Tag: telecoms


The Magic Flight of Thought

  Today I was talking to my sister (Happy Birthday, Chi!) and we were chatting about the crazy speed of new technology. How strange it is to collapse our life experience into a series of new devices and how they affected us, and then try to imagine what it is like to be born digital, with all this shiny stuff that has no historical context. As Peter Goldman said: “Between the twitterverse and the 24-hour cable news cycle our history keeps disappearing.” Now, everything is instantaneous, all knowledge is free, one-to-one communication is a such a waste of time… “duh! old timer, how can you be so passé.” This got me thinking about the impact of earlier communication technologies and what they were like in the popular culture before they were taken for granted. What was it like 100 years ago, when the telephone was first established as a fixture of modern life? In 1880, there had only been 108,000 telephones in use, by 1890 there were 467,000 telephones installed. Think of the rapid change as this newfangled device penetrated American society. 1900 600,000 (for 76,000,000 people) reaching 0.79% of the population 1905 2,200,000 (for 83,000,000 people) reaching 2.6% of the population 1910 5,800,000 (for 92,000,000 people) reaching 6.3% of the population During the first 25 years of its existence the telephone was physically accessible to less than 1% of the population, but that number nearly tripled between 1900 and 1905, then doubled again, between 1905 and 1910. This exponential growth, and the exposure of greater and greater numbers of people to this technology — which could project their voice instantly to almost anywhere — must indeed have seemed like magic, like something from mythology come to life! So it was not surprising to find an advertisement in the 1914 Farm Journal in which the American Telephone and Telegraph Company actually portrayed their service in mythological terms. AT&T was established only nine years earlier, in 1885, and by 1914 they had been riding a totally unparalleled explosion of telephony…and yet, from their point of view, they had more than 90% of the population left to capture as customers! How to capture their imagination and then their money? That must have been the operating question for the AT&T publicity machine of the time. And here is what they came up with: