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.