Tag Archives: technology

1910 car phone

From Scientific American, September 3, 1910, p. 185

The mobile phone is older than you think… or at least the desire for it. The device shown above isn’t a true mobile phone, of course, but it shows a way to combine two relatively new technologies — the automobile and the telephone.

“[A]utomobilists who get into trouble or meet with an accident can have telephone connection from any point in the rural districts where there are overhead telephone wires, within two minutes, without leaving the car. The device is also useful to officers in pursuit of criminals. It is composed of a hand microphone and core. The cord and attachments are lifted to the wires above by means of a jointed aluminum rod, which is packed away in small compass when not in use. The clip with which the connection is made consists of two strips of metal riveted together at the bottom and formed with slots about the size of an ordinary wire. These strips open slightly at the top for the purpose of receiving the telephone wire. When pressed upward by the aluminum rod with the telephone cord attached, the wire drops into the slot and the metal clip closes on it…” A sharp jerk forward or backward would detach the wire when the call was complete.

This is the first I’ve heard of such a device… apparently it didn’t catch on, or wasn’t allowed. I know little about early telephones, but I assume that once the connection was live you’d be connected to “central” and could then ask the operator to connect you to your party.

One advantage over today’s technology: you could drive or you could use the phone, but not at the same time!

From Scientific American, September 3, 1910, p. 185. Elsewhere on the same page:

lawn mowerA motorized, self-propelled lawn mower! Readers of Scientific American must’ve thought they were living in pretty fast times, and that electric wires and internal-combustion engines were going to change their world into something barely recognizable. If so, they were right.


The strange origins of the electric chair

"Nebraska's electric chair." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG

“Nebraska’s electric chair.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG

One thing I love about the study of history is its little weird surprises — such as finding out that a certain notorious invention came with a hidden agenda that had little to do with the death penalty, and a whole lot to do with Thomas Edison’s desire to protect his market share against a superior technology.

First used in 1890, the electric chair is part of a longer humanitarian trend away from acceptance of capital punishment. For much of human history, executions were usually a public spectacle, were widely employed for a wide range of offenses, and were often designed to inflict the greatest possible suffering on the condemned person. Devices like the gallows or the guillotine were actually humanitarian developments because they offered a relatively quick death. And the electric chair was promoted as just such a device — a modern, scientific update for a traditional practice that might otherwise look like a barbaric holdover from more primitive times.

But that isn’t really what the electric chair was about, at least as far as America’s most famous inventor was concerned. Continue reading

Nostalgia for an open fire (Walden 164)

What could be more nostalgic on a cold winter’s night than an old cast-iron wood stove with a blazing fire inside, radiating warmth and just a hint of smoke from when you last opened the door to throw in another stick of wood?

Can you imagine a time when said stove was a modern intrusion, a triumph of efficiency over aesthetics?

Thoreau lived in such a time, when the efficient stove was replacing the time-honored but wasteful fireplace: Continue reading

Thoreau on technology and time (Walden 82)

The arrival of the railroad changed life in Concord, linking the town more closely to the outside world. It changed the economy, but also changed people’s sense of time. Thoreau describes the effect:

“The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. …To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case. We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside.” (“Sounds,” Walden)

(Atropos, “in Greek mythology, one of the three Fates, who cuts the thread of life” according to Annotated Walden.) Continue reading

“I could easily do without the post-office.” (Walden 61)

“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life … that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Just think what Thoreau would say about email, or blogs, or Twitter. (And what would you think if you’d ever written him a letter?! Was mine one of that one or two? What if you had written him a dozen letters? Would you be inclined to write him any more?) Continue reading

The railroad rides upon us, the sleepers (Walden 60)

“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad?  Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Thoreau is playing with the word “sleeper,” which referred to the wooden ties on which the rails were laid. He paints a disturbing picture of each sleeper as a man, his life expended in the backbreaking labor of railroad construction, and without the time or energy to awaken in the sense that Henry described in the previous pages. It is not so much a criticism of technology as a plea for economic justice. Continue reading

Living too fast… at 30 mph (Walden 59)

“The nation… lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour…” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

We can laugh at this, but one generation’s future shock is the next generation’s nostalgia. Thoreau is writing so long ago that things that seem quaint to us were for him starkly modern, fast, and representative of a new industrial age. But notice that he’s not calling for a return to the technology and expectations of the sixteenth century — in other words, to times as remote to him as he is to us. Continue reading