Do You Feel Lucky, Steampunk?

Benjamin Rush's 'Tranquilizer', ca. 1810
The Kinematrix Has You.

Speaking of Victorian internets… (Raise your hand if you figure I wrote all that just to give context to this.) It should go without saying, but these are not supposed to be nice alternate histories. The second one is particularly unpleasant–it’s like the photo negative of Gernsblack. Much as I love the steampunk aesthetic, a world combining 19th century ideas and prejudices with 21st century technology could in practice be pretty dire… Read more


The Gilded Age Internet and the People's Telephone

Baa. Baa.

Ten years ago, Tom Standage wrote a best-seller called The Victorian Internet, which elaborated many similarities between the 19th century telegraph and today’s interwebs. One could write a similar book about the early telephone, and in some ways, I guess I am doing just that. (I will next write a book about the Pony Express called The Jacksonian Internet, then a book about CB radio called The Jimmy Carterian Internet, and finally a book about the internet called The Millennial Pneumatic Tube.) I met Standage at this year’s Business History Conference and he cheerfully admitted that he was in the business of “simplification and exaggeration.” After several years of doing the opposite to the history of telephony, simplifying and exaggerating sounds like something fun to try.

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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.