, The Epoch. I know this because one evening, while websurfing, I came across the Marquis de Sade's website. I don't mean just a sadistic website, God knows there are enough of those around. No, I mean Sade's own website. I checked the HTML documents, and their creation date was July 26th, 1784. I mean, I know that the internet makes space irrelevant, but I never realised that it made time irrelevant too. Why, this webcast that we're doing right now is quite possibly being watched by people in ancient Mesopotamia, living in mud huts between the Tigris and the Euphrates, just on the verge of inventing writing. Though, if they have managed to configure their modems, they're probably rummaging around in

Anyway, I have it open right here. The Marquis de Sade's website. 'If you agree that Man is a bloodthirsty pagan, God a dream of vainglorious cowards, and Nature a paragon of savagery, are over 18, and wish to see a spectacle of embuggerment, click here.' Hmm, seems reasonable. Oh my God... can that goat really be deflowering that poor wench..? 'For Quicktime version of this embuggerment, click here...' Oh dear. Anyway... Hrm hrm.

The more I went back to the 18th Century, the more I liked it. It was the ideal holiday destination, as yet unspoiled by tourists. But the tide was turning, and electronic pollution was already changing many charming and typical 18th Century scenes into something quite different. For example...

Rousseau's Pong Machine

Rousseau, the philosopher known today as the champion of the Noble Savage, came into possession of an early Pong machine and a Zenith cabinet television in somewhat baroque style. After months of fiddling, he managed to connect them up. At first, owing to the complete absence of electricity in the 18th Century, Rousseau was only able to play the game during thunderstorms, which fortunately were rather frequent on the shores of Lake Geneva. Electricity poured down the lightning conductor of a nearby church spire, animating the stately hand-carved television set. Rousseau was so captivated by the two paddles and square dot of a ball that he quite forgot to write any books. Later he converted the Zenith and the Atari to run on methane derived from the dung of a flock of sheep he purchased specially for the purpose and allowed to wander freely through his house. Often he would follow them from room to room cursing the docile animals when they refused to defecate. 'Shit, damn you, shit!' he would cry, 'I want to get to the next level!' Unfortunately in Pong there is no next level.

A Robot Dog Trailer Marketing Campaign

The past is a good place for cheap advertising. Marketing people are beginning to see the virtue in starting trailer campaigns for new products hundreds of years before they are launched. In Edinburgh, for example, there is a little statue of a dog known as Greyfriars Bobby. Legend has it that Bobby, a Scotch terrier, came every day and howled at the grave of his dead master. This scene of fidelity was so touching that a small statue of the animal was erected. The statue has become an obligatory stopping point for tourist coaches. Some Japanese are reminded of a similar dog outside the Shibuya station, named Hachiko, to whom attaches a very similar tale: a dead master who plunges his faithful pet into an ocean of grief, the animal's decision to consecrate his life to ceaseless mourning. What is less well known is that both these metal dogs were pieces of pre-release promotion planted in history by the Sony corporation to promote the 1999 release of their own metal dog, the Aibo robot, and highlight its exceptionally long battery life. If you watch either statue for long enough, you may just see its metal tail wagging feebly, 250 years after the expiry of its manufacturer's warranty.

John Fucking Malkovitch

Everywhere you go in the 18th Century you see John Malkovitch. God knows why, but it gets bloody annoying. Malkovitch in a huge powdered wig, Malkovitch with painted beauty spots, Malkovitch bowing low to a milkmaid and looking up with a dirty twinkle in his eye. I went on the Grand Tour of Italy and there, in Naples, was Malkovitch, sporting with a Countess, wearing baggy britches and buckle shoes. I went to Venice and there he was again, lying back in a gondola, sharing witty thoughts with the Doge. Fuck you, Malkovitch, get back to the century you belong in! You've completely ruined my holiday.


President Richard Milhouse Nixon. He is, my dear American cousins, your greatest national shame. But we Europeans are not entirely without blame in this case. Nixon was probably inspired by Eckerman's 'Conversations With Goethe' or Boswell's 'Life Of Johnson' when he decided to record his tabletalk for posterity. Unfortunately, as we know, the tapes were a little too frank, and led to his impeachment. What's less well known is that Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann were also much dirtier than previously assumed. After the 18th Century was polluted with microcassettes and bugged with surveillance microphones, 400 hours of Goethe's conversations were subpoenaed by the Plenary Court of Upper Weimar. As the shocked jury listened in dumbfounded disbelief, their national literary hero was heard to use many foul and indelicate expressions, expletives which had to be deleted in court. He seethed at length against artistic rivals such as Schiller, whom he called 'The [expletive deleted] Robber', and plotted a dirty tricks campaign against Russia's greatest poet, Pushkin, whom he referred to as 'the [expletive deleted] Moor'. His reputation would have been ruined if the trial had been televised on CNN. Fortunately for Goethe, both the press and the judicial system in those days were corrupt, and he was able to hush the affair up by means of extensive bribery. A bust of Goethe can be seen to this day in the Richard M. Nixon Memorial Library, with a sarcastic smile playing around his lips and, on closer inspection, a small electret condensor microphone poking out between the top two buttons of his bronze shirt.

