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Your Granddaddy’s TiVo

• March 19, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Inventors have been trying to find a way to silence ads since way before Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark

Turns out fast-forwarding through commercials with your TiVo isn’t exactly a new concept. Irritated audiences have been looking for ways to tune out broadcast advertisements since at least the Great Depression.

In the early 1930s, Professor Gleason W. Kenrick of what is now Tufts University developed a machine that could be attached to a radio to automatically “delete” ads. It also targeted excessive on-air talking, which was apparently just as irksome pre–Rush Limbaugh as it is now. The device was a clunky looking, dial-studded box, but the March 1934 issue of Radio-Craft magazine preferred to imagine it as the anthropomorphic pepper grinder seen above.

Kenrick’s machine “listened” for a quarter second of silence—something one would hear during talking but not music—and then muted the radio for ten seconds. One problem: a pause in a piece of music could make the gadget silence a chunk of your Grand Ole Opry broadcast.

Innovators are still trying to perfect ad-defeating technologies. Since the late 1990s, broadcasters have sued several makers of digital video recorders over their various ad-skipping features. The networks, of course, are terrified these machines will kill their business. They have a point: Without ad revenue, who’s going to produce programming? Maybe that’s what we’ll need the robots for.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

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