The South in ruins

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The South lost everything in the war: its dream of an empire for slavery; its myth of superiority over Northern men; its economic capital, that had been largely invested in slaves who were now free; the little it had accomplished in the way of industrial growth. Most of all, it lost its way of life, its traditional occupation, and its confidence in the future. How could you have plantations – even if your plantation home hadn’t been burned out by Union soldiers – when your labor force was gone and your markets were disrupted? How could you hold yourselves up as the hope of the white race when you now had to live among freed slaves who had been given the vote, many of whom believed that freedom meant freedom from work? Where was your future, when so many young men were gone and so many others were cripples?

Also, with the dream of a perpetually expanding slave and cotton empire destroyed, even the most fanatical slavery advocates had to see the South’s true condition in an unsentimental clear light, perhaps for the first time.

How many steamboat companies do you suppose were put together by slave-owning Southern gentlemen, as opposed to Northern corporations? And the same for railroads, and factories, and everything that had to organize people and money and materials and all the thousand details that have to be put together. The slavers couldn’t do it because they didn’t have the training, didn’t have the liquid capital and – mainly – they couldn’t admit to themselves that it was a thing worthy of “gentlemen” doing. The long and the short of it is, the slavers who ran the South couldn’t turn themselves into capitalists or corporations and they couldn’t let others in to do it for them. If they had, they’d have put themselves out of business. (It isn’t entirely true. You can’t say a thing that’s going to be entirely true, but it’s true in the main. Exceptions like Atlanta, or like the South’s few railroad lines, or like Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, were just that – exceptions.

Economically, the South was a colony. Slavery didn’t mix well with manufacturing, or engineering, or trade. Capital invested in slaves was not available for other enterprises. Thus, the South was always short of capital for the construction of railroads, and canals, and steamboats and factories, or the operation of steamship lines. In all the South, in 1861, there were only two iron factories – one in New Orleans, which city was soon captured, and the other, the Tredegar Iron Works, in Richmond, Virginia, which was not the least of the reasons the confederates fought to hold that capital city at all costs. Until slavery was destroyed, the South had no hope of raising up a new prosperity on a different basis. It was just as General Grant said in his Memoirs, destroying slavery was the best thing the North ever did for the South.

But after the war, the South’s capital was gone and much of the new generation was gone, through death, crippling injury or emigration to the West. And if all that hadn’t been enough, there was military occupation, and reconstruction, and carpetbaggers, and the problem of finding a way to deal with a race of former slaves who had neither education nor capital nor, in most cases, skilled trades. The North (or rather, the federal government) was temporarily able to impose any solution on the South that it could devise, but no one had thought the problem through. The slaves were freed, and they were given the vote, but they were left without savings or income or education, and in a way they were left unemployed, and they were supposed to make their way. Perhaps Lincoln would have found a more complete solution, because as usual he had given the matter a lot of thought, and as usual he had done his thinking without hatred or malice.

A possible solution would have been to confiscate the property of the slave owners and divide it among the slaves. That would have solved a lot of problems. It would have caused other problems, but everything causes problems; we could have dealt with them somehow. If the slaves had been given land to work, that would have been something they knew. Perhaps they could have been given help learning the business end of farming it. Maybe the craftsmen among them could have been set to work building the things they was all going to need. But nobody gave it much thought, and look at all the evils that followed –carpetbaggers, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and former rebels re-elected to their old seats in Congress, and then reconstruction. The country needed long-headed Abraham Lincoln to help find the way, but fanatics had put him in the grave, along with so many soldiers.


Race and Reconstruction

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

Claude Bowers’ book about Reconstruction, The Tragic Era, is considered to be discredited by historical authorities because of its racism and its assumption of the necessary inequality of the races. But, of course, one might be a racist and make arguments that were not, or might not be a racist and make arguments that were. His book was published in 1929, at the height of an intolerant era – but that speaks more to why it could be published than why it was published. That is not the same thing as saying that he wrote it hoping for the approval of the Ku Klux Klan.

To speak of race always requires thought and care, lest prejudice or self-righteousness mislead us. Bowers was a liberal in his day, an appointee of Franklin Roosevelt, an opponent of fascism. He was not a racist in the sense of believing that blacks (or any other race) were genetically inferior to whites. And it is minimal fairness to assume that he was as sincere, as interested in truth, as sickened by corruption, as we are – at least until evidence proves otherwise.