Gore Vidal, Emperor Of San Marino

Gore Vidal, the poisonously arch American man of letters, has combined his fondness for the 18th Century with his long-held ambition to be president. In a campaign notable for its strategic brilliance, he has taken over the small independent Italian republic of San Marino with the help of a select literary coterie who conquered the place equipped only with slightly arched eyebrows and a weary air of haughty disdain. They occupied all of San Marino's restaurant terraces and so hurtfully slandered everybody who walked by that before long the republic was deserted, and theirs for the taking. Word is that Vidal has established himself as a sort of Caligula, throwing banquets and orgies of unparalleled decadence. His subjects are forced to address him as 'Emperor Gore', 'His Literary Excellence', or simply 'The Fatal Eyebrow'. This last appellation refers to the fact that a mere arching of the famous Vidal eyebrow is enough to spell a man's death warrant. God forbid that anyone should mention the name of Truman Capote! Punishment for that ultimate offence is being licked to death, slowly, by a small pack of yapping lapdogs. In San Marino, it's called 'being Gored'.

Salieri, the notorious rival to musical prodigy Mozart, was distracted from his historical destiny by an even deadlier enemy, on holiday from the 20th Century: the Austrian novelty pop singer Falco. Falco had less talent than Mozart, but much better distribution. His music sold enviably well to those millions of Austrians and Italians who wore their hair big and their denim pre-fatigued. Salieri, infuriated by Falco's success, moulded himself into a copycat product: a green-haired novelty singer making pop records in a disco-baroque style. His singles stiffed in the lower reaches of the Austrian singles chart, which was not well-developed in the 18th Century. In the end he was made the presenter of a children's television show and faded into obscurity, much to the relief of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


Bachtron is one of the few coin-operated arcade games you will find in the 18th Century. It presents trigger-happy gamers with a realistic pipe organ attached to three electronic keyboards. In exchange for four quarters, this sombre machine gives the player half an hour in which to compose a brilliant fugue. When they have finished, it plays the composition from start to finish and allocates a meaningless score, usually something like 475,650,000, plus bonus points (76,000,000). In all the arcades where this machine has been installed, it has been a great failure, standing for days unplayed, the allocation of musical genius in each generation of men being, alas, sparse. On one machine in Salzburg, however, the legend 'Wolfgang Rules OK' sits atop the high scores list.

A Heartwarming Ceremony Of Cultural Reparation

The Baron Munchausen, that famous teller of tall tales, was chosen by all the authors and characters of European fairy tales to confront the powerful Disney Corporation for infringement of copyright and commercial exploitation of their images. Word had come back to Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm that the Disney Corporation was generating billions of dollars from the fruits of their labour. Munchausen flew in to Burbank Airport on a canonball and, surprisingly, managed to secure a lunch appointment with Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive. The meal passed very pleasantly, and, since both men had investments in a llama farm in Peru, they talked mostly about the share value of llama wool. Only at the end of the meal did the Baron broach his uncomfortable subject. 'Now Michael,' he said, 'back in the 18th Century a few fairy tale characters and their creators really feel that they're getting a raw deal. Here you are with a major corporation based on the sale of our lives and our intellectual property, and we aren't seeing a penny of profit. Mother Goose in particular is livid. She's a very committed feminist, you know.' Eisner nodded and patted Munchausen's hand on the tablecloth. 'I'll tell you what I'll do. Let's organise a grand ceremony of reparation, with all the characters, and I'll make it up to you all handsomely, I promise.' So all the characters were flown in from the 18th Century, with no expense spared. Eisner made a noble speech of attrition, then produced a small chest. 'In this chest,' he said, 'are beads. I want you to have them, as a token of our thanks. We here at the Disney Corporation couldn't have done what we've done without you. Now, you may be thinking, 'beads? That's all he's giving us?' But these are not just any beads. These are the very beads that were given to the Indians in exchange for the island of Manhattan. They were bought back from the Indians a hundred years later for $25, but just think what they're worth now! Here, take them.' And so a historic debt was nobly repaid. The fairy tale characters were given free passes to Disneyland Florida, where several of them stayed for good, establishing the theme park as a political sanctuary for refugees from their turbulent century under the Asylum Seekers (Fictional Characters) Act of 1947.

Copyright Momus, 2000.

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