Thursday, April 26, 2007

Two longs, a Short, and a Long

Communications has been a priority since the invention of larynxes. Long-distance communication could be achieved by yodeling, pounding on a drum, or some sort of visual signal.

We've come a long way, baby. So let's talk gadgets.

The first effective long-distance communication method was developed by Samuel Morse in ~1835 to 1845. Yep, the telegraph. He used the inventions of William Sturgeon and Joseph Henry to develop the "magnetized magnet," and a year later, developed Morse Code, which made the electrical pulses actually mean something. has many excellent articles, some of them contemporary. If you want to know how a telegraph works in lay language, try History, Theory, & Construction of the "Electric Telegraph." A good general info site is The History of the Telegraph.

Onward we go. Let's skip telephones for now and go right to teletype. It's a little hard to get to, but an excellent recap of the invention of teletype is The Teletype Story. The teletype machine was invented by several people, instigated by Frank Pearne and developed by Charles L. Krum and a few others. By 1915, a machine could type 30 to 50 words per minute.

Back a few years, the phone's ringing. Is that Alexander Graham Bell calling? Telephone History: The Early Years 1876-1900 tells about the rapid expansion of Bell Telephone (without the help of Bell). Originally, all calls went to a switchboard with teenage boy operators. Because of their rudeness, within a few years they were replaced by women, and there weren't any other male operators until the 1960s.

Using a telephone is second nature to us now, but when it first came out, people were just as technophobic about them as some are about computers now. There were other concerns as well. Henry Yesler, one of Seattle's founding fathers, wanted to know whether or not "one could swear over that thing." Still, telephone systems spread like wildfire. Here's a timeline.

I was in the midst of writing a western set in Silver City, Idaho, a city in such rugged country they couldn't even run a train there. But they did have telephones in the mid-1880s. Messed up my whole scene.

Jumping forward about 50 years, most urban homes had a phones, and phones were becoming more and more common in the rural areas, as well. I grew up in Owyhee County about six miles from Homedale, Idaho, and I remember the party lines. Each family had its own "ring." Ours was two longs, a short, and a long. Anyone could pick up the phone and listen to your conversation. Ah, the joys of a party line!

In 1962, we were introduced to another revolutionary development, the princess phone. This is the forerunner of the small phones we have today. At the time, it was considered miniscule.

And this is my point. Technology has progressed a tremendous amount in the past 150 years, especially in communications. When writing stories from 1850 on, the author has to check for technological advancements as well as availability.

Wow, what an awesome time for those whose lifetimes spanned most of the 20th Century. My grandfather was born in 1901 and died in 1999. During his lifetime, we went from horses to rockets to the moon, from corsets to thongs, from hollering across the field to cellphones. No other generation has seen what his did.

I'm astounded every time I think about it!


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Jacquie Rogers
2006 PEARL Award Winner, Best Short Story
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