Reach Out and Touch (Hear, See, Smell, Feel) Someone

October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Reach Out and Touch Someone”: one of the most famous advertising slogans of modern times (or, courtesy of my brilliant juvenile wit, “Reach Out and Hit Someone”), although it had nothing to do with the tactile sense. It was ATT’s come-on to use their long-distance telephone service, back in the day when phones had cords and you had one ring tone and one long distance service to choose from, take it or leave it.

The ubiquity of the telephone today is such that there are places in the world where cell phones outnumber homes with running water and electricity. More people in developing countries use cell phones than people in developed areas. Currently, over 500 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa lack power in their homes, but 22 percent of households in the region have mobile phones. Therefore, many people have to walk long distances to charging stations, and pay between 50 cents and a dollar per charge. Scientists and technologists have been at work developing local charging alternatives.

Car batteries and bicycles are commonly rigged to charge cell phones; Nokia has created a bike-powered cell phone charger. Solar panel charging is another alternative. A Harvard team is developing a microbial fuel cell-based mobile phone charger that would allow people in developing nations to charge their phones using the microbes in dirt and manure from their livestock. If the project proves successful, they will be able to build the charger itself in just a few minutes, using readily available materials such as window screens and soda cans, for less than a dollar. It should be able to fully charge a phone within 24 hours.

The cell phone is revolutionizing life in these areas in ways that most Americans cannot comprehend or appreciate.

The humble little Nokia 1100 “candybar” phone and its siblings, abandoned by most Americans more than a decade ago, is still the best-selling cell phone in world history and is the phone of choice in developing countries because of its ruggedness, simplicity and long battery life. Despite the obvious siren call of the smart phone, I still rely on an 1100. Among other things, I like the fact that it stays charged for a week instead of a day, and when I drop it on the floor, it falls apart in pieces that I can snap back together in seconds, instead of throwing away like my daughter did the other day after she dropped her iPhone as she rode her bicycle to school, yakking with a friend.

In 1949, Popular Mechanics magazine predicted that one day in the future, state-of-the-art computers, like the ENIAC – which weighed 30 tons at the time — would weigh only a ton and a half. Computers used vacuum tubes at the time, and the transistor, which in turn begat the semiconductor, was not even a gleam in someone’s eye yet. Nowadays, that iPhone is millions of times more powerful than that 30-ton ENIAC of yore.

And I dare say that most Americans — especially the young people who use smartphones to send hundreds of pointless text messages to their friends every day, as well as pictures they have snapped of themselves in various compromising positions and states of dress, undress, and duress (if you’re into bondage) — take all of this technological wonder for granted.

Folks just aren’t awed by technological advances like they used to be. Which is sad, for the smartphone is a manifestation and amalgamation of at least six of the greatest technological advances in the last 170 years: photography, the telephone, electricity, recorded sound, video, and computation, along with that hoary medieval wonder, typography.

The decades following the Civil War were an age of technological wonder, held in an awe not seen today. As long as we’re on the subject of telephones and manure, let’s take a look at the early, awesome years of the telephone in little old Austin, Texas.

Alexander Graham Bell is commonly credited as the inventor of the first practical telephone. In June 1876, Bell exhibited a telephone prototype at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. By the summer of 1877, the telephone had become a business. The first private lines, which typically connected a businessman’s home and his office, had been placed in service. And the hue and cry for telephone service in Austin began soon after, although it would be several years before local lusts would be fulfilled.

There was a common understanding of just how momentous the inauguration of telephone service would be, but also some misunderstanding as just what the telephone could – and couldn’t – do.

On July 17, 1880, the Austin Statesman noted, “When that little telephone business is in full operation, we will have to be careful how we talk.”

And on April 12, 1881: “Jones, of the commercial college, will soon have the telephones at work and a world of trouble be saved. You can telephone orders for wood, groceries, etc.”

By June 11, 1881, “A few of the population can now telephone each other. Doubting Thomases are informed that when they telephone their wives they are compelled to remain down town to attend lodge, the smell of cloves and coffee will not be conveyed over the wires, as first thought.”

January 10, 1882

The telephone is one of the greatest conveniences known to modern times, and Austin is fortunate to have so affable and courteous a gentleman as Mr. Jones as general manager.

Nowadays, saying “hello” when you answer the phone seems as natural as falling off a bike (although “yeah” is creeping up the charts). But in the early days, there was considerable debate as to how a telephone should be properly answered. Alexander Graham Bell hoped people would answer the phone with the word “ahoy.” The first public telephone exchange, opened in New Haven on Jan. 28, 1878, wavered between “hello” and the fusty “What is wanted?” in its manual. In “A Telephonic Conversation,” a comic sketch written in 1880, Mark Twain reproduced half of an imaginary telephone conversation, with “hello” making an appearance. It represents the first known use of the word in a work of literature. By 1882, “hello” had won out (The Simpsons’ C. Montgomery Burns’ “Ahoy-hoy” notwithstanding), as noted by the Statesman on May 28, 1882: “No telephone will work well unless you say ‘Hello’ as soon as you ring the bell. This should not be neglected.”