So when he said that black slaves a year out of slavery were not ready for the ballot, can we label the statement as racist and dismiss it? Consider the reality of the situation. Do you suppose that slavery is good for one’s character? And do you think that a culture deliberately inculcating enforced ignorance, dependence, servility, fosters the makings of good citizenship? Obviously not. But then, do these wronged people, once freed by an outside force, necessarily immediately possess the wherewithal to be good citizens? Do they know how to work and support themselves? Do they know how to vote intelligently? Can they even read? After generations in which they have been treated as property – often bred like animals, literally – years in which marriage and kinship ties were utterly disregarded by those who owned them, are they now by some magical wand to be instantly transformed into people with the morals and habits and inherited tendencies of the descendants of Europeans? It is impossible!

Lincoln knew that, and he knew it was going to be a thorny problem to deal with.

In 1865 it was evident that there was no going back to slavery. Perhaps, mixed in with the anguish of defeat and the total loss of what they had had, southerners did sometimes breathe a sigh of relief that at least that incubus had been removed, however badly. And there must have been many who silently cried out against the folly of the slave-owners who had resisted all schemes of compensated emancipation and had thereby brought the whole region to ruin. But repentant or unrepentant, resigned or intractable, in mid-1865 there was not a man, woman or child on the face of the earth who thought that slavery as it had been would ever be reestablished in the American republic. Slavery was dead. So was colonization. Lincoln had thought of colonization, too – sending the former slaves elsewhere – hoping that it was the answer to the problem. But who was going to pay to transport four million black men, women and children overseas, and where were they to go, and who was to force them to do so, when they clearly did not want to go?

And yet – there they were. The slaves had been freed, and now in some or another way whites and the newly freed blacks had to live together. The white society had no feeling of equality with a people who were ignorant and had no traditions in common with them. This had less to do with racism than with other things as well, that are rarely expressed.

1) The white southerners heard the northerners talk of equality and took that to mean that they were to be reduced to the level of freed slaves – for they saw that they themselves were not in charge of their own destiny, and they noticed that the white northerners were not welcoming the freed slaves to come live with them in the north.

2) Most slaves had no education, no means of support, no accumulated capital, no profession, and relatively few skills. Now, this certainly was not the fault of the people who had been deprived of all this – but it was their condition, and that condition was not to be talked away, any more than we can talk away the condition of the homeless on our city streets.

3) Neither former slaves nor former owners nor white inhabitants who were not former slave owners (by far the greatest number), had any model of a society in which whites and blacks lived together on terms of equality. We did not achieve it in 100 years. How could it have been achieved overnight in 1865?

Reconciliation and readjustment might have had a better chance if the real difficulties had been expressed and addressed, in a spirit of conciliation and thoughtful goodwill rather than revenge and malignity. And this of course is why they killed Lincoln, to prevent him from using his immense prestige to accomplish reconciliation as best he could. He had no magical wand either, but he had thought upon the problem, and that put him far ahead of those whose idea of thought was actually a mere venting and stoking and execution of hatred.


America’s Long Journey: Vengeance

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


Thaddeus Stevens, the man who more than any other shaped the vindictive reconstruction policy that supplanted Lincoln’s reconciliatory approach, was an honest man, no hypocrite, no fool. But if any one man blighted the chance of postwar reconciliation, he was the man. Not out of greed, or avarice for power, not even for revenge of anything personal he had ever suffered, but out of hatred.

Stevens hated the men who had caused the Civil War. He hated the slave-owners who for 15 years and more tried to make slavery national. He hated slavery, and those who advocated and practiced it, and those who defended it. Having lived for years in the shadow of the triumph of slavery – for so it appeared to many a man in the years before the war — and then living through four years of unprecedented slaughter and destruction, years in which defeat seemed all too possible – he came through to the other side determined to take his revenge upon evil.

The arch fiend in this tragedy was not a man or a faction or a party. It was not even the human scavengers who preyed upon the helpless. The fiend was – hatred. And Abraham Lincoln knew that.

