October 17, 2011

Ancient antiquities of good vintage

I have been following E-Bay auctions of late, particularly for manual typewriters (the last manufacturer recently closed for good) and telephones (with dials and cables attached, not the mobile variety).  There are some real bargains to be had, if you're a bit knowledgeable about each item's history and rarity. 

Some sellers try to appear naive: "I cleared out my grandmother's attic and found this old typewriter lying around.  No idea what it's worth but starting price is 100 Euros." Others attach adjectives like "antique" or "vintage" to telephones that are only 20-30 years old in the hope of attracting the high rollers.

It is precisely this arbitrary use of descriptions of age that bothers me.  I can understand a seller wanting to present his wares in the best possible light but when the (nearly new) article is accompanied by a photograph, then a description like "uralt" immediately comes across as incongruous and disingenuous.

Perhaps the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of what exactly we mean by terms like "antique" or "historic".  Or maybe it's a matter of perspective: There are common, household articles that used to be part of my daily life and are merely 'old' or 'outmoded.'  For a sixteen-year old, however, such articles could well be genuine antiques.

August 24, 2011

Life without a telephone

A recent house move left me without a landline connection for a whole week - and all this despite meticulous advance planning.  

The problem apparently was located in a local exchange but the company (not) providing me with a telephone connection kept assuring me that their computers showed my telephone was connected and working.  They never took me seriously when I tried to convince them that their computers were wrong and I was right.  The fact that these numerous "service" calls were conducted via my mobile phone failed to make any impression on them.  If they took the simple expedient step of ringing my landline number, they would soon find out that the line was as dead as a dodo and their computers in need of a serious overhaul.  Luckily they saw the error of their ways by the end of the week and my telephone now works perfectly.

A few days after full service was restored, I received a phone call from a very nice lady in customer relations: she was ringing to check that my telephone was working properly - she rang on my landline phone.  If only they had done this on day one, in the fashion of the early telephone operators who used to make daily telephone calls to subscribers to check if the lines were working.

I'm not a fanatic telephone user - neither mobile nor landline - but I must confess to feeling isolated and cut off from the rest of society during my telephone-less week.  Not just cut off in the sense that I was unreachable by phone for a week but in the sense that, without a telephone connection in the society that I live in, you're not considered fully part of that society.  Many public bodies and services ask for your landline number first; a mobile number is useful but a landline presupposes a fixed address with a householder who is registered in all the correct places.  So with a landline connection, you feel more 'permanent' and an established member of the community.  When people ring your number, they know precisely in which building you are located.  I had to rely on mobile telephony but never felt really safe with it - units might run out during a long phone call, the battery could go flat, I could lose the charger, or quite simply forget to take the phone with me when leaving the house.

What made our grandparents feel permanent and 'connected' to their communities before the telephone became commonplace?  Or did they not need to feel connected?  As an experiment, going cold turkey with telephone use could tell us all a lot about how we view our own personal use and need of the telephone (in a similar fashion to going a whole week or month without television or Internet).  But we can never experience pre-telephony life in this way - what has been learned cannot be unlearned.

June 19, 2011

Manhattan, 1975

A fire breaks out in a New York telephone exchange and is allowed to consume cables and equipment for fifteen hours.  (Incidentally, when were fire sprinklers invented?)  You can well imagine the damage caused by a day-long fire: 90,000 customers in the Manhattan area had to make do without a telephone connection for more than three weeks.

This incident has gone down in telecommunications history as an epic example of what happens to people when they are deprived of their landline telephones.  A study was conducted by Wurtzel and Turner[1] which analysed how subscribers reacted to suddenly being without a telephone.  I know of no other similar incident on such a grand scale as this 1975 event and that’s probably why the impact of the fire, and the results of this survey are still cited today ad nauseum

How often do we get the opportunity to question a large group of people who are deprived of their means of communication with the outside world?  If such a fire occurred today, I don’t think any subscribers would even notice: they are so attached to their mobiles and e-mails that the loss of a landline is neither here nor there.  So an event such as this one in Manhattan was unique. 

The authors introduce their analysis with an acknowledgement that the academic community couldn’t care less about the telephone’s history.  They then proceed to discuss a few academics’ basic assumptions and self-evident truths, on which they base various concepts.  Examples will follow below but first, I wonder whether this lack of interest in any way connects to what I can only term a slipshod method of obtaining results?  Writers often make sweeping statements about telephone use, or its perception by its users, and then use this assumption to construct a conclusion.  The classic example for me will always be: ‘The telephone saved the sanity of farmers’ wives.’  No one has yet produced a farmer’s wife that has uttered these words herself.  Once this idea enters the debate then everyone uses it as a given and builds further on it.

Now to the examples of assumptions I mentioned above. 
  1. The function of an urban, domestic telephone is to reduce loneliness, increase feelings of security, and maintain contact with family/friends.
  2. The telephone “facilitates dispersion” of family members: “I’ll take that job 3,000 miles away – I can always ring the folks at home once a week.”
  3. The telephone breaks down our urban lifespaces into “psychological networks”

