January 8, 2011

"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.

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