That Is All

What may be the world’s first telephone directory, published in 1878 by the Connecticut District Telephone Company, is being put up for auction next week at Christie’s, along with manuscripts by such lesser lights as Copernicus, Darwin, Newton, and Descartes. Some friends of mine discussed chipping in to buy the telephone book for me; the indispensable Ralph Luker sent a NYT piece on the auction:

Two things struck me. As an aging veteran of the current rewiring of the human condition, I wondered whether there might be lessons from that first great rewiring of our collective nervous system. Another was a shock of recognition — that people were already talking on the phone a year before Einstein was born. In fact, just two years later Einstein’s father went into the nascent business himself. Einstein grew up among the rudiments of phones and other electrical devices like magnets and coils, from which he drew part of the inspiration for relativity. It would not be until 1897, after people had already made fortunes exploiting electricity, that the English scientist J. J. Thomson discovered what it actually was: the flow of tiny negatively charged corpuscles of matter called electrons.

I haven’t seen this particular phone book, but I’ve read others like it. They are extremely quaint: names given without numbers (those came later), detailed instructions on how and where to hold the phone, strict prohibitions against swearing, pleas to limit or control the use of the phone by children, servants, and wives. It takes a real flex of your historical imagination to see them as the high-tech support docs they once were.

“When you are not speaking, you should be listening,” the Connecticut District telephone book says. (Words to live by.) It also says you should begin each call by saying, “Hulloa” (“Ahoy-hoy” went by the boards pretty quickly) and when done talking, say, “That is all.”

“That is all” is how John “I’m a PC” Hodgman signs off every blog post, and almost every Twitter (giving up 12 of his 140 character limit each time–that’s dedication). Is he the last observer of this now obscure fillip of Gilded Age telephone etiquette? I WOULD NOT PUT IT PAST HIM.


  1. Ahoy-hoy? Why, that’s how the Simpson’s Montgomery Burns answers his phone! I never knew why!
    See? Everything boils down to some internet jerk like me making a throwaway pop culture reference!

  2. Yes, indeed. The Simpsons writers are up on their telephone history, as they are on everything else under the sun. (Burns: “You there! Fill it up with petroleum distillate, and re-vulcanize my tires, post-haste.”)

    Also, we welcome throwaway pop culture references from internet jerks.

    (Everyone go visit Mr. Lowe’s retro-future site.)

  3. God help me, I love old phone books. So often, I would give anything to interview some long-dead musician or spend a night in some long-ago demolished dance hall, drinking bathtub gin and dancing to jazz. Of course, that’s impossible. But, right there in the city directory, there’s the phone number — Dale 4664 or whatever. A person could’ve just picked up the phone and said ahoy hoy! It can drive you to distraction if you let it … and I let it.

  4. Ya, Sir J J was the bomb, proving cathode rays could be deflected by magnetic fields, measuring the charge/mass ratio, proposing atoms were divisible and proposing the “plum pudding” model [which dismissed the “poundcake” model, the “bundtcake” model, and the “all this stuff is voodoo” model].

    Equally importantly, he taught Ernest Rutherford who built on J J’s work as Issac Newton contunued Johannes Kepler’s work who continued Tycho Brahe’s work. Rutherford slapped together the orbit theory [which was exciting for quantum mechanical guys who would follow like Bohr ‘n’ Schrodinger] and stumbled across half-lives w.r.t. isotope decay .

    My 4th year supervisor had a huge poster of Rutherford in the lab which had an excellent quote, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting, ” which I’m very fond of, it speaks to me.

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