What problems do I have with these assumptions?
  1. Granted, these are some of the functions an urban, domestic telephone can perform, but not the only ones.  And certainly these functions vary according to the gender, class, race, etc. of the user.  Why - and if so, how - should the function of a telephone differ in an urban setting to that of a rural telephone? 
  2. I’ve said this somewhere else (can’t remember where).  People are more mobile today than previous generations.  They change cities/countries/continents for a variety of reasons: to find work, begin studies, follow a sweetheart …  These are big changes in a person’s life and he weighs up the pros and cons before committing himself.  I’ve emigrated twice and left friends/family behind but I’ve never said: ‘thank goodness there’s the telephone so that I can ring home now and again.  It doesn’t matter, then, that I’ll live/work too far away to see them.’  This factor comes at the bottom of a person’s list of arguments.
  3. Is the telephone solely responsible for creating these psychological networks?  Certainly today there are numerous other factors that play a role in creating these networks, for example, e-mail, social network sites.
  4. The survey authors formulated the questions to be put to Manhattan subscribers specifically to address the assumptions they had.  If, for instance, we believe the telephone reduces loneliness then we should expect to see subscribers complaining about isolation and uneasiness during their three-week bout of unconnectedness.  I would have liked to see the questions for myself.  From the article, it seems that people were not given the chance to express themselves in their own words, rather they had to agree/disagree with set statements – putting words in their mouths.  This is much like the tricks of pollsters during electioneering who ask questions such as: Which politician do you think would make the best prime minister, Mr A or Mr B?  They never give you the option of answering: both are crap.
  5. Finally, it’s the matter of having assumptions.  I think it’s dangerous to assume anything in the first place.  Collect data, sort, analyse, conclude.

Some other details emerged that made an impression on me, although I don’t know yet whether these are significant details or not.

About 25% of all New York telephones then were ex-directory.  I would be interested to learn if this percentage has changed at all over the decades and if there is any difference by country.  Having an unlisted number, I believe, changes the nature of your telephone network.  You are no longer freely available to every Tom, Dick and Harry who has access to a telephone directory.  Instead, when the telephone rings, you know it can only be someone to whom you have given your number, i.e. someone known to you personally.  Otherwise, it could be a wrong number.  This changes your telephone into something akin to a private, internal network.

Then there’s the question of actual numbers of subscribers surveyed.  Researchers were given the telephone numbers of 600 people they could contact, randomly selected.  Of those 600, 319 were eligible to participate (the others were, for example, business premises).  From the 319, only 190 actually completed the survey – some people refused, some people were never at home when researchers rang.  190 people out of c.1,500,000 Manhattan residents[2] doesn’t seem very many (0.0126% of the Manhattan population to be precise) and if we place the 190 guinea pigs in the context of New York city’s population, then the proportion disappears into infinity.

I believe a similar survey conducted with respondents from a variety of geographical regions – urban, suburban, rural – would yield different results. It would also be good to compare the US with Britain/Europe.  Utopian, I know, but one can dream.

All these people lost their telephone connection due to a company accident.  They were forced to manage without a telephone.  Would they have given different answers if they had never lost their connection, that it to say, just answering questions generally about how they use their telephones?

Residents really didn’t have many options during their three weeks of abstention.  Remember what it was like in 1975?  These people had to resort to the emergency street telephones made available to them or use the telephone at work.  Ten per cent of respondents actually sat down and wrote letters.  In essence, unless they had access to a telephone elsewhere, there was no other substitute for immediate interaction

The authors believe that if additional research is conducted what will emerge from respondents is a sense of frustration at not being able to make calls.  Reading between the lines, I interpret this to mean: I want the service to be always available, whether I need it or not.

In conclusion – I’m not disputing the validity of these findings, rather the absolute nature of the authors’ assertions – ‘the telephone reduces loneliness,’ ‘it disperses families.’  It may be a fault in how the writers word their theories but to me it comes across as absolute, categorical and allowing of no other alternatives.

[1] Alan H. Wurtzel, and Colin Turner, “What Missing the Telephone Means,” Journal of Communication 27 (2) June 1977: 48-57.
[2] According to Wikipedia.

June 11, 2011

The communication practices of the Victorians ... spiced up with a scandalous divorce

I have trawled through a handful of etiquette manuals, looking for advice to readers on telephone use.  All in vain.  The British publications pointedly avoid any mention of the new invention, even those published in later years after 1910.  The contents of these manuals are oh so predictable – visiting, invitations to balls/dinners/teas, weddings, funerals.  It seems these were the core events in one’s social calendar and members of the monied classes had to be able to negotiate their way through this minefield.  These were fixed, long established rituals which people observed in order to maintain the traditions of their class.  (Whether these were ‘invented traditions’ à la Hobsbawm is a subject for another thesis.) 

Why should lords and ladies incorporate the upstart telephone into their routines and upset tradition?  The people who read conduct manuals were probably the ones in a position to own a telephone, but that doesn’t mean they would use the instrument to conduct their social affairs.  It might be useful for ringing up one’s business premises or for ordering coal, but such an instrument, ‘tainted’ as it were by business matters, was inappropriate for inviting guests to dinner.  I think remnants of this attitude are still visible today.  There are some aspects of social business that you just don’t conduct over the telephone: wedding invitations, for example, or ‘Dear John’ letters.  I’ve never heard of a ‘Dear John’ telephone call or of someone being notified of a forthcoming wedding by telephone.  Well, they might, but they always send a fancy card by post later.

Lady Colin’s manual is no different to all the others of the era.  It makes no mention whatsoever of the telephone.  It is as if it didn’t exist.  She readily acknowledges, however, that modern life is hectic and that there is little time to devote to letter writing.  How much time she would save if she used the telephone. 

Regarding domestic use, telephone companies said it was alright to ring up traders to order supplies for the household.  Not so Lady Colin.  She advises writing a short letter, and even provides an example: “Mrs. Maitland will be obliged by Mr. Scott sending her 6lb. of tea.”  Admittedly, this method is not as speedy as a phone call, but if you can send a boy round to the shop with the note, you would still get same-day service.  And you would avoid the unpleasant necessity of having to actually converse with tradespeople.  Good houses had separate tradesmen entrances for deliveries, out of sight at the back of the building.  So we don’t want to invite tradesmen directly into our parlours via the telephone.

