Sunday, June 21, 2009

The candlestick telephone
by Suzanne Meredith

The hazy view of advertisements and reality. Alexander Graham Bell had no idea what his communication device would turn into—or the effect it would have on civilization. Bell was born in 1847 and long before he perfected the telephone he developed an interest in speech, elocution, and voices. His belief that it was possible to transmit language at a distance led to extensive experiments spanning several decades using wires and electricity to carry sound.

Bell’s preoccupation with speech influenced his decision to teach deaf students, including Helen Keller. During this interval he devised new techniques to assist the deaf in comprehending and articulating words. His wife was deaf and although he had great compassion for those he considered “defective,” he also held views that were controversial but common at the time regarding limiting the propagation of those afflicted with “differences.”

While living in Canada he became intrigued with the language used on the Six Nations Reservation in Onondaga. Bell studied the Mohawk dialect and translated its unwritten vocabulary into Visible Speech symbols.

By 1876 the Bell Telephone Company was formed. Over the years there were many improvements and styles of phone designed, each one more popular than the last. In the early 20th century a memorable development in communication occurred: the candlestick, a table-top phone. Before this model, every phone needed its own battery system, included in a wood box attached to the phone. The batteries needed to be cranked to provide electricity for activation. When a central power system was developed it eliminated the need for the individual batteries and the smaller candlestick telephone became the must-have home accessory.

As it is with all change there were some folks who had reservations about this step into the future. The ability to instantly communicate thoughts was considered dangerous because intemperate words might be uttered. Telephone safety concerns included the spread of disease on mouthpieces. Catering to this germ driven health panic, manufacturers devised portable screw in mouthpieces to replace the bacteria laden publicly used speaker. Gauze phone covers were produced that were easy for people to carry and supposedly filtered out offensive contaminants. An inventive person came up with a dangerous idea for an item that produced a jolt of electricity to purify the surface of a phone, thus zapping all nasty bugs—and probably any human within range.

Truth in advertising has always been a hazy concept, as some of these postcards will show. The first card presents a beautiful, smiling woman in a frothy low cut frock dreamily speaking on her candlestick phone. In the companion real photo card an average couple sits with a treasured phone between them; neither of these two look particularly dreamy.

It has only been a century or so between Bell’s experiments and your cell phone. As time passed the telephone changed again and again until today, for better or worse, almost everyone who can talk is attached to a cell phone. Statistics advise that at least 75 percent of all Americans own cell phones, and this number falls far behind usage in other countries. Today’s devices do a lot more than permit t`lking at a distance; they offer music, games, Internet service, GPS and cameras. Transmission towers bloom on hilltops (sometimes vaguely disguised as a scraggly fir tree or flag pole), which is a far cry from Bell’s electric wire. Some people still fear health hazards from the wireless frequencies and excessive dependence on this new tool.

One of the cell phone’s most lasting legacies may be in the landfill. Candlestick phones can often be found in antique shops. Cell phones may not get the chance to become antiques. More 130 million of them are thrown away every year, adding to the thousands of tons of electronic garbage polluting the earth.

Bell lived until 1922, long enough to see his name become a household word. Recognized as great thinker, he had an interest and inventions in aeronautics, the creation of principles in metal detecting and air conditioning, solar heat, protecting the environment and conservation of national resources. He is also credited with the common use of the word “hello.”

Today the candlestick phone is a sought-after antique, with collector clubs and Web sites devoted to the study and preservation of this intriguing piece of Alexander Graham Bell’s history.

Postcards were sent for nearly every holiday, and often the subject of the early cards was using a candlestick phone.

Technology may have changed but human nature has not – listening in on a party line was an early form of hacking. A party line was a system where two or more families shared the same phone line, similar to having an extension in each home in the neighborhood. The ring for each house was different but anyone could pick up the phone and hear what was being discussed by other users. In 1912 a newspaper article sported headlines regarding the situation:

“RESIDENTS ABUSE ‘PHONE PRIVILEGE.’ Party Line Patrons Have Trouble When Neighbors Form the Practice of Listening!” “We are all of the opinion that the telephone has proved to be a blessing in many ways. But we often think that the evil use of it more than offsets any good it can do. What kind of an example is it to our children to see a family member listen in on a neighbors’ conversation, stealing their privacy! It is dishonesty!”