Stevens knew that Lincoln could not be depended upon to hate enough; perhaps it was as well that he was gone. Chamberlain’s magnanimous gesture at Appomattox, Sherman’s lenient terms to Johnston – Grant’s lenient terms to Lee, for that matter – seemed, to him, just short of treason. For what if the enemy’s seeming defeat was actually a sham, a biding of time? Lee in the mountains instead of prison? Criminal leniency! Nor was he alone in these thoughts.

No one ever embraces hatred without paying the full price sooner, then later. In the case of reconstruction, it was paid by all concerned – by the south initially, by the entire country for generations ultimately. Look at Mr. Lincoln’s golden words: “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” and contrast them to the brutal military occupation and martial law that unnecessarily humiliated and demoralized the defeated south, that set up puppet governments to assure Republican majorities in the national legislature, for the surer plundering of the national treasure. Is it not obvious that Lincoln would have been a great obstacle to this gigantic crime? And – this is a rhetorical question, but it needs to be posed – which of the two approaches made better policy? Which fostered better citizenship? Which sooner bound the nation’s wounds?

The Union soldier did his duty and fought for two causes he deeply believed in – preservation of the union and abolition of slavery. That vision was betrayed and perverted by a policy of calculated hatred, generating generations of hatred and strife. The enemy was hatred; the danger was hatred; the temptation was hatred, and the serpent in the garden, day and night, was hatred, and appeals to hatred, and the stirring up of hatred.

(And, a side issue. Jefferson Davis and his government failed their people in the way they let the war end. Davis and his government fled, rather than surrender, and of course in the event were captured anyway. General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army and made the best terms for them he could, even though he thought he would be imprisoned, maybe executed. General Johnston did the same. Davis did not surrender his government; he fled. If he had surrendered, even if he had been tried and executed, he would have helped his people, for he would to some degree have drawn the lighting.)

America’s Long Journey: Transcontinental

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


At the close of the Civil War, in 1865, a trip by stagecoach from Missouri to California took about 28 days of day and night travel. The Oregon, Mormon and California Trails, which were too rugged for cargo shipments, required anywhere from three to four months travel over mostly unimproved roads. To travel by sea (as did about half of the Pacific Coast population and more than 90% of the cargo they needed), required travel by sailing ship around the tip of South America (Cape Horn) or else paddle steamers to Mexico, Nicaragua or Panama, land passage across, and another paddle steamer up the Pacific coast.

In the first days of June, 1876, an express train made the journey from New York City to San Francisco not in months, not in weeks, but in three and a half days. That’s the difference the transcontinental railroad made.

The Union Pacific Railroad, using mostly Army veterans and Irish immigrants, built westward from Nebraska. The Central Pacific Railroad, worked east from California, using some of the 50,000 Chinese immigrants then living on the West Coast, and then importing laborers from China. The Central Pacific’s road lay through some of the toughest terrain in the country, the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Union Pacific had merely to lay track across the plains, and, despite repeated attacks on the builders of the iron horse by Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors, was far easier. The two railheads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, 690 track-miles from Sacramento and 1,086 from Omaha. Between them, the two companies built 1,756 miles of railroad in six years.

The details of the railroad’s construction are fascinating, as you will learn if you Google “transcontinental railroad.” Building that railroad was the kind of outsized challenge that caught the imagination and mobilized the energies of 19-century can-do America. It required monumental feats of engineering, staggering amounts of labor, and huge amounts of capital (more than $100,000,000 in 1860 dollars) over six years.

It also required government subsidies in the form of 30-year 6% U.S. government bonds (issued to the two railroad-building companies at $16,000 per mile for track laid at level grade, $32,000/mile for track laid in foothills and $48,000/mile for track laid in mountains). No one knew at the time whether the railroad companies would prove profitable. The U.S. bonds were issued on condition that if they were not repaid on schedule, with interest, all remaining railroad property, including trains and tracks, were to revert to the U.S. government for disposal. Perhaps because of this foresighted provision, the bonds and interest were, in fact, fully repaid on schedule. In addition, the companies were given alternate sections (a section is one square mile) of government-owned lands along the tracks for 10 miles on both sides of the track (altogether, 6,400 acres per mile of track) to use or sell.