The writer makes further mention of post cards.  Towards the end of the century sending postcards became a popular form of communication among ordinary people.  Postage for a card was cheaper than a letter and with multiple deliveries in many large towns, it was possible sometimes to send a card and receive a reply on the same day.  You could say that post cards were to Victorians what Twitter is to us today.  Space was limited (you couldn’t add an extra sheet, as with letters) so messages had to be concise.  Lady Colin, however, advises against them for personal matters: post cards are only to be used for business transactions. 

Privacy was a major concern for these people.  Post cards entering and leaving a house would be seen by servants and the information written on them freely visible to all and sundry.  Even more paranoid, to my mind, is Lady C advising letter writers not to write their return address on the backs of envelopes.  Why?  Because servants at the receiving end would know who was writing to their employers.  Compare this with today’s business correspondence: every bill or official letter I receive is blazoned with the sender’s full details. 

I written a lot about communication and correspondence but very little about the telephone.  That’s okay because we are gradually building a picture of how people at the turn of the century communicated with each other and what attitudes they held towards each method.  Given what we now know about, say, letter writing or postal services, it’s easy to envisage how difficult it was for promoters of the telephone to convince the public of its utility. 

I suspect that the telephone eventually caught on, not so much because people realized it was a good communications device, but rather because the other means of communication deteriorated. 

A final comment about the author – Lady Colin was a victim of the hypocrisy and double standards of the day.  Wikipedia has all the sordid details and there’s also information here written by Lady Colin’s biographer.
Her divorce proceedings caused great agitation in high society and the same society ostracized her for her transgression.  Instead of quietly retiring into obscurity, Lady C took to writing and journalism and mixed in literary and artistic circles.  How fitting then that she should edit a book dictating good manners to the people who vilified her.  

Lady Colin Campbell.  Etiquette of Good Society.  London: Cassell and Company, 1893.

Victorian call centres

Victorians had qualities which mark them out even to this day: thrift, hard work, a practical nature, a mentality of self-help.  Such qualities, I believe, are borne out of the nature of their society; there was no social security network, for example, to go to when they fell on hard times.  If there was no family to help, then people in distress would have to rely on their own resources.

Widows were especially vulnerable.  Losing a husband meant they had to become the breadwinner overnight.  For women of the lower classes, going out to work was not so remarkable and it was relatively easy to earn money.  The major forms of employment were domestic service or factory work.  For the middle class woman, however, paid employment was simply not an option.  The most she could hope for was a position as governess or companion to old ladies.  Both meant living in and a drop in social status.  And the money earned would have been peanuts.

One highly practical solution for such widows was the practice of giving them a sewing machine as a present.  This was not charity and allowed the widow to become self-sufficient.  Working from home, the widow maintains respectability, and performs a task considered appropriate for women.  She could receive orders for new garments or domestic textiles, or take in alterations.

But why bother with a sewing machine?  Close needlework ruins your eyesight (remember, they only had gas or oil lamps then) and you get a hump back bending over your work.  Some projects would take days or weeks to finish.  A much better alternative to the donated sewing machine is – wait for it – a telephone. 

A writer identifying herself (I think we can safely assume the writer is female) as “Self Help” sent in a suggestion to an 1884 periodical,[1] saying that the gift of a telephone connection to the central exchange is an inordinately better income generator than a sewing machine.  Here are some of the ways the widow can exploit her telephone (and simultaneously exploit her friends):
  1. Send out flyers to her lady friends that she can now order goods on their behalf from local traders, who are also connected by telephone.  They might order the following: flowers, fish, theatre tickets, coal, wine.  The writer believes that traders would be willing to pay the widow 10% commission for all orders she puts their way.
  2. She could allow merchants and their employees to use her telephone for business purposes.  They pay a few pennies to the widow and telephone the office to say they would be an hour late. 

Given a choice, I would opt for the telephone.  It’s much easier than labouring over a sewing machine that’s not even electric.  Turning your front parlour into a one-woman call centre has a lot going for it – intense networking with friends and local business people; no commuting every day; being at home to look after children.

This idea surfaced during the telephone's first decade in Britain.  It shows amazing entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking on how to put a new technology to good use.

I still maintain that the technological practices and gadgets that we consider ultra modern and super digital are not in the slightest bit new or original – they are merely faster/bigger/cheaper versions of what the Victorians did before us.

[1] Work and leisure: a magazine devoted to the interests of women.  London: F. Kirby, 1884.

June 9, 2011

Sex discrimination, in the opposite direction

“There are now 120 women in the Berlin telephone exchanges.  It has been decided to use only women in the future, as it has been found that their voices are much more audible than men’s, owing to the higher pitch.”

The American Magazine, 1891

… and, of course, you don’t have to pay a woman such high wages, as you would a man.

June 8, 2011

Just a copper wire

New York, 1888









I am a copper wire slung in the air,
Slim against the sun I make not even a clear line of shadow.
Night and day I keep singing--humming and thrumming:
It is love and war and money; it is the fighting and the
     tears, the work and want,
Death and laughter of men and women passing through
     me, carrier of your speech,
In the rain and the wet dripping, in the dawn and the
     shine drying,

               A copper wire.

Carl Sandburg composed this short poem in 1916.  In just a few brief lines, he manages to capture the pure simplicity of telephony - one single copper wire strung up in the street, which carries all of human experience: life and death, love and hate.  Conveying human speech, the wire itself speaks with its (his? her?) own voice in the first person to us directly.

And what a refreshing change to read something from this era that talks of "men and women" and not the bland, generic "Mankind" or "Man."  Of course, when contemporaries wrote of mankind, especially in the context of telecommunications, they usually inferred men, excluding women.  Sandburg redresses the balance by including women as telephone users.

