Ephemeral Affections: The Elusive Object: Imagination, Abstraction and Dreams of Utopia

Jane Hutchinson

The purpose of this seminar is to explore the extent to which a re-creation or re-presentation of an object or event is able to ‘stand-in’ for the original, whether it was fully realised at the time of its conception or remained in an imaginary form.

It will do this by considering the provisional (re)-construction of Hugo Munsterberg’s [1] apparatus for testing the ”mental constitution” of motormen in order to determine their suitability for the job. The experiment took place at the Harvard Psychological Laboratory during the spring of 1912. The experimental subjects were employees of The Boston Elevated Railway Company. In his initial report [2] Munsterberg provided a detailed account of his design of the experimental process, and the apparatus. He claimed its success was in part at least due to its evoking for his subjects the reality of their working lives.

The seminar is presented in the context of a wider exploration of the value of reconstruction in a media-archaeological research process. Drawings, images and a maquette model that were created during the research process will be presented. These are informed by Munsterberg’s description (see text below).

Participants will be invited to engage with these items in order to explore the extent of their adequacy as ‘stand-ins’ for the apparatus, even if its original form was an imaginary constituent of a thought experiment.

As soon as this principle for the experiment was recognized as satisfactory, it was necessary to find a technical device by which a movement over this artificial track could be produced in such a way that the rapidity could be controlled by the subject of the experiment and at the same time measured. Again we had to try various forms of apparatus. Finally we found the following form most satisfactory. Twelve such cards, each provided with a handle, lie one above another under a glass plate through which the upper card can be seen. If this highest card is withdrawn, the second is exposed, and from below springs press the remaining cards against the glass plate. The glass plate with the la cards below lies in a black wooden box and is completely covered by a belt 8 inches broad made of heavy black velvet. This velvet belt moves over two cylinders at the front and the rear ends of the apparatus. In the centre of the belt is a window 4½ inches wide and 2½ inches high. If the front cylinder is turned by a metal crank, the velvet belt passes over the glass plate and the little window opening moves over the card with its track and figures. The whole breadth of the card, with its central track and its 4 units on either side, is visible through it over of 5 units in the length direction. If the man to be experimented on turns the crank with his right hand, the window slips over the whole length of the card, one part of the card after another becomes visible, and then he simply has to call the letters of those units in the track at which the red figures on either side would land, if they took the number of steps indicated by the digit. At the moment the window has reached Z on the card, the experimenter withdraws that card and the next becomes visible, as a second window in the belt appears at the lower end when the first disappears at the upper end. In this way the subject can turn his crank uninterruptedly until he has gone through the 12 cards. The experimenter notes down the numbers of the cards and the letters which the subject calls.

Munsterberg, H. (1913) Chapter VIII, ‘Experiments in the Interest of Electric Railway Service’, in Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Boston and New York: Houghtan Mifflin Company, pp. 63-82.

(Also available online at http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Munster/Industrial/chap8.htm)

[1] Hugo Munsterberg (1863-1916) moved from Leipzig to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1992 at the invitation of William James, to become the director of the Harvard Psychology Laboratory, a position he retained until his death. In 1898 he was elected the president of the American Psychological Association. In addition to fulfilling these responsibilities he was a lecturer and prolific writer of books and papers for specialist and general audiences. As an altruistic idealist he developed the academic discipline of experimental psychology to a psychology that could by its practical application solve the ‘problems’ of life.

[2] The American Association of Labor Legislation commissioned the experiment in March 1912. Munsterberg sent his initial report to them less than three months later.