Naturally a project of stupendous scale was a lure for bandits. The continuous need for more capital, the availability of government money, and the prospect of more, subject only to political oversight, assured that the railroad would be mired first to last in political and financial corruption, as we saw in the Credit Mobilier section above. It also assured that the railroad interests would buy and operate state legislatures and heavily influence federal legislation for decades to come, until political reform combined with the impact of new technology to reduce their influence.

But, corruption notwithstanding, the railroad was an outstanding accomplishment, the 19th century equivalent of the 20th century’s race to the moon. For instance, a Wikipedia site detailed the Central Pacific’s task:

“Essentially all of their manufactured railway supplies: picks, shovels, axes, hammers, saws, sledge hammers, spikes (about 5,500/mile), rock drills, black powder, bridge hardware, iron rails (about 350 rails/mile of 30 foot rails; 200,000 pounds/mile), fishplates (700/mile if using 30 foot rails), bolts and nuts to bolt the fishplates on, wrenches, railroad switches for the many railroad sidings needed on a one-way track, railroad turntables, steam locomotives, railroad freight cars, railroad passenger cars, telegraph wire, insulators, batteries, telegraph keys, etc. would have to be imported from manufacturers on the East Coast of the United States.”

This all traveled 18,000 miles and 200 days around South America’s Cape Horn or down to the Isthmus of Panama, across and up, which took about 40 days and cost twice as much per pound. At San Francisco, it was put onto riverboats and carried another 130 miles trip up the Sacramento River to Sacramento.

The Pacific Railroad revolutionized conditions for trade, commerce and travel. The fare for a one week trip from Omaha to San Francisco on an emigrant sleeping car, traveling far faster and more safely than by stagecoach or wagon train, was only $65 for an adult. That was still a substantial sum in those days, but not impossible. Combined with the effects of the Homestead Act of 1862 (which sold unclaimed government owned land cheaply, at 160 acres per applicant, provided that they would do certain prescribed work on it), the new railroad made settlement of the west much more rapid and inexpensive. Easy and cheap transportation meant more settlers more quickly, which meant more freight customers for the railroads. The railroad carried in a new population, carried them what they needed to buy, and carried away the goods they produced for sale. As the railroads spurred population growth, other connecting railroads were built, to serve communities and states off the original main track. Thus the transcontinental line helped settle the entire West.

America’s Long Journey: The North and the Gilded Age

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The North and the Gilded Age

There is a reason why the Civil War was followed by the Gilded Age. War defeats every society that engages in it, because it changes things. What both North and South alike lost in the war – beyond the loss of 600,000 men in the prime of life – was the prewar way of life. It wasn’t just the pre-war South that was gone with the wind. The North of thriving little communities and human-scale enterprises was destroyed as well.

What the North lost in the war isn’t necessarily obvious, but it wasn’t trivial. To beat the slavers, the government had to call up an army to beat them with, and war means profit, and the piling-up of profit means creating another class of predators. It was obvious in the postwar era that the government was being bought and paid for, and where do you think the money was coming from? It was money – and a big pile of it – that various companies had made on the war. Some made it honestly and some didn’t, but regardless, they had it, and they were not shy about using it to protect their interests.

The war piled up so many fortunes, it delivered the government into the hands of those that could pay for it. Ward, municipality, county, state, federal, all the way up and all the way down, it was the same. Now you could say – and it would be right in a way, and to a degree, that no matter what the new problems were, at least we had eliminated chattel slavery. People didn’t own other people and weren’t able to whip and kill and abuse them however they wanted. You could say at least the women weren’t owned by a class of owners, as in slave days. And that’s sort of true. But there were plenty of other kinds of slavery left.

Think of all those penniless whores of the postwar era. And why were people working in sweatshops 12 and 16 hours a day, for nothing much? Why were people treated as bad as the better-off slaves had been? Because economically they were slaves.

Why do you think the economic powers behind the government let in those millions of immigrants? Sentiment, as themselves the descendants of immigrants? Or was it to keep down wages and provide plenty of new fodder for their mines and factories? Yes, families did better themselves, over time, but that was just a side-effect that the owners didn’t care about one way or the other. It wasn’t why they were enticed here.