Incidentally, his mention of wires being exposed to the elements brings to mind those epic old photographs of telephone wires collapsing in snow storms.  Derricks perched on rooftops throughout urban centres were easily felled when the wind was strong.  They were loaded with wires (one for each subscriber) and engineers had to start from scratch when the whole structure came down.

June 6, 2011

"Selling Talk"

I came across another little gem in the Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company publication, "Telephone Facts" of 1915.  Remember, this is a journal the company sent out to its business customers (telephone companies) who were in the market for telephones, switchboards, and sundry accessories.

Strategically positioned on the first inside page is a short sales pitch that salesmen can use to market the telephone to potential subscribers.  What is interesting is that the piece does not focus at all on the technical aspects of the telephone apparatus, its durability, technological features, innovation and such like.  Instead, the only selling point the salesman should emphasise is talk.  This is the commodity that the telephone man deals in.  Even more surprising (to me, at least) is the fact that the writer mentions that it doesn't matter if the talk is important or trivial, it is still significant.

Ads such as these link to Claude Fischer's discussion about how American telephone companies suddenly discovered sociability and how, surprise surprise, encouraging people to be sociable was good for business.  We then see a gradual turnaround in telephone companies' attitudes: they ceased promoting the telephone purely for 'serious' business use and stopped berating women who insisted on abusing the telephone for mere trivia.  Now gossip was good.

Everyone involved in the telephone business, from lineman, contract man to operator, was reminded: "you sell talk."

This is all well and good and highly interesting, but what happened in Britain?  It is well known that the telephone service in Britain was grossly under-developed (and dare I even say, backward?) in comparison.  Certainly, in 1915 there was no massive, national advertising campaign undertaken by the General Post Office.  War concerns were more pressing, but even after the war, it would be a long time before any concerted efforts were made to promote the service.  

How the GPO promoted the telephone service is one huge area still awaiting intensive research.  I can't wait to get started!!


June 5, 2011

"Has the telephone killed the old-fashioned love letter?"

Apparently, yes.  The 1915 American trade magazine Telephone Facts hosted an article which counts the costs of telephony for courting couples.  The anonymous author acknowledges that a young lady may appreciate the conveniences of a domestic telephone connection, but this comes at a price, the price being a packet of letters from her beau, tied with a ribbon (perhaps with dried flowers), stashed at the back of her drawer.  

An ephemeral telephone call leaves no trace, moods are misinterpreted, details of the conversation may be forgotten.  A tangible letter, however, with visible signs left by its creator, can be re-read, touched, smelled.

A telephone call is easy for the boy: he can just ring up for a chat on an impulse, but sitting down to compose a letter requires time and effort.  And he'd much rather hear his beloved's voice over the "talking wire" than receive a dozen letters from her.  The same cannot be said for the girl.  She too would love to hear his voice but there are disadvantages: crossed lines, eavesdroppers, a hundred pairs of curious ears listening in on the party line.  (Admittedly, the writer's sexist bias is showing through; the same arguments are, of course, valid if the roles are reversed.)

The article was obviously penned by an agony aunt or an arbiter of public manners.  Those few etiquette manuals that devoted space to telephone use, relegated its use to informal circles.  Certainly where courtship is concerned, a visit or an outing could be chaperoned, but not so a telephone call.

I think there is a grain of truth in the writer's assertions.  A phone call from a loved one is always welcome, but a letter or card, however brief and simple, requires so much more effort on the writer's part.  Aside from the difficulty in choosing the right words, you have to find writing paper, pen, envelope, a stamp, and then go out and find a postbox (if it's the butler's day off).  It is this extra effort that makes the letter so valuable to the receiver, even though it is not consciously thought about.

It is for these reasons that I treasure all the letters I've received from friends and family and store them safe with my photographs.  I don't think we can say the same for messages of endearment sent by SMS.

Wordle: Telephones and Love Letters

June 4, 2011

“Fass dich kurz!”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the price we pay for each telephone call we make determines the quality of the call and its contents.  And by ‘quality’ I don’t mean whether the connection is successful or if the line is scratchy.

Let me elaborate by drawing a comparison.

In the old days, when domestic telephones used to be situated in hallways and before multiplexing made its appearance, telephone users were more cautious about making a call.  If they did eventually decide that, yes, the call was necessary, they made sure they got off the line as quickly as possible.  By today’s standards, the cost of making phone calls then was much more expensive.  With charges determined by call duration and geographical destination, short local calls were cheaper.  And if you had a lot to say to someone who lived on another continent, then write a letter.

In my first job I worked in an office where every telephone was plastered with stickers reminding people to ring after 1.00 p.m. when off-peak calls were cheaper.  You were only justified in making morning calls in life-or-death situations.  Mornings were always blissfully quiet, but the afternoons erupted as all the telephones went crazy and rang non-stop.  Try telling your office workers today not to make calls during morning hours.

My supervisor remembers making telephone calls as a teenager (again in her home’s hallway) and having her father shout at her to be brief.  Anecdotal evidence shows that this is by no means an unusual experience in the early twentieth century.  In those days, time really was money.

Now that I think about it, making phone calls in the earlier decades must have been very much like using Twitter: you had to be short and succinct to get your message across in as few words as possible.  No waffling on for hours on end.

Most people choose to pay a flat rate for their telephone connection, mobile or landline.  Quite often they get the whole package – telephone, internet, television. 

When you’re talking on the telephone, your mind is free of the torment of the ticking clock.  You can talk for two minutes or two hours, the price is the same. 

