Hands on with the ‘crank machine’ in Brighton

Hands on with the ‘crank machine’ in Brighton

A hand-cranked postcard viewing machine, capturing the magic of Edwardian ‘social media’, took pride of place on Wednesday at Brighton Digital Festival.

The brand-new digital invention, created at Lancaster University in partnership with The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, presents an innovative way to get ‘hands on’ with history.

Adrian Gradinar, a PhD student on Lancaster’s Physical Social Network project team, led by Professor Paul Coulton, Senior Lecturer in Digital Literacies Dr Julia Gillen and Dr Amanda Pullan worked with Brighton’s Kevin Bacon to develop the concept.

Adrian then built what quickly became known as ‘the crank machine’.

Dr Gillen’s Edwardian Postcard Project , which focuses on postcards as the ‘social media’ of the Edwardian era, resulted in a collection of more than 3000 postcards written and sent between 1901 and 1910, together with transcriptions and carefully researched historical data about the people who wrote and received the fascinating cards.

This resulted in a new public searchable database providing access to a unique and inspirational treasure trove of amazing stories and pictures.

“We started to think about how we could improve what we had and how we could reach more people,” explained Julia.

“And Adrian came up with the digital end-of-pier style machine. It’s just brilliant because it’s a genuine fusion between the eras and provides such a different experience rather than just picking up the postcards to look at them.”

Using Arts and Humanities Research Council Creative Exchange funding and working with Brighton Museum and their postcard collections , they put their plans into action.

“The casing is made from plywood, which bends and shapes easily,” explains Adrian. “The crank handle actually comes from a World War Two air-raid siren. We took it apart and used two of the four gears. The new housing for the gears was specially constructed using 3D printing and we removed some of the wheels from the gearing to adjust to the speed we needed.”

Attached to the shaft is a rotary encoder, which translates the rotations of the handle into a mouse-type scrolling movement. When users crank the handle they see a digital gallery of postcards, moving as if on a rolodex inside the machine.

They can switch between themes such as conversation, travel and health. The ‘crank machine’ is inspired by the 1890s’ mutoscope which, at the crank of a handle, enabled the user to flick through a series of paper images, producing an effect similar to watching a short silent movie.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the picture postcard revolutionised popular communication. At a time when a postcard could be posted in the morning and arrive by lunchtime, the Edwardian postcard anticipated the rapid sharing of text and images through social media by almost a century.

Mutoscopes, more commonly known as ‘what the butler saw’ machines, rely on the user peering through a small viewer, so they can only be used by one person at a time.

Visitors came to investigate the machine from far and wide, including the USA and Australia.

Most were local people from Brighton and district, who were interested in exploring historical cards from a new angle.

“Brilliant” “irridescent” and “fascinating” were some of the comments received.