"Of what use is such an invention?" The New York World asked shortly after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his telephone in 1876. The world was not waiting for the telephone.
Bell's financial backers asked him not to work on his new invention anymore because it seemed too dubious an investment. The idea on which the telephone depended—the idea that every home in the country could be connected with a vast network of wires suspended from poles set an average of one hundred feet apart—seemed far more unlikely than the idea that the human voice could be transmitted through a wire.
Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us.
"At the present time we have a perfect network of gas pipes and water pipes throughout our large cities," Bell wrote to his business partners, in defense of his idea. "We have main pipes laid under the streets communicating by side pipes with the various dwellings. . . . In a similar manner it is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid under ground, or suspended overhead, communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, counting houses, shops, manufactories, etc., uniting them through the main cable. . . ."
Imagine the mind that could imagine this. That could see us all connected through one branching cable. The mind of a man who wanted to invent, more than the telephone, a machine that would allow the deaf to hear.
For a short time, the telephone was little more than a novelty. For twenty-five cents you could see it demonstrated by Bell himself, in a church, along with some singing and recitations by local talent. From a mile away, Bell would receive a call from "the invisible Mr. Watson." Then the telephone became a plaything of the rich. A Boston banker paid for a private line between his office and his home so that he could let his family know exactly when he would be home for dinner.
Mark Twain was among the first to own a telephone, but he wasn't completely taken with it. "The human voice carries entirely too far as it is," he remarked.
In Red Bank, New Jersey property owners threatened to tar and feather the workers putting up telephone poles. One judge granted a group of homeowners an injunction to prevent the telephone company from erecting any new poles. Another judge found that a man who had cut down a pole because it was "obnoxious" was not guilty of malicious mischief.
Telephone poles, newspaper editorials complained, were an urban blight. The poles carried a wire for each telephone—sometimes hundreds of wires. And in some places there were also telegraph wires, power lines, and trolley cables. The sky was filled with wires.
The War on Telephone Poles was fueled, in part, by that terribly American concern for private property and a reluctance to surrender it to a shared utility. And then there was a fierce sense of aesthetics, an obsession with purity, a dislike for the way the poles and wires marred a landscape that those other new inventions, skyscrapers and barbed wire, were just beginning to complicate. And then perhaps there was also a fear that distance, as it had always been known and measured, was collapsing.
The city council in Sioux Falls, South Dakota ordered policemen to cut down all the telephone poles in town. And the Mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin ordered the police chief and the fire department to chop down the telephone poles there. Only one pole was chopped down before the telephone men climbed all the poles along the line, preventing any more chopping. Soon, Bell Telephone Company began stationing a man at the top of each pole as soon as it had been set, until enough poles had been set to string a wire between them, at which point it became a misdemeanor to interfere with the poles. Even so, a constable cut down two poles holding forty or fifty wires. And a homeowner sawed down a recently wired pole then fled from police. The owner of a cannery ordered his workers to throw dirt back into the hole the telephone company was digging in front of his building. His men threw the dirt back in as fast as the telephone workers could dig it out. Then he sent out a team with a load of stones to dump into the hole. Eventually, the pole was erected on the other side of the street.
Despite the War on Telephone Poles, it would take only four years after Bell's first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of over 10,000 people to be wired, although many towns were wired only to themselves. And by the turn of the century, there were more telephones than bathtubs in America.
"Time and dist. overcome," read an early advertisement for the telephone. Rutherford B. Hayes pronounced the installation of a telephone in the White House "one of the greatest events since creation." The telephone, Thomas Edison declared, "annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch."
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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
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Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists (Hanging Loose, 2002). She teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University and is co-editor of Essay Press. "Time and Distance Overcome" is included in Notes from No Man's Land (Graywolf, 2009) which won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award.
"Time and Distance Overcome" appears in Discoveries: New Writing from The Iowa Review (Spring 2012).
"Time and Distance Overcome" is an essay that will appear on the Daily Palette in four installments. Visit us the rest of the week for the next three installments.
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