You no longer have to think twice about whether the call is really essential or not.  You can ring someone up to be purely sociable, to catch up on gossip, or just because you’ve got absolutely nothing better to do and want to ease the boredom of a long train journey (and have no reading material to hand).  Those bores that use their mobiles to drone on in public places about their inane existence are well known examples.

The comparison
Now I come to my point about call quality.  If the cost of the telephone call is cheap, you don’t give a second thought to lifting up the receiver.  It doesn’t seem such a waste then to use the telephone for trivial reasons.  With timed, expensive calls, on the other hand, you really question the necessity of making that call.  Anyone who has ever had to make an important call from a public phone box with just one 10p coin will understand the implications.

Perhaps there is an element of technological determinism here.  The nature of our telephone network (and its pricing structure) shapes not only our communications practices but also our attitudes towards that network.

I’ll finish off with a salutary lesson for ardent telephone users.  Last month Amtrak officials threw a woman off a night train after passengers complained that she had been speaking loudly on her phone, for 15 hours.  I’m left wondering – what on earth did this woman find to talk about for 15 hours?

May 13, 2011

Franz Göll’s cultural capital

Reading an account of Berliner Franz Göll’s life (1899-1984), I imagine him as a bit of a dandy.  He was quite a clothes horse; he bought fedora hats (nine of them in the space of seven years), gloves, bow ties and all the accoutrements of the middle class lifestyle that he aspired to.  But it is not Göll’s sartorial elegance that impresses me – he was after all a bachelor and could indulge himself as he pleased – but rather his trips to the cinema.  The numbers are impressive.  Beginning in 1919 he went to the cinema 19 times (once every 2.7 weeks).  Over the years this increased until 1926, when he made 74 visits to the cinema, once and sometimes twice a week!  Another diarist of the Weimar era (Klemperer) reports that every day 2 million Germans visited the cinema.

I tried to imagine myself doing what Göll did; visiting the cinema at least once, maybe twice a week.  Without a television at home and perhaps no radio, the cinema would be my only source of entertainment and information.  News reels, of course, would have lent an air of currency to a visit.  Did they change the programme so frequently that I could see a different film every time?  Even by visiting cinemas in other neighbourhoods?  And were the films so good that I would be prepared to fork out for an evening’s entertainment something from my modest wage?  

In comparison, today’s cinematic offerings are not that appetizing and the complexes throughout the city all show more or less the same films.  (If you’re lucky, you might find an alternative, non-Hollywood picture house tucked away in some back alley that shows European productions, but this would be an exception.)  

I can only think that Göll was trying to increase his share of cultural capital.  When he wasn't visiting the cinema, he attended concerts, operettas, and theatre - comedy and heavier stuff.  I don't think he spent many evenings at home after work. 

Would I want to go to the cinema every week, or even twice a week?  I don’t think so, even if the films shown were Oscar-winning material and my favourite genre.  I couldn’t keep it up for a whole year and would give up after a month.  What was it that kept Göll motivated?  It might have been a novelty in the beginning but surely not after seven years.  Göll kept a film diary but sadly this has disappeared; we’ll never know which films he saw and what his impressions were.  

A postscript - Göll died in 1984 but stopped writing his journals in 1982.  Why did he give up his writing, something that he had been doing for sixty-six years?  One possible reason could be the colour television be bought a couple of years earlier.  Could be coincidental, but I think not.

Fritzsche, Peter.  The Turbulent World of Franz Göll.  An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century.  Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2011.

April 21, 2011

Heard, but not seen – invisible technologies in the home

Our homes are filled with no end of technologies, simple and complicated.  Most people, however, would rather not see these devices, or at least have them disguised in some way in order to blend in with the furnishings.  Here are just some examples.

Light switches and electrical sockets come in functional white plastic but also a multitude of other colours and materials to suit; Georgian brass, for instance.

In the days when domestic telephones came attached to a cable, you could buy one in any colour of the rainbow.  You could always find the right one to match the wallpaper.  Today’s cordless versions are usually lost somewhere under a pile, so the colour is largely irrelevant.

Televisions that came in wooden cabinets, so that when the doors were closed, it looked like a drinks cabinet.  Today’s fancy screens that are mounted on living room walls resemble modern art.

Radios too were housed in cabinets.

Let’s not forget the current fashion for retro style products – candlestick telephones, wartime wireless sets, fridges that look like they came straight out of a 40s American diner – the latest technology but dressed up like an antique.

There are still many housewives from the old school who cover their ‘black boxes’ with pretty lace cloths and other fripperies so that they blend in more.  A small digression here: one of the reasons why my friend Margaret got divorced was because her ex didn’t like her putting table cloths on top of his new two-metre-high stereo loudspeakers.  He said it ruined the sound effect.  She said they were an eyesore.  Anyway …  Household technologies are not meant to be seen for what they really are.

You may also recall a post that gave homemakers instructions on how to make decorative telephone screens, with matching covers for the telephone directory.  Useful though these items were, they were too ugly to be on public display.

In the same era in Weimar Germany, Walter Gropius advocated a concealment of domestic technologies.  Yes, water, electricity, heating, telephones and suchlike are vital but we should not be confronted with evidence of their presence.  In a Bauhaus home these functions should be invisible.  “One wants to be served, but the presence of the servant should not be allowed to make us feel uncomfortable.”

Walter Gropius, Paul Schultze-Naumberg.  “Wer hat Recht? Traditionelle Baukunst oder Bauen in neuen Formen.”  Uhu, no.7 (April 1926)

Redslob's string telephone

Cultural historian Edwin Redslob (1884-1973), like Walter Benjamin, wrote a retrospective of his childhood years, where he talks of the arrival of new technologies in his family.  (Also described here.)

