January 30, 2011

"The Soul of London"

Ford Madox Ford wrote The Soul of London (published 1905) to set down his impressions of London.  Much more than a mere travelogue, Ford evokes a London that is both familiar and alien.  In his own words, he wanted his account to be more than just "encyclopaedic, topographical, or archaeological."  

I found Ford's narrative enlightening for several reasons.  He lived and experienced the times under scrutiny in my thesis, and as such, can provide another dimension to the social milieu.  His writing verges on the poetic: he gives us his 'impressions' of the 'facts'.  Finally, in Soul one can easily detect those tendencies and early signs of change that later came to be known as Modernism.

Some extracts follow:

On the automobile
"... to come from any distance, say by a motor car, is to fly too fast for any easy recognition of the gradual changes from country to town.  […]  It is not so much that the speed is very great, there is always the statutory limit, a sort of nightmare; but the motorist is too low down as a rule, the air presses against the eyes and half closes them; he has a tendency to look forward along the road, to see more of vehicles and of pedestrians than of the actual country or the regiments of buildings.  He grows a little aloof, a little out of sympathy; he becomes more intent about keeping a whole skin on himself and on his car than about the outer world."

“This is doubtless no more than a matter of time, of ‘getting used to it’, or of thinking of distances, as it were, in terms of the motor car.  One has been accustomed to drive on a bus from Kensington to Piccadilly Circus in the half hour.  One has seen the tall flats by Sloan Street for some minutes, Apsley House for some more minutes [...].  These things have their familiar aspects.”

On the tram
“What the automobile is to the comfortable classes the electric tram is becoming to the poorer.  It is a means of getting into town.  It does not, however, produce the same psychological effects.  For one thing, the speed is not so great, and you have not the least anxiety as to what it may choose to run into; if you want to see things you are at a greater height, your range of sight is much longer.”

Retailing: chain stores vs. local traders
“Yet in many places within the Administrative County the tendency is all towards ‘localising’, or towards remaining separate centres.  In Hampstead, for instance, the older residents buy most things of the local tradesmen, and newer families imitate them for sentimental or for social reasons.  In poorer neighbourhoods this is much more the case.  […] And the people of the poorer suburbs do their shopping in their own High Streets.  Where great local emporia have not crushed out altogether the ‘local tradesman’, shoppers with string bags still nod at the greengrocer and the oilman when passing or when making their purchases.”

London's diversity, speed, ubiquity
“London, with its sense of immensity that we must hurry through to keep unceasing appointments, with its diffuseness, its gatherings up into innumerable trade-centres, innumerable class districts, becomes by its immensity a place upon which there is no beginning."

Vignettes also appear that 'humanise' Ford's London: the labourer whose hobby is teaching his chaffinches to sing; the wife of a cripple who made matchboxes at home to earn money, a home where all the wooden fittings had been chopped down for firewood.

Ford's account is, of course, highly subjective (can any piece of writing be otherwise?) but I see it giving us a good impression of the spirit of the times.  Some paragraphs convey the quaintness of an Edwardian London that has long since disappeared (talk of horse-drawn trams, for instance).  Yet other descriptions leave us shaking our heads and muttering, 'Some things never change.' 

January 26, 2011

Abuse of the telephone, or cold calling

A reader of the Saturday Review wrote a letter to the editor in November 1937 complaining about the underhand techniques of pushy sales reps.  "Pater Filiarum" had earlier published an announcement of his daughter's engagement.  Weeks later he was bombarded with telephone calls from florists, photographers, hotels, and other businesses involved in the matrimonial 'industry', all fishing for business.  I myself have fallen prey to similar tactics.  So what's new?

He denigrates the callers for wasting his valuable time and disturbing his domestic peace.  He considers various solutions: 
  • disconnect the telephone: "not practical";
  • go ex-directory: "gives a lot of trouble to one's friends"
He hits on a novel solution in the end:
"What we do is to inform the interrupter that we have black list of all firms who employ this method of convassing, and that we do no business with firms on the black list."
Effective, don't you think?

The following week's edition prints a reply from "Sufferer" who conveniently commiserates with Pater Filiarum.  In his view, the culprit is the telephone book which lists both addresses and telephone numbers (!) making the job of the cold caller a lot easier.  Another bane of modern life is the efficient mail system which delivers "the never-ceasing flood of circulars [...] through the letter-box."  "Sufferer" has even heard of companies ringing up families when there's been a bereavement.

What doesn't fit
Both the writer and respondent remain anonymous.  Other letter writers on the same page supply name and address.  What did Pater and Sufferer have to fear?  Retribution from more cold callers? 