For the better part of a century, the telephone directory, along with the Bible, was a staple in Austin households. Then came the day in January 2010 that shook the world: when ATT announced it would no longer include the residential “white pages” listings in its ubiquitous “phonebook,” leaving us with only the “Yellow Pages.”

This was a veritable sea change, compared with August 29, 1882, when the Statesman excitedly announced, “The Austin telephone company is having a new and corrected list of stations prepared, and it is especially desired by the manager that all those contemplating subscribing will do so at once, in order that their names may appear therein. The exchange is a very great convenience to the city, which is the secret of its most liberal patronage.”

By October 1, 1882, there were upwards of 120 telephone stations in the city and the number steadily increasing. Austin already had a greater number of telephone stations than Houston.

But despite the telephone’s increasing numbers and familiarity, Austinites were slow to abandon their notions of its supernatural powers. “It looks suspicious to see a man always take a clove before answering the telephone,” the Statesman said, clove in cheek, on November 30, 1882.

People obviously thought the telephone capable of miraculous doings, and it would be 80 years before “Smello-vision,” a system that released odors during the projection of a film so that the viewer could “smell” what was happening in the movie, began to waft into American lives.

And now, with the continuing convergence of technologies in the smartphone, you may finally have to worry about onion breath when you call your sweetie. And who knows, soon you might finally be able to touch, as well as smell, them.

But as has often been the case with the public’s love affair with new technologies, the scent was soon (at least partially) off the rose, as the Statesman noted on January 31, 1883: “The telephone wires are renewed and put in good order and the morality of the telephone has wonderfully improved, as far as the language used is concerned.” It was, as we shall see, the first of many service complaints to come.

Such as on April 11, 1883:”The telephones have not been working very well for the past few days; at least, people who try to ring up one person and find themselves jarring the tympanum in the ears of half the people in town, do not consider it good telephone work. We are not an expert in regulating telephones and do not know what the cause of the disarrangement is, but point it out at the suggestion of a large number of people so that it can be remedied.”

As with many new technologies, it can take years to iron out all the kinks.

September 25, 1888

The Humming Telephones.

Telephones in this city after night are an unmitigated nuisance. They hum and roar until it is positively painful to put your ear to them. It is said that it is caused by the proximity of the electric light wire. If this is true is it not dangerous to handle the ‘phones after dark?

October 13, 1888

Buzzing Telephones.

It is often impossible to get a message through the telephone at night, owing it is said to the close proximity of the electric wires to the telephone wires. Some weeks since, in answer to a number of complaints, the superintendent of the telephone company stated that efforts were being made to obviate the difficulty and that very soon, it was hoped, the problem of how to overcome the bussing made by the wires would be solved. As much as to say the public would have to bear with the company until they had discovered the remedy. Now, this would place relief too far off. It may be years before it is discovered how to regulate the transmission of sound so as to prevent confusion when more than one sound is made at a time.

And where there are complaints, there are usually jokes, such as this one.

Tried To Show Her.

A good joke is told of an Austin young man who overrated the powers of the telephone.

He had an engagement to take his sweetheart to a sociable, but, happening to an accident on the way to her house, he went to a near telephone to explain to her why he couldn’t fill his engagement.

Going to the instrument he called the inevitable “Hello!”

“Hello again!” came in softest accents.

“Is that you Miss Eula?”

“Yes; is that you, DeWitt?”

“Yes. Say, Miss Eula, I’ve met with a serious accident, and can’t come.”

“O, DeWitt! What is it? Are you hurt much?”

“No, not hurt at all; but –”

“Then, why can’t you come? If you’re not hurt, what is the matter? Please tell me,” with great anxiety and curiosity.

“O, it ain’t much. I’ll tell you some of these days.”

“No, I want to know. I’ll be mad now if you don’t tell me. What is it?” This time make the telephone howl and vibrate.

“Well, if you must know, I’ve torn my best pants from the Rio Grande to the Red River.

“Just look there,” and he raised his coat and turned towards the telephone amidst the roar of laughter from the few who were gathered around. He thought his girl could see through the telephone in his excitement.

They haven’t met since.

Every new technology has unexpected consequences and new uses as it evolves. To wit:

May 31, 1883


The tendency of the age is abbreviation. Steamships are steadily shortening voyages across the ocean; railways are shortening voyages across the land. The telegraph is shortening the intervals of intercourse. The telephone is shortening the abbreviations of the telegraph.

October 27, 1887

Mr. Malch, a young man, was tried before Judge Brackenridge yesterday afternoon on a charge of lunacy. His peculiar weakness seems to be a belief that there is a telephone inside of him which is all the time singing and calling up people who want to kill him. His mania has not been of long duration and there is a chance that he may be cured, but chances are if he were allowed to run at large he might do damage.

By 1889, fashionable young men were serenading their lady loves over the phone.

By 1949, Dick Tracy was using his wristwatch phone to catch crooks.

By 2009, risqué young fashionistas were strip teasing for their beaus over their smartphone.

When Sam Morse first tapped out in 1844, “What hath God wrought?” he set the stage for the miracles of telephony to come. In light of some of the excesses that have come to pass, courtesy of telephony, I’ll close for now by asking, “What rot hath God?”

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