He remembers the coming of electric light into his home.  Up until then, the family used kerosene lamps in all the rooms.  A line of them was set up in the hallway, ready for use once it became dark.  Despite the smell and inconvenience, kerosene lamps are intimately tied in his memory with hearing his father read.  After supper, father would read out loud to the family, while other members would draw or work on their stamp collection, under the dim, but warm, glow of the lamp.  These were “cosy hours” in Redslob’s childhood memories.  In contrast, electric lighting was “unpleasantly bright.”  The light illuminated too much – not only did it light up the room well, but it also dispersed the cosiness of old, like bright sunshine dissipating morning mist.  Electricity was expensive for the family in the beginning and it seemed counterproductive to dim the light bulbs or use a lamp shade.  His father, however, maintained the tradition of a kerosene lamp for use in his own study.

Redslob also remembers his first encounter with the telephone.  These were of the kind that were affixed to the wall and you used a crank handle to call the exchange.  Accompanying his father to the bank one day, the clerk showed the boy the new telephone and said he could make a telephone call.  Young Redslob was confused – he didn’t know anyone he could call, nor what he should say.  The clerk suggested he ring the local hotel to ask if Director Müller had arrived from Berlin.  The boy spoke into the telephone and a hotel porter told him that indeed the director had arrived.  Once outside in the street, Redslob sneaked away from his father and ran to the hotel that he had just telephoned.  It took him at least five minutes.  He was amazed at the time difference between telephoning the hotel and running to the hotel to speak to the porter in person.

His father bought him a toy telephone – two cardboard boxes joined with a piece of string.  It kept Redslob and his brother amused for hours.  They climbed up their garden trees and tried to hold a telephone conversation, but without much success of course.  Simple face-to-face conversation was much easier, he observes.  But he still enjoyed his new ‘telephone’; in common with most boys, he liked it because it was modern and technical.

April 20, 2011

An American in London

Arthur Warren.  London Days.  A Book of Reminiscences.  Little, Brown, 1920.

Arthur Warren was the long-standing London correspondent for the Boston Herald.  In 1920 he published his reminiscences, London Days, where he discussed a variety of subjects: his memories and impressions of Tennyson, Gladstone, Parnell; his struggle to become a journalist, and suchlike.

Warren first set foot in London in 1878, as a naïve 18-year-old fresh off the boat from New York.  He begins his narrative with ‘First glimpses of London’ with predictable references to Dickensian atmosphere, fog and gas lamps.  This theme continues throughout – presumably he thinks this is what his readers expect/want to read.

As you read through London Days, it soon becomes clear that Warren enjoys what I can only describe as a masochistic enjoyment of past hardships.  He maligns contemporary passengers on transatlantic voyages who enjoy on-board luxuries like deckchairs, barber shops, electric bells and good dinners.  Warren had none of these on his first Atlantic crossing, and he spent the entire voyage being seasick in his cabin.  His depiction of the austere conditions on his own ship bring to mind Ahab’s Pequod, for reasons I know not.

Another aspect of past life that he enjoyed was the absence of speedy travel.  In the days before the internal combustion engine and electricity (then the only thing electric was the telegraph), Warren enjoyed going places – slowly and leisurely – and he laments the loss of this “charm.”  “We were not in a hurry then.”  He sees the slow pace as something that made London a “more livable place.”

Strangely, one hardship of London life that he finds intolerable is the lack of heating and hot water in public and private buildings.  He finds English buildings damp and chilly, and everyone suffers from rheumatism.  American homes, on the other hand, are warm and dry.  A heated building is such an exception that the fact is advertised.  In this respect he has a point.  Many advertisements of the era for hotels, for example, stress the fact that bedrooms and public rooms are heated.  Today, this strikes us as peculiar and a modern analogous ad might read 'All rooms equipped with beds.'

He engages in the national pastime of bashing London architecture (nothing new here).  “Could anything be uglier than the National Gallery?” he asks rhetorically.  For him, “the Methodist mountain in Westminster is frozen pudding.”   

Warren demonstrates a touch of nationalistic chauvinism.  He thinks London’s buildings are the worst in Europe, apart from those in Germany.  Communications are poor, as the telephone is “almost unknown to-day” (1920) in comparison to New York’s statistics.

If life in London was so abysmal, you might wonder why he spent his entire adult life working there.  I think the answer lies in the fact that his job allowed him to rub shoulders with the great and the good of British society.  A few of the names that he drops include Lord Tennyson, Gladstone and Lord Kelvin.  He was acquainted with some of the notables he writes about; with others he barely knew them.

Even with a primary text such as this, written during the era under examination, one must be ultra cautious.  In theory, Warren should be writing objectively, since he is a journalist.  We see that the reality is somewhat different.  The author earns his living as a wordsmith and needs all his skills in rhetoric and presentation.  Let us not forget as well that Warren wrote his book when he was sixty.  How have the intervening forty-odd years coloured his judgement and memory?

In the end, I ask myself why Warren could find nothing positive to say about his environment in 1920.  Were things really that bad, even two years after the end of World War I?

Why was he more nostalgic about the past?  How can people look back at the past and see it only through rose-tinted spectacles?  Once you have tasted the present and experienced the material comforts that new technologies afford, how can you still yearn for the time before?

April 18, 2011

“Berlin Childhood Around 1900”

In the 1930s Walter Benjamin began writing his memories of childhood life in Berlin at the turn of the century.  His collection was only published after his death.

One cannot in any way describe Benjamin’s account as an autobiography, to do so would be a slight.  It is more an assembly of portraits or vignettes of places, objects and experiences that made a lasting impression on the writer.  He devotes one such essay to the telephone, hence my interest.

Benjamin maintains the illusion of freshness that comes from a child describing something new and wondrous in his home, but at the same time tempers this with the experience and maturity of adulthood.  These two aspects of his narrative merge together seamlessly.

