Happy Birthday Dear Telephone!

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Some things are easy to take for granted. They are common. Everything seems to depend on them. Roads would be in this category. Refrigerators would be in this category. We don’t often let our imagination run to a world where we these things don’t exist.

The telephone is certainly in this category.

Today is the telephone’s birthday and this is the first time in my own life of 31 years that I’ve taken a moment to pay some respect to this fabulous device. And many thanks to The Atlantic for the notice.

Here’s a excerpt from a fun article by Rebecca Rosen, “The Magical, Revolutionary Telephone.”

On this day in 1876, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Alexander Graham Bell a patent for his “improvement in telegraphy,” or, as we now know it, the telephone. . . .The telephone, and the reaction to it, rolled out over the course of years, not minutes.

A peek back into the tech writing of yore always serves as a good reminder that concerns about how technology is changing our world — distracting us, destroying established industries — are nothing new. But it is also more than that: it is an invitation to imagine a time when our quotidian habits (e.g. talking on the phone) were quasi-magical.

On July 10, 1874, the Times published one of the first accounts of the forthcoming telephone. The Times’story, “Music by Telegraph,” concerns Elisha Gray, whose claim as inventor of the telephone remains in question. The Times explained the new invention:

About two months ago Mr. Elisha Gray, of Chicago, a gentleman well known in the electric telegraph world as a maker and inventor of some of the most valuable instruments now in use, conceived an idea which would be an extraordinary development of telegraphic science if he could only succeed in practically demonstrating it. … Mr. Chandler says that he regards it as the first step toward doing away with the manipulating instruments altogether, and that he believes that in time the operators will transmit the sound of their own voice over the wires, and talk with one another instead of telegraphing. … What this will all lead to, or where it will all end, is one of the most extraordinary problems of the day.

Aside from the intense interest which this discovery will naturally excite in the scientific world — as to the causes which produce this extraordinary electro-physiological phenomenon, and the gratification it will afford to all lovers of the marvelous — it is evident that, although the practical used to which it may be put cannot as yet be recited, quite enough has been demonstrated to show that, from its basis, a new system of telegraphy, both for aerial and submarine lines, of a simple, rapid, and economical character, can be introduced. 

Did you understand that last paragraph? Maybe that’s because it was one sentence. In this case, the content and the form are from a previous era.

Rosen then cites another article about a similar invention from the Times, March 22, 1876:

The universal use of the telephone will, of course, be viewed with disapprobation by the sound-producing part of the community, just as the introduction of labor-saving machines was met by the hostility of the laboring classes. No man who can sit in his own study with his telephone by his side, and thus listen to the performance of an opera at the Academy, will care to go to Fourteenth street and to spend the vening in a hot and crowded building. In like manner, many persons will prefer to hear lectures and sermons in the comfort and privacy of their own rooms, rather than to go to the church or the lecture-room. … Thus the telephone, by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert-halls and the churches, and the time may come when a future Von Bülow playing a solitary piano in his private room, and a future Talmage preaching in his private gymnasium, may be heard in every well-furnished house on the American continent.

We truly aren’t the first to wrestle with how technology will transform the things we love, even how we experience the preached Word together as God’s people.

There’s a conversation to be had about how the internet and video and other media have not only extended but in some cases replaced the biblical commitment of God’s people to gather together and to hear the Word preached. But it is enough to say that for the Christian we can thank God for electronic speakers of every kind in as much as they do extend the reach of the preached Word into places where it otherwise could not go.

Happy Birthday dear Telephone.

Trent Hunter

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