Is this letter something like a 'puff' - ostensibly a reader's letter but really a fix?  If so, what is the magazine trying to sell, what message is it trying to convey?  Perhaps an indirect way of advising affected readers on how to deal with unwanted callers?

Having said this, whether the letter is genuine or written by a journalist, its existence shows a concern for domestic privacy, aggressive (for the period) marketing techniques, and the utility of the telephone.

Why not write to the telephone company, complaining about the companies' misuse of technology?  Or publish (and be damned) this black list of offending companies?

1937 strikes me as a bit late to be complaining about sharp business practices.  By now I would have thought people would be used to them, even if the telephone is still not so widely diffused.

Saturday Review was a magazine with a long history but folded a year after these letters were published.  It had a controversial past (expressed anti-German sentiments), hosted distinguished contributors, had a colourful aristocratic owner (Lady Houston, who died one year before these letters appeared).  Do these elements colour one's interpretation of Pater/Sufferer's letters?

"Abuse of the Telephone."  Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art.  November 1937.

January 24, 2011

Public telephones and the crime wave

Not really anything to do with British phones, but this article in yesterday's Berliner Zeitung caught my eye.  

Vandals have been systematically attacking public phones throughout Berlin and stealing the coins they contain.  Seven attacks in one area alone were reported yesterday.  Culprits seem to target a particular competitor of Telekom, known around the city for its distinctive blue telephones.  They offer particularly good value rates for overseas calls and, therefore, are favoured by the immigrant population.  They are probably cheaper than mobile phone rates, too.  

Since these phones only accept coins, it's logical that they are usually stuffed full of ready cash.  Most of the Telekom phones need a credit or phone card.  Eighty phones in the past month have been rendered useless and the company with the blue phones says it is in danger of going bust; it is finding it hard to replace so many damaged pay phones with new ones.

If you are a cynic, you will say that the competition is trying to oust out a rival.  Would they stoop so low?  I cannot say.  But, in a city where hoards of people scrounge the streets daily for empty beer bottles in order to collect the deposit, then you simply don't leave a box full of coins lying around all night long.

January 12, 2011

The cost of domestic servants

More thoughts on the costs involved in getting a telephone installed at home.

Yesterday's post on "the telephone tangle" referred to Hastie's idea about having two lines into businesses and homes, to ensure better chances of connection.  In real terms, this was a luxury that few could afford.  Even London business people, for whom the telephone was a boom, were slow to adopt the new technology; they had other lines of communication.  To put things into perspective, let's compare some prices.

Annual subscription charges
c.1879 - £20
1896 - £18 (Glasgow)

1897 - c.£14 (London)
1904 - £34 (Glasgow)

I haven't reached the stage yet where I can conduct analytical research into how much a telephone connection would have cost the Victorian gentleman.  The figures above were gleaned from various articles and give only a very rough idea.  

Looking now at servants' annual wages, we can build up a general picture.

Pageboy/Footboy, unliveried - £8-18
General female servant - £12-18 (without allowance for tea, sugar, beer!)
Butler - £60-80
[figures are suggested wages, derived from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1888 edition]

By comparing amounts, we see just how much a family was prepared to lay out for a butler (and from a certain social level and above, everyone had one) but out of that group, few households had a telephone connection.  Secondly, there is little substantial difference between a telephone subscription and a lowly servant's wage.  Why not just have the subscription?  My cynical answer is that a telephone can't sweep the floor or fetch coal.

When looking at Victorian domestic arrangements, we see that householders were slow to instal plumbing, for instance, or change from coal to gas.[1]   It was as cheap, or cheaper, to keep a domestic to do household chores in the old way, rather than pay to make the changeover.  Who cares if the servant had to work harder?  I think it is precisely this mentality that was also applied to the telephone.  These people were not so quick to adopt every new gadget and technology that came along, when they could manage fine with the old ways (unlike today).  Not so much a fear of change per se, rather an attitude of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

My conclusions?  If you could afford to keep a servant, then you could afford to have a telephone.  But few who could afford a phone, got one.

[1] Peter Williams "Constituting class and gender: a social history of the home, 1700-1901." In Thrift, Williams, Class and Space: The making of urban society. 1987

p.s. I have yet to come across a late C19 drama, musical, story, etc. (in which the telephone is a prominent feature) that depicts a servant answering the telephone.