In his discussion of the telephone, Benjamin orders household objects into a hierarchy.  In the beginning, items like chandeliers, potted palms, and fire screens enjoyed pride of place in the front rooms of his family’s home.  With the passage of time, however, these “died a natural death” and were displaced by newer objects.  The telephone, previously “exposed to die” could now make its appearance in the front room, which was now cleaner and brighter.  The rooms are now occupied by a younger generation (who presumably understand and tolerate the new technology better than their elders) who have brought the telephone in from the wilderness of the dark hallway.

Benjamin remembers how the telephone was condemned in the beginning to sit between the dirty-linen hamper and the gas meter in a corner of the back hallway (not even the front one).  Like dirty washing and the gas meter, obviously the telephone was seen as a necessary evil, and not one that you would be proud for your visitors to see.  Its promotion to the front room shows spectacular social mobility in the upwards direction.

How did Benjamin’s family react to the telephone’s ringing?  Well, he recalls the curses and threats his father directed towards operators.  If the British press is anything to go by, then complaints against telephone companies and their employees seem to be a European norm and nothing new in the early days of telephony.  Benjamin’s school friends would also ring him at midday and wake up his parents from their siesta.  This did not go down very well with the parents but Benjamin himself questions how this new technology was changing cultural practices.

The ringing of the bell increased “the terrors of the Berlin household.”  The young Benjamin needed great effort to master all his emotions, fumble his way down the dark passage, and “quell the uproar.”

It is rare to read someone’s first impressions of a new technology, even rarer to find an account given with such articulation.

Browsing through Berlin Childhood I found another piece entitled “The Larder.”  Expecting to read rhapsodies about home-made jams and hams hung up to dry, I was proven pleasantly wrong.

Benjamin describes how his sneaks into the pantry for a secret feast.  His allusions to illicit rendezvous and sensuous experiences are deliciously naughty (no pun intended) but also just a little disturbing, if you remember that he is talking about childhood memories.  Nevertheless, the images conjured up are delightful.  Here’s a small taster (again, no pun intended) as the boy Walter silently enters the pantry: “my hand slipped through the crack of the barely opened cupboard as a lover slips through the night …”

Walter Benjamin.  Berlin Childhood Around 1900.  tr. Howard Eiland.

April 4, 2011

Brown's, the telegraph, and Kenya

Still prattling about Brown’s hotel and its promotion of new communications technologies, the establishment also provided “news tape” for its distinguished guests.  Presumably, important guests wanted to keep abreast of developments in commerce and government and such news would have been provided via telegraph, to ensure its currency.  The hotel had its own telegraphic address (BROWNOTEL, LONDON); for this personalised address, they would have had to pay a fee to a telegraph company.  They may indeed have had their own telegraph equipment on the premises.  Another aside, telegraphs are, of course, obsolete today in western societies.  The fax machine and now e-mail have hammered the final nail in the telegraph’s coffin.  But you still find telegraphs in full use in other continents.  Many of Kenya’s government ministries still quote their telegraphic addresses on official documents.  I wouldn’t call this a digital divide as such; it’s more of another communications string to their bow.  The telegraph can work with one wire and batteries at each end – handy to know in Africa when you can’t rely on a source of electricity for your computer 24/7.

If you wanted to send a message and not pay a fortune then you needed Low’s Pocket Cable Code.   Published in 1894, it was a cryptic text intended for travellers who wanted to send telegrams.  It listed thousands of individual words and their associated meaning, thus enabling long messages to be sent economically.  For example, “formerly” meant “Diphtheria of a severe form.”  Low’s gives another example using Brown’s Hotel: “Glorify Wednesday Brownotel” translates to “Engage two single-bedded rooms for Wednesday, Brown’s Hotel, London.”  How did the word ‘glorify’ come to signify ‘book two single rooms’?  Beats me.  But it’s fun looking through this code book and seeing just what kind of messages people wanted to send.

Brown's hotel and Bell

I came across an advertisement for Brown’s Hotel in Dover Street, which appeared in an 1887 book about the London season.

I’m always fascinated by old ads: not only is the language quaint and decidedly un-commercial, but they state things that today we would find self-evident.  This ad mentions, for example, the availability of electric lights in all rooms, lifts and telephones.  (Remember, this is 1887).  Just to clarify, there was no extra charge for the electric light.  As an aside, when ads cease to mention the unique selling point of telephones in bedrooms, then we can safely assume that telephones have become invisible and taken for granted.

Compare Brown’s with the Midland Grand Hotel (St. Pancras) which threw open its doors in 1873.  Despite its luxurious fittings and decor, the building had no running hot water or plumbing.  A battalion of maids had to run upstairs with buckets of hot water for the guests’ baths, and down again to empty chamber pots.  If I were a hotel maid, I would much prefer to work at Brown’s. 

I have also read (unverifiable) accounts that Alexander Graham Bell stayed at the hotel on his first visit to Britain to demonstrate his new invention.  It is also said that the first telephone call in Britain was made from the hotel by Bell.  I shall take this with a fistful of salt until I can find a source.  No end of famous personalities are connected with Brown’s and much is made of the Kipling connection (there is a suite dedicated to him).  If, however, the historical connection with Bell is correct, then the hotel management seems a bit bashful about it.

April 2, 2011

Peter Fritzsche’s Berlin

** A post dedicated to Berfrois, and to all students of Berlin.

Peter Fritzsche has published extensively on European history.  Here I look at two of his books that focus on Berlin.  They are not histories of the city per se, but rather depictions of the city as seen by its inhabitants.  Inevitably the accounts are subjective: the protagonists select their tales and how they are presented, as does the author in retelling them.  But then, isn’t all history like this?

