WOSTER: An early user of cordless phonesNobody actually uses a telephone these days.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Nobody actually uses a telephone these days.
“Tele" has disappeared from the language. People use “phones’’ — cell phones, mobile phones, smart phones, iPhones and all sorts of other fancy names that creative marketers give to handheld devices that can take photographs, make videos, surf the Internet, tell the temperature, pinpoint the owner’s location and, if the mood strikes the user, make an actual telephone call.
You know, a telephone call? That’s the interaction in which one person — forgive me for being ancient here — dials a set of numbers and is connected to another person and they take turns talking and listening.
I’m not going into a thing about party lines here, where six or eight people picked up the phone whenever it rang and six or so of those people simply listened quietly, hand over the mouthpiece to muffle their breathing, as two people talked and listened in turn. That’s old stuff.
But I have a friend who has a pretty high-stress job that requires him to always have his cell phone around and always have appointments on a digital calendar that would remind him of each approaching commitment.
He told me once that if he ever retired, he wouldn’t keep a calendar in the house and he would never carry any kind of phone.
“If I need to talk to someone, I’ll pick one person and we’ll use two tin cans and a string,’’ he said.
I was quite taken with the image, because who among us hasn’t done the two-tin-cans-and-a-string creation to talk with a friend? OK, maybe there are people alive today who never tried that, maybe never even heard of it.
I suppose there’s a generation that thinks walkie-talkies were the oldest form of interpersonal communication. Anyone of my generation — and I frequently get reminders of just how advanced my generation is becoming — tried the cans-andstring- thing. It was a rite of passage.
It wasn’t the most efficient or effective means of communication. I recall vaguely that when my friend Mike and I tried it, we had trouble finding a long enough piece of string to get us out of earshot of each other.
It was difficult to tell if we were hearing something through the old soup cans we’d linked with white household string or if we could hear each other’s voice because we were too close together.
I talked my dad into bringing a length of baling twine in from the farm one weekend. Baling twine would stretch like crazy and never break.
For us, though, the resulting audio was of questionable quality. Try as we might, we didn’t produce a recognizable voice transmission.
Maybe it would have been good enough for data (or does data transmission require a higher level of signal?) but it didn’t carry our conversation.
We strained to hold the soup cans against our ears, and we leaned away from each other as hard as we could to keep the line taut, but all I ever heard was — maybe — a sort of hum.
We returned to lighter string and tried to really extend our range (“Can you hear me now?’’) by using most of a spool of kite string and stretching it across most of a city block along River Street.
Problem was, the string kept snapping. We knew we had to keep it as tight as a piece of wire for the audio to carry, but just when we thought we were in business, SNAP, and we’d be a block apart staring at a long, long length of white string lying on the grass.
Alex Bell never had it so tough.
We knotted the breaks and tried again. SNAP. Time after time after time.
After one final, frustrating break, we yelled at the same time, “Can you hear me?’’ And, of course, we could, and so could everyone in the houses or yards along that block of River Street.
It occurs to me as I think about that scene that each of us still held a soup can to our ear. Imagine that. Cordless communication more than half a century ago.