Can you say that people have economic freedom when they had to have a job and had to take what they could get, and what they could get was determined by a few men at the top? Can you say that people have political freedom, merely because they can choose between two sets of obedient puppets? One reason Theodore Roosevelt elicited such wild enthusiasm is that the people could see that here was one of the privileged elite who really did care about the welfare of the common man and woman.

Did the people have the ability to determine their own lives? Ask the strikers who were cut down by the National Guard, or beaten by the police, or by the scabs the police watched do it. Did they get clean water? Did they get nutritious food? Did they even get sunlight? You wouldn’t think a people that called themselves free would put up with having to live scarcely ever seeing the sun, would you? You might say it is one more effect of secession and civil war, which turned a nation of small towns governing themselves into a nation of cities governed by the agents of powerful corporations responsible to nobody but their directors.

Credit Mobilier and corruption

Perhaps this is too much space to give to one man’s crookedness, or perhaps the story of how one man’s crookedness bilked government and consumers may stand in for many others that might be told. Either way, it is important to remember that great enterprises may be accompanied by large-scale stealing, and that sometimes, perhaps, the great enterprise would never have been successfully undertaken unless some men had seen in it a way to prosper without risk.

The next section details the building of the great transcontinental railroad, built from the east by the Union Pacific and from the west by the Central Pacific. Here we look at the seamy underside of that project. The Central Pacific was dominated by four ambitious businessmen whose names are still legend — Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins. They did what they needed to do to finance the project, and they exploited every loophole to get government funds, but they stayed more or less within the law. The Union Pacific was a different matter. In contrast to the relatively straightforward arrangements for the Central Pacific, the Union Pacific was involved in one of the biggest scandals of the age.

The man behind the Union Pacific was Dr. Thomas Durant, when went from medicine to grain exporting to building railroads. In the 1850s, his contracting company, Farnam and Durant, raised the capital and managed construction for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (M&M). In 1862, Durant’s new company, the Union Pacific, was chosen to build the eastern section of the transcontinental railroad, and Durant, as general agent for the UP Eastern Division, was charged with raising money, acquiring resources and securing favorable legislation for the company.

It wasn’t supposed to be his company. The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 limited individual holding in Union Pacific to 10 percent of the total. But this made it hard to sell stock, so Durant persuaded investors to buy the stock in their own names, using money borrowed from him for the required 10% down payment. In this way, he issued $2.18 million of UP stock to subscribers and wound up controlling half the stock, which meant that he ran the company as he pleased.

Meanwhile, he made about $5 million manipulating the stock market, using rumors to run up the value of his M&M stock, then secretly buying competing rail line stock, then starting rumors that the new railroad was going to connect with those lines, then selling those stocks at inflated prices and buying back the M&M stock at depressed prices.

Then, through an associate, he had Union Pacific accept the construction bid of a company called Crédit Mobilier, which just happened to be a company he secretly owned with a partner. No other bids were solicited. And so Union Pacific paid Credit Mobilier to build the railroad. In essence, Durant hired himself to construct the railroad, paying Credit Mobilier with money given to the Union Pacific by government bonds and risk-taking investors. Credit Mobilier subcontracted the actual work to real construction crews, who charged significantly less than Credit Mobilier charged the Union Pacific, and keeping the difference.

The common unified ownership of the two companies was successfully concealed for years, as was the fact that the same corporate officers and directors were on both sides of every major construction contract drawn up between the Union Pacific and Crédit Mobilier. The company escaped detection by the simple measure of bribing enough members of Congress.

So, you might ask, who was harm by all this crooked dealing? Count the bodies.

First, the other investors, and the stock market speculators, and the owners of the other railroads whose stock prices he manipulated, and the railroad itself. Credit Mobilier charged the Union Pacific at least $23 million more than the actual cost of construction. As a result of this systematic looting, Union Pacific faced bankruptcy within three years of completion of the road, despite having received millions in government subsidies. Those who had invested in the railroad found themselves with nearly worthless securities on their hands. The money went into the construction company, and thence into the pockets of the crooks who owned it.

Second, the body politic. Durant put so many politicians on the payroll, directly or indirectly, that it became a national scandal when the facts finally began to emerge during the 1872 presidential election campaign.