Reading Berlin 1900

Fritzsche constructs Berlin as seen through its newspapers.  The newspapers themselves produce the metropolis and at the same time, are products of the metropolis.  Fritzsche examines how the image of the newspaper conveys the modern spirit of urban life.  We see the coming into being of a new urbanised Berlin.

Fritzsche gives us a ‘grand narrative’ version of urban life but he tempers this with poignant vignettes that remind us there is a human face to historical accounts.  Two instances stick in my mind.  The first concerns an account of the murder of little Lucie Berlin (how appropriate her surname is!) who was killed in 1904 and her dismembered body dumped in the Spree river.  (For the morbid amongst you, here's a picture of the spot where she was found.) The police investigation was the first one to use forensic science to prove that blood stains discovered were of human, and not animal, origin.  My apartment building (constructed 1905) is of a similar type to Lucie’s.  The apartments did not have bathrooms and residents shared toilets that were situated on the stair landing between floors.  It was from such a toilet that Lucie was abducted.  Lucie’s story was a perverse blessing for newspaper editors – stories like these helped circulation numbers tremendously.

Fritzsche’s second portrait is of an old widow who sits in her window seat observing the comings and goings of people in the central courtyard of her apartment building.  All the old apartment blocks have an interior courtyard, overlooked by windows from all the flats around the courtyard.  (My exhibitionist neighbours opposite have no net curtains in their windows and I know that the girl is hard working and leaves the flat every day while it’s still dark, while her lay-about boyfriend takes his leisurely breakfast after 9.00 a.m. in his curtainless kitchen … but I digress.)  Today’s courtyards are filled with rubbish bins and rusty bicycles.  In 1900 children played there safely and women sat outside chatting.

It is this blending of the public and private lives of Berlin that makes this account so readable.  Fritzsche merely draws out a couple of threads and elaborates on these. 

I found the author’s version of Berlin to be ‘unheimlich’: different but the same.  There were the known landmarks, the streets that I traverse, the city trams I travel on, the way of life – all these are familiar yet at the same time strange, because they belong to a different age.  An epoch that wasn’t too long ago but just far enough back to be unreachable.

The Turbulent World of Franz Göll. An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century.

I am struggling to find an explanation but when I read a description of Göll’s life, I immediately remembered the German film The lives of others (Das Leben der Anderen).  Even though the film is set in 1980s East Berlin, both narratives share the same atmosphere and tone.  Considering the timelines, the film could even pick up where Göll’s life finishes.

Perhaps we should be wary of Göll’s account; was he writing for himself or for his putative readers?  His self-awareness as an author undoubtedly would colour his writing.  Regardless of our misgivings on the veracity of Göll’s account, we must still be glad that we have a first-hand account of historical events, even if this account has been mediated by Fritzsche.

Timewise, Göll continues after Reading Berlin but there is a sense of disjuncture. Perhaps this is my fault; maybe I’m trying to find a continuation or connection where none exists.  Had Göll been born a couple of decades earlier, he would have had adult experience of the events in Reading Berlin and written about them.  There is again a mix of the public and private: an ‘ordinary’ man’s take on big events. And it is ‘ordinary’ that is the key word in the book’s title.  We have a clerk’s voice to add to that of the Establishment’s.

Unheimlich is also a term I would apply to Göll’s life (for the same reasons as Reading Berlin).  He died relatively recently (1984) but witnessed events that most of us only read about in archives and history books.  For heaven’s sake, why didn’t anyone interview this man for an oral history project???  People like him are a godsend for historians yet we let his journals languish in dusty archives.

Some readers, more discerning than I, may take issue with the editorial decisions made by the author: which events from the diaries to select and how to present them.  I think Fritzsche weaves the threads of Göll’s story seamlessly into his own narrative, providing as well all the necessary contextual information.  Rather than an edited diary with footnotes, it’s best to view this new book as a history of twentieth-century Berlin and Germany which draws on first-hand accounts.  Anyone who wants to read Göll’s unmediated version, however, is free to read his original journals at the Landesarchiv in Berlin. 

In the book reviews, I sense an undertone of slight derision about Göll’s writing activities.  Is this because he is a ‘little man,’ insignificant, untalented, unqualified to express an opinion?  Or is it sour grapes on the part of all the rest of us, because Göll was plucked out of obscurity and his story made public? 

Both books amazingly capture the spirit of Berlin. Fritzsche shows how Berliners write their own city into being, and are still doing so!  We meet characters who we dismiss as ordinary or nondescript.  But there is no such thing as ‘ordinary.’  Every life has to be examined and has a story to tell.  Just look at the stories our nondescript ‘little man’ has for us.  I might keep a diary or write a blog (!) describing my prosaic life or mundane (to me) events in public life.  Today such events are nonentities, non events but tomorrow, with the added patina of age, they will become historical accounts and readers will clamour to learn about times gone by.

Fritzsche is spot on in seeing Berlin as ‘transitional.’  I also see the city as always being in a transitional phase, then and now.  So much has happened in such a brief timespan (empire, world wars, cold war, democracy) and nothing seems to be settled yet.  Scheffler’s verdict on Berlin’s fate seems to be validated: “Condemned always to become and never to be.”

Postscript: Here I really ought to confess my motivations for reading Fritzsche’s work.  On a naïve, ostensible level I was looking for evidence of use of telecommunications in early twentieth century Germany.  Realistically, I knew I wasn’t going to find much.  What the books did provide, however, was an insight into urban living and Berliners’ transition into modern metropolitans.  Fritzsche has filled out an image of the milieu in which I am working and illuminated the workings of contemporary minds.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.