January 11, 2011

Freud and technology - but without psychoanalysis

Freud considers the progress made in science and technology.  Although people should be proud of their achievements, this progress has not made people feel happier.  Human happiness depends on more than just man’s domination of nature and technological progress.  Having said this, there is some pleasure to be derived 
“if I can […] hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed.”   
Add to this the more significant advances in medicine that save lives.

Freud counters this, however, with a pessimistic reply.   
“If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him.”   
And medicine saves lives only for people to endure miserable lives.  A bleak outlook.

Without wishing to be a wet blanket, these sentiments could well apply to today’s generation (or any generation, come to think of it).  Does possessing the latest iPhone or laptop count for happiness today?  Freud’s examples strike me as a case of ‘using technology to solve a technological problem.’  Technology takes my child away and I’ll use technology to overcome that obstacle.

Sigmund Freud.  Civilization and its Discontents.  New York: Norton, 1961. Original, Vienna, 1930.

How to untie a telephone tangle

A. H. Hastie(1) wrote in 1898 of the problems that beset the British telephone system.  He admonishes not only subscribers but also government and the General Post Office.

Subscribers themselves are to blame for shoddy service.  When they experience delays in connections, they should report this to the telephone company immediately, in writing.  Hastie considers this a subscriber's "duty" and if he performs his duty, then he can enjoy connections within London within fifty seconds (!)  Otherwise, his requested connection may need up to ten minutes.  Unreported delays remain a secret between operator and subscriber.   In modern parlance, I think we call this 'snitching': put your complaint in writing and then the company will tell the operator - make sure Mr X gets good service, or else.  To give him his due, Hastie does concede that "the telephone girls are only human; their work is most worrying work, and every allowance must be made for them.  He then ruins it be suggesting operators fob off subscribers, saying the called party is engaged, when in reality they are not.

It seems that the upper social ranks felt a little put out about having to answer their own telephones and complaints - satirical and serious - about the interruptions abound.  One such example is detailed in a previous post: a logical solution to this problem would be to get the servants to answer calls.  Anyone who could afford a telephone subscription could certainly afford at least one servant.  So, there are two alternatives here: either subscribers wanted their cake and to eat it (maintain a telephone for business contacts, not be disturbed by calls, not allow anyone else to answer calls); or, reports of putative disturbances are greatly exaggerated - by the press or subscribers, who knows?
A second area where subscribers can improve communications is by having two lines into their premises.  One line connects to an internal house exchange - employees can communicate in-house and make external calls.  A second line ensures that clients can ring up without being told the line is busy.  Hastie suggests this arrangement is adopted by private households - a servant should answer the phone and there should be connections in the remaining rooms.  In 1898, I can well imagine the cost would be prohibitive for all but the extremely well off.  Two lines meant having two separate subscriptions.

What about the government's part?  Hastie advocates a monopoly.  One organisation in total control is the only way to achieve good service.  (At the time, private companies provided local, town service and the Post Office the trunk, i.e. long distance, service).  If a town just wanted a telephone service operating within its boundaries, then every town council could set up its own urban service with its own specifications.  The problem arises when towns want to communicate long distance and then there is the matter of compatibility.  This is as much a technical matter as it is economic.

Hastie accuses the Post Office of operating a deficient trunk system.  Subscribers placing a long distance call had to wait up to twenty minutes.  (Why do they find this length of time unacceptable?  Yes, it's longer than making a local call, but when you consider the alternatives available a decade or so earlier in the pre-telephone age, twenty minutes to wait seems fine to me.)  Hastie suggests two trunk lines: the first, expensive and quick, and the second one, cheap and slow.  He stresses that "the business community require an efficient telephone service at once" - no mention here of domestic subscribers.

Interestingly, Hastie urges the Post Office to nationalise the telephones and provide the whole country with telephones (in emulation of the US, where growth was phenomenal in comparison).  His rationale is that the creation of the necessary infrastructure would provide jobs for twenty-seven different skilled trades and countless labourers.  Hastie is silent on how the Post Office responded.

(1) Founder of the Telephone Subscribers' Protection Association

A. H. Hastie.  "The telephone tangle, and the way to untie it."  Fortnightly Review.  December 1898.

January 8, 2011

Thomas Brennan - his life as a messenger boy, 1910

My previous post talked about the sarcastic instructions for telephone subscribers written in a Judy article of 1898.  In the 1890s the network was sparse and few people had a telephone at home, even among those that could afford one. 

By the eve of the First World War, this situation had not changed that much.  Other technologies (electric lighting, motor cars, cinema, etc.) were prevalent but I get the impression that for many, the telephone was still a bit of a novelty.

