10 March 1876: The first successful telephone transmission of clear speech by Alexander Graham Bell.
So, today’s little treatise began its life – as they all do – on a dozen scraps of crumpled paper dredged from the murky depths of my pockets, from whence it was transcribed onto some piece of technical wizardry, the workings of which are way beyond my ken. So far, so normal. So why mention it? Well, this week, the particular piece of technological thaumaturgy is my mobile phone, and the transcription is taking place via a Bluetooth keyboard that I have just been given. It’s the way I am: the possibility is there, so why not give it a go? It has been planned. It has been my intention to try this from the second I was given the keyboard and, hence, I have had a week to think about it. This, as always, is where things begin to fall down for me. You see, it struck me that, what seems like only yesterday, the only way that I could have achieved what I appear to be achieving today would have been if I was dictating to a typist at the other end of the phone line. Only yesterday, telephones and telephonic communication were very different from today…
When we bought our first home, my grandma paid for us to have a phone installed. There was only one provider (the Post Office) and so precious were the telephone lines that when we initially attempted to get our house connected to the copper-wired telecommunications network, what we were offered was a ‘party line’. This would mean that we shared a single line with a near neighbour and that we could not use our phone if they were already on it. If you had chatty neighbours and a party line, your access to calls, both outgoing and incoming, was severely restricted. If you had a teenager in either house that could be reduced to zero. There was only one phone per household then and that was anchored to the wall in the hallway. Phone calls were always made and taken on the bottom step. Parents took great pains to ensure that the hallway was always ten degrees colder than the rest of the house in order to discourage intransigent offspring from making unacceptably protracted calls. If you decided against the ‘party line’ option, the new line took months to install, at a cost that was only slightly less than the mortgage on your home. Subsequent calls carried a tariff that meant that, for most of us, the phone was only ever used for incoming calls. Outgoing calls were only ever made ‘off peak’ (evenings after six, to my recollection, and all day at the weekend). Phone calls were always short and to the point. One of the very first things your grandparents would say if you ever rang them outside of the cheap rate would be ‘well, we mustn’t keep you’.
If you were out and about you used the public phone boxes. These were the equivalent of the modern Casino machines that lurk just inside the bookies’ doorways. Put your change in, ring the number and watch your credit diminish at a quicker rate than you can physically top it up. The trick was always to finish the call exactly as you had zero credit. If you ran out of change – or, indeed, didn’t have any in the first place – you could ask the operator to ‘reverse the charges’, which meant that the people receiving your call (usually your mum and dad) paid for it at something like twenty times the going call rate, but hey! at least they knew you were safe.
And who could forget the excitement of making a phone call home from abroad? ‘They’ll be so excited to hear from us – and we can warn them about the water in case they can ever afford to come out here.’ 3 days of planning: checking what change was needed and roughly calculating what that would be back home (enabling you to denounce an entire nation as ‘robbing buggers’); checking the international dialling code; checking the time difference; squeezing four seriously sunburned bodies into one little plastic hood under which the phone was sheltered, only to find that whoever you were trying to impress had gone out for the night and Spanish telephones didn’t give your money back, at least, not unless you knew which button to press – see ‘robbing buggers’ above.
And then there were the ‘telephone services’. You could dial up the time, you could dial up the weather, but best of all was dial-a-disc which, at a cost not too far short of the national debt of the average Developing Economy, enabled you to dial up and listen to whatever it was that the Post Office (which may well, by this point, have become British Telecom) thought you should be listening to. It was always from the Top Twenty, but there was no choice and no variation within the day. A kind of Spotify for the eclectically stunted. Of course, calling these numbers was something you only ever did when you, yourself, were not paying the bill: e.g. when you were a teenager, your parents were out and itemised bills did not exist.
Everybody with a telephone was given a Phone Directory. It listed the name, address and telephone number of every other person who had a phone (except for the privileged few who, for a variety of reasons, decided to buy themselves out of the guide by going ex-directory). The Phone Directory was the best thing about having a phone in the house. The simple joy of flicking through the pages when your parents were out, in order to find a famous name. To dial the number (long before there was any means of the recipient tracking the call) and to ask Mr. I. Newton if he would explain gravity to you. Better still if you could find an Andrew Painter: ‘Hello, are you A. Painter? Yes? Brilliant, would you mind just popping round to our house and slapping a couple of coats on the kitchen wall?’ Simple pleasures, never vindictive, but bloody annoying I’m sure. Of course, no call centres then, so nobody trying to sell you something you did not want, and International calls were impossibly expensive, so nobody trying to persuade you that your P.C. needed some extremely dodgy anti-virus software installing. Just as well really, as P.C.’s didn’t exist either.
Anyway, naturally we jumped at the chance to get our children a mobile phone as soon as we were able and they were considered old enough. It made us feel secure, knowing that they were always within reach, especially when they both took off to Uni. But the progression from mobile phone, to smart phone, to what we now call a mobile device, has been lightning. Now, we worry that the mobile is the main source of insecurity for today’s youth. From hacking to trolling, to bullying, to sexploitation, to simply losing the bloody thing – the phone now presents the typical teenager with more potential pitfalls than the average episode of Wacky Races.
Obviously, like all such things, there is no going back: you cannot uninvent the wheel and, let’s face it, even for old farts like us, mobile devices have brought us far more good than bad. There is neither time nor space here to go into the enormous benefits of carrying a mobile device. Being able to link up with the internet wherever you are, whatever you are doing, what could possibly go wrong? Finding out where you want to go by checking out nearby places of interest on Google – having first checked that the parental control is turned on – finding your way there using the GPS signal, checking what the weather is going to be like when you get there… You can even check that the unaccustomed exercise is not going to kill you. You can send digitally enhanced photographs of yourself to your many thousands of friends. You can make a phone call… Mobile phones can be life-enhancing, but we have to find a way to stop them dominating our lives. If we are not careful they may totally replace all manner of interaction, thought and imagination. They fill the vacuums we have allowed into our brains like Ray Bradbury’s Cockleshells. We are all aware of families at restaurant tables, all separately glued to their individual phones right through the meal. If there is any intercourse between them at all, it is probably via text. They don’t look at their food other than to post a picture of it; they don’t look at one another. They just stare at their little screens and exercise their thumbs.
You certainly wouldn’t catch me using my phone when it wasn’t entirely necessary…
Anyway, the experiment is over and all in all it has worked pretty well. I’ve learned that in extremis I can carry my little fold-up keyboard and, if needs be, operate through the phone. I have also discovered that my eyesight is not what it used to be. I have discovered that my little Bluetooth keyboard stops littering my prose with random symbols immediately I learn how to press the button that switches it from Android to ios. I’ve discovered that the joy of taking a phone call on the same piece of apparatus that you are using to hack out a thousand or so honed and polished words soon dissipates when you realise that, in ending the call, you have somehow deleted the whole flippin’ thing…