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.

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