Thomas Patrick Brennan was born in 1896 in Liverpool, two years before the Judy article.  He spent his entire working life employed by the Post Office.  His very first job (at the tender age of 14) was as a telegraph messenger boy.  He had six hundred other boys as colleagues working in Liverpool then and he remembers that they were all exceptionally busy because "the telephone wasn't as efficient as it is today."  He recalls that the telegraph was used extensively by the business people in the town. 

Thomas's life as a messenger boy was more akin to that of a soldier's than working for the civil service.  One hour every morning was devoted to drill exercises, marching, presenting arms, target practice and saluting.  The boys had to salute senior officials of the Post Office whenever they saw them, so I can understand the logic of practising this.  And the drills and marching would help keep them fit.  I'm not sure, though, where the rifle practice comes in!

To complete the military lifestyle, the boys had to make sure their uniforms were spotless and that hair and fingernails were clean.  Boots and buttons were to be polished and shiny.  Since boys had a unique number on the collar of their jacket, identifying a culprit with muddy shoes was not a problem.  Any boy that didn't pass muster during the daily inspection was sent home to get clean.  I recall the discipline problems the telephone companies had with telegraph messenger boys working as the first switchboard operators.  Did the Post Office have this in mind?  Perhaps this explains the rigid routines imposed on these young boys: the Post Office didn't want the boys getting out of hand and they were, after all, delivering important telegrams at times.

In 1913 Thomas was sent to work in the engineering branch and it was here that he had his first experience with the telephone.  Naturally, he needed to know how the telephone worked and, more importantly, how to use it.  He was completely in the dark about these things.  An engineer in the office asked him, "Have you ever used the telephone, sonny?"  When Thomas replied in the negative, he was told, "Well, you'd better get onto it."  He then had to crank the handle on the side of the telephone and ring the Edgworth station (which was always engaged) and other places that he knew.  And what did he say when someone answered the telephone at the other end?  "Just ask a silly question just to get into the idea of answering the telephone."  This was one of his new duties!

Thomas wouldn't be alive today, so we can't go and ask him more pointed questions about his early working life.  This is just a tiny extract from his life story which has been recorded by historians (the written transcript runs to eighty-eight pages).  It is precisely this wealth of detail that adds social colour to the dry and sterile (to me) history emanating from company accounts and parliamentary reports.

Citation: see earlier post from November 2010 for details of the oral history project in which Mr Brennan participated.

"Telephonic instructions and notes," 1898

When she started her shift every morning, the switchboard operator of the early years had to telephone each of her subscribers.  This wasn't to wish him a good morning but to check if the line was still connected and working.  Faults were frequent and lines invariably became disconnected and the only way to test the line was by telephoning the subscriber.  Can you imagine such a thing happening today, and without caller-ID?  I mean the ringing up, not the disconnected lines.

The fact that this custom became the object of satire in contemporary publications, illustrates the strength of feeling against it and its prevalence.  Newspaper cartoons of the day also ridiculed the inefficiencies of the telephone service.  One of the "instructions" provided "not by the National Telephone Company, Limited" (in Judy) advises on Temper:
"Don't be put out if you are in medias rep [sic] with an intricate calculation, and have to descend sundry flights of stairs only to find that the telephone nymph wishes to know if you can hear her all right this morning."
Wouldn't it be more sensible to have the telephone situated in a study or sitting room, instead of the cold and distant hall?
Why not get one of the servants to answer the telephone, especially when it was predictable who was ringing?

Not only does the writer poke fun at the customs and practices involved in using the telephone apparatus ("turn the handle x times as if you were operating upon a barrel-organ") but he makes puns out of the new vocabulary used for telephone terminology: "If the (Official) Receiver is off to the Hook (of Holland), you naturally cannot ring him up."
Such vocabulary (receiver, hook, engaged, exchange, instrument) has now acquired new layers of meaning.  These double meanings are exploited for entertainment value, but also as a stinging critique of the infant telephone service.  The public were presented with a new technology for which they struggled to find a real need and a niche.  The public not only had to find a way to assimilate the telephone into their daily routines, and develop a telephone discourse with which to discuss these new practices, but they also had to deal with telephone companies beset by technical problems and inexperience.  Remember, the companies and their staff were new at this business too.

"Telephonic instructions and notes."  Judy, or the London serio-comic Journal.  9 March 1898.

January 5, 2011

"To any telephone girl"

Of course you heard me well enough and knew
I asked for Gerrard 2166;
The trouble is you never seem to fix
Your mind on what you undertake to do.
I cannot tell what system you pursue,
Nor how, within the space of twenty ticks,
Those simple numbers you contrived to mix
And put me on to 6122.

