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Writing AH: Anachronisms Part 3 - A Time Before Phones

By Tom Anderson

Convenient communications.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the comments of my first article on anachronisms in writing AH, one reader commented that they were having to explain to younger children that certain family anecdotes had taken place in a time “before phones”. Did they mean that their family had a long oral memory and really had passed down stories from before circa 1875? Of course not. Welcome to a particular minefield for the writer of AH (and historical fiction); how a word can change meaning, and the specific and novel can take over a generic term altogether.

To the kids in the example above, the word “phone” does not signify any telephone, or even mobile phone (cell phone to Americans); to them, it has come to mean solely and specifically smartphones, a technology which has been widespread for less than fifteen years. Let’s pause to explore this terminology for a moment. First of all, the word “telephone” comes from the Greek tele (far) and phone (sound). It is actually much older than even Alexander Graham Bell’s early experiments (or the other inventors who formerly did not get much credit in the Great Man narrative). The word “telephone” was routinely being used in the seventeenth century to describe devices similar to the classic “tin can telephone” of kids’ cartoons, in which sound is transmitted a short distance over a length of taut string. Because of how generic a description “far-sound” is, the word was also applied to quite different technologies. One example was what we would now call a megaphone. Another, a largely forgotten technology rendered obsolete by Bell’s telephone, is also known as the “speaking tube”, a simple pipe with a cone at each end that could be used to connect two distant rooms. A copper one was used to great effect on Nelson’s HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the ship’s wheel was shot away, but steering orders could still be shouted down the tube directly to the tiller, three decks below, where sailors could operate it manually.

A telephone in the comfort of one's own home.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After the invention of the electric telegraph, there was much speculation and many early experiments about an electric telephone before Bell, and people were already ready to apply the term to the new invention. An alternative term would have been “televox” (far voice) which often shows up in AH or science fiction works. Early telephones were around for about twenty-five years before their being abbreviated to “phone” began to catch on around the turn of the twentieth century. In the UK (less commonly in America), for many years this kind of abbreviation came with a preceding apostrophe to imply the cut-off. So, a telephone became a ’phone and an aeroplane became a ’plane. As this apostrophe has disappeared, one consequence is that Britons and Americans now both usually refer to an aircraft indistinguishably as “a plane”, even though one group is abbreviating “aeroplane” and the other is abbreviating “airplane”.

Back to phones, or ’phones. The earliest phone lines just connected two handsets at two locations, with no provision for connection to multiple different stations. The Hungarian Tivadar Puskás was the first to conceive of the telephone exchange switchboard, one of the most influential inventions of all time and yet one that is seldom separated from the phone itself. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, exchanges were manual. Wires from thousands of phone handsets terminated in plugboard sockets which could be physically linked by phone operators joining them with a cord. When making a phone call, one would lift the handset to connect to the exchange, speak directly to the operator giving them the name and number (often a short number and the associated town name) and the operator would connect the cord to the socket associated with the other handset, making the other phone ring until it was picked up. I am greatly simplifying the process here, which had a number of technical refinements over the years. The operators were often young women (the Post Office quickly found that the so-called “hello girls” were more reliable than the messenger boys they had previously employed), leading to the radical transformation of the workforce.

Jersey telephone exchange. What could possibly go wrong?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rotary dial phone existed long before they became the norm. Automatic dialling was invented as early as 1899 and the UK had an automatic exchange in 1912, but it took decades to supersede the manual exchange and the last one only closed in 1970. There is an excellent public information film on Youtube from the USA’s AT&T “Ma Bell” phone monopoly explaining to people in the 1950s how to adapt to the new dial phones and automatic exchange, with no longer any need to speak to the operator directly. Rotary phones instead required the user to turn a rotor (via a finger inserted into a hole) to encode one number after the next. Each number was associated with the corresponding number of signal pulses, hence the system called “pulse dialling”. The pulses transmitted down the line would automatically trigger electromechanical switches in the exchange to directly connect the caller to the phone associated with the number they had entered. Unless one got it wrong and it was “sorry, wrong number”, of course.