I give it up; nor will I toil and fret
Such depths of human frailty to probe;
I merely state your methods would upset
The standard equilibrium of Job,
To whom such sore vexations were unknown
As you and this infernal telephone.
Hansard Watt
Published 1911, Pall Mall Magazine

One-sided conversations

This will be an ongoing list of references mentioning the one-sided conversations you hear when listening to a person talking on a phone.

Giddens, consequences of modernity, p141
You are more 'connected' with the person you are conversing with on the phone (who may be in Australia) than with the person who is sitting in the same room.
* "space of flows" - the network here is another space that you occupy that doesn't overlap with the physical place you occupy.
* reminiscent of Thrift's whales; 'being with' someone, the space where you are 'with' this other person is huge.

Huxley, brave new world (1932)
"parleying with silence"

Montgomery, per telephone (1893)
Play with opening scene - ten minutes of female gossip on phone
Wasn't this boring for the audience?  Was it such a novelty?  A new experience for both writer and listener, who had to figure out context etc. from only one speaker.  Before the phone era, where/how could you 'eavesdrop' on someone and only hear half the conversation?

Twain, telephonic conversation (1880)

Society of Arts gets connected

The Journal of the Society of Arts reports to its members in 1881 that it now has a connection with the Telephone Exchange (Chancery Lane).  If a member is also a subscriber to the same exchange, then they too can speak directly with the Society.  Note that the article talks of members "whose place of business" is connected, and not their residence.  It was rare in the early days for a telephone to be fitted in someone's house, unless it was a direct line with the householder's business premises.

Another innovation: the Society has a private line connecting it to its printers in Fleet Street.  This would work more like a speaking tube/intercom with a different handset to the one members would ring up on.

Interestingly, the private telephone to the printer's replaces an older Wheatstone ABC telegraph, which used an existing Post Office line.  They merely changed the instruments at the ends of the line.

Journal of the Society of Arts.  11 February 1881.

Telephone screens

One further aspect that I wish to address in this thesis is that of the telephone (as artefact) in its domestic setting.  In which rooms of the house was it kept, where was it stored (on a writing desk, sideboard, its own table, etc.), how did it fit in with the rest of the decor - such questions as these can reveal much about social attitudes.  As a 'piece of furniture' or as a piece of technology,

January 4, 2011

The danger of giraffes

Mr W L Preece (son of W H Preece, Engineer-in-Chief of the General Post Office) reported to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1915 on the trials and tribulations of setting up a telephone system in the tropics.  Problems with humidity, plagues of insects and quick growing vegetation troubled engineers in establishing lines of communication and keeping them clear and working.  However, the biggest hazard by far was that of wandering giraffes.
"When the giraffes roaming over the wilds of East Africa come up against a telegraph or telephone line, they have not the sense to draw back or duck their heads, but push on, carrying wires and sometimes poles with them."
Silly animals!
"Telephone Troubles in the Tropics."  Journal of the Royal Society of Arts.  28 May 1915

January 3, 2011

Kleptomaniacs and the man in the moon

The following report was given in The Orchestra (of all places!) in an article “The British Association’s Telephone” (September 1877).  Note that it was around this time that Bell’s invention was demonstrated in Britain.
"But the instrument is still in its infancy, and who can foretell future results?  Suppose, for instance, that by means of a lunar telephone conversation could be carried on between the Man in the Moon and the various lunatics at large or under restraint on this planet: what a flood of light might be thrown on the feelings and inner consciousness of klepto-, dipso, mono-, and poly-maniacs."
All this ahead of Freud and space travel.  Some journalists had a vivid imagination.

German empire orders hundreds of telephones

The Journal of the Society of Arts (7 December 1877) reports that the Postmaster-General of the German Empire proposed to install telephones in telegraph offices.  Several hundred telephones had been ordered from Siemens and Halske for this purpose.

In addition, telephones had been attached to either end of a telegraph wire spanning the English Channel (Dover to Sangatte - site of the French end to the Channel Tunnel), for the Submarine Telegraph Company.                       
“Talking could be heard, and also the playing of a musical box on the French coast.”  (How quaint.)
Again, I get the distinct impression that mere conversation or exchange of information was alone not deemed an appropriate use of the new telephone.  When fishing around for a use, the Victorians always seemed to think that the telephone would be a good medium for transmitting musical entertainment.

As said before, the invention of the telephone was built on the technology of the telegraph and it was first seen as an aid to telegraph operators, in communicating with operators in other offices.  It was thought to be quicker than communicating with each other via telegraph.

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