I’m old enough to remember using rotary phones and being frustrated at how inefficient entering the number was; I didn’t realise that this was partly deliberate as there had to be a certain gap in between each number to ensure the switches detected the pulses correctly. Like the QWERTY keyboard, this was retained for decades after the systems improved and it was no longer necessary. Anyway, the point is that “rotary phones” or “dial phones” started as a novelty, but pretty soon everyone was just calling them “phones” and had forgotten that there had been any other sort before them. Soon, push-button or “touch-tone” telephones were being developed as a more efficient successor. Though first demonstrated in the 1960s, they were mostly rolled out in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, and took longer elsewhere. I think my parents first got one around 1988. Again, pretty soon it was no longer a “push-button phone”, or “touch-tone phone”, it was just a phone. Each number was associated with an audible tone, something which is frequently retained even today for historical reasons.

Rotary phone. You put a finger in the relevant hole, turned it clockwise to the metal stop, released and let the spring-loaded rotary system wind back. Then repeat for the next number.

I've always felt sorry for Q and Z.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Mobile phones, or cell(ular) phones, were also around early on but took a long time to become practical and cheap, probably first entering pop culture as the giant bricks carried around by stereotypical wealthy yuppies in the 1980s. The name “mobile” in British usage is obvious, while the American term stems from the fact that the phone network divides an area into “cells” associated with different transmitters spread across that area. A cell phone is associated with one transmitter at a time and is switched over to another as it crosses the boundary (which formerly often led to briefly losing the signal). This allows the system to reuse a small number of frequencies, because a frequency assigned to cell phone A in cell 1 can also be used by cell phone B in cell 2.

They called them mobile.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Because mobile phones or cell phones have been an expensive prestige item for so long, they did not lose their qualifiers for a long time. The 1980s and 90s also had car phones as a measure of wealth, incidentally, and Japan had bag phones. I vividly remember seeing my first integrated car phone system in use in 1999 when I and some friends broke down on the way to present a science project in Hull, only to be rescued by a kindly gentleman in an expensive Jaguar who offered us a lift. At the time, it felt like science fiction. (And eternal thanks to that chap, as we won the prize!)

Home phones continued to innovate with the cordless phone (more of a US term) that could be carried around the house, but little did we know that they were on the way out. One can track linguistic evolution in how words are invented specifically to describe outmoded technologies, which didn’t exist at the time they were used. Nobody referred to a “horse-drawn cart” before there was an alternative, and so on. In this case, the term “landline” was invented, which was barely attested before the twenty-first century. Mobile phones were becoming increasingly not just a luxury item, though in some ways they became a kind of fashion accessory, but also the primary means of communication. But the simple mobile was also under threat. Today, we have had to invent the term “feature phone” to describe a mobile that isn’t smart, although barely anyone uses it.

The term “smartphone” rose to prominence from the year 2000 onwards, although they did not become common until the closing years of the 2000s. The name was probably applied in imitation of “smart bomb” and related terms, which had first appeared in the 1970s and then became a popular linguistic comparison following the First Gulf War in 1991. In many ways, smartphones are more like “pocket computers” (to quote Blondie’s “Picture This” from 1978) than phones at all, with their wireless internet connectivity almost taking precedence over the phone connectivity. Some people even use them to the exclusion of any other kind of computer. I will leave aside my thoughts on this because I don’t want this to become a rant. I was burned on this because of how hopeful and optimistic Star Trek: The Next Generation was about touchscreens and voice-activated computers compared to how frustrating they are to use in real life.

Today, then, to many younger people the word “phone” specifically means smartphone, and they might not initially think of it at all when a landline phone is shown. A stereotype today – partly driven by the very understandable reason that a lot of phone calls today are made by scammers and spammers – is that younger people won’t make voice calls at all but communicate only by text messages or web apps. There is a great irony here because of what the word “phone” originally meant: sound. Not only do the people in question use the word “phone” to mean only smartphones, but they are often using those smartphones to do every task imaginable except communicate by voice. One can only consider what Bell would have thought to find that, a century and a half later, people have gone right back to using the descendant of his invention like a telegraph.

I did say I wouldn’t rant. Next time, I’ll explore this topic some more with the 3000-Year-Old Car.

Comment on this article Here.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

Look To The West (5 book series)

N'Oublions Jamais (Anthology)


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