Third, and perhaps worst, all the railroad’s future customers – mostly dependent one the one road, no competition existing – who were systematically overcharged for decades because what should have been a profitable enterprise began life crippled by shoddy workmanship that had to be corrected, and capital shortage caused by so much money having been stolen. The missing capital stock of these roads was estimated at $180,000,000.

And, worst of all, they got away with it. None of the crooks involved was ever punished by law. It is to be hoped that there is a hell, and that they are presently being roasted, but I’m afraid that’s too good to be true.

America’s Long Journey: Electricity

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


As long ago as 1800, Alessandro Volta developed the voltaic pile, the first battery, which produced electricity from chemical reactions. In 1831, Michael Faraday figured out how to generate electricity from rotary motion. But it wasn’t until 1878 that Thomas Edison developed and sold a system to generate and distribute electricity. In 1879 he invented a practical incandescent light bulb, a carbon filament sealed in a vacuum, and began commercial production of carbon filament bulbs the following year. (He wasn’t the only inventor of the light bulb, but his was the one that succeeded commercially.) Then, in 1882, he opened power stations in London and New York City, providing commercially viable alternatives to gas lighting and heating. Edison’s Pearl Street Station in New York began with 85 customers using 400 lamps. By 1884 Pearl Street was supplying 508 customers with 10,164 lamps. Success. But each of Edison’s power stations could only serve a one-mile radius, due to restrictions posed by the use of a direct-current (DC) system. Thus his system would be practical only for city centers and special uses.

A brief painless explanation: Any electrical system has to choose how much voltage to send through the wires. The greater the voltage, the smaller the current, and therefore the thinner the transmission wire can be (smaller current generates less resistance). On the other hand, greater voltage comes with three disadvantages: It requires thicker insulation, and it won’t work with certain loads. (Also, it is more likely to give you a dangerous shock if you come into contact with it.)

The answer was alternating current, or AC, developed by Nikola Tesla and others and made practical commercially by industrialists such as George Westinghouse. AC transformers allowed the power station to send power at higher voltages. This reduced the current, and therefore reduced the size of the wire, and reduced distribution losses from resistance. At the other end of the line, transformers at local substations reduced the voltage to supply loads. Only AC made it possible to locate generators in one place, such as a dam, and distribute power over long distances.

AC was introduced only a few years after Edison’s initial power plants went into operation. He fought it tooth and nail as long as he could, but the advantages of the AC system were overwhelming. The War of Currents, as it was called, resulted in a complete victory for AC. DC systems were relegated to special uses. In a short while, electric wires were being stretched in all directions, a process that would continue in America at uneven rates for a period of about 70 years. One New Deal program often cited for its transformative effects is the Rural Electrification Agency, which brought electric power to places previously unreached.

A computer search beginning with the word electricity or electric-power generation or some similar term will lead you down fascinating byways, either technical or historical or both. The development of steam turbines, for instance, made generation of AC power much cheaper and more reliable. The development of the electric-power grid, which became the near-universal means of transmission, and upon which the country still relies, is another important story. Once you get the idea of the 19th century as being the century in which humanity burst through age-old constraints, you begin to see it as they did, as a century of marvels.

Electricity was but one more of the 19th century’s revolutionary developments. Initially it was steam, the first new source of energy harnessed since medieval man developed windmills. Steam engines powered boats that could travel without regard to the wind, and could steam up-river. Steam railroads traveled at speeds four or five times faster than a galloping horse, and unlike the horse they could keep it up day and night, as long as the fuel held out and the boiler didn’t burst. The electric telegraph provided virtually instant communication, day and night, wherever the wires extended. And now here was electricity, the equivalent of a power plant in every home and factory. Instead of candles and oil lamps, electric lights. Instead of belt-driven systems powered by steam engines, fractional-horsepower electric motors.

Like all new technology, electricity started out relatively expensive, relatively restricted in use. New users and technological improvements brought down costs and expanded applications, until within a relatively short time people became accustomed to doing things they hadn’t dreamed of being able to do only a few years before. We’ve seen it in our time with personal computers. Electricity in the home and shop was no less revolutionary to the Victorians.

America’s Long Journey: The Telephone


Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Telephone

Nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane? At least, that’s how it looks at first glance.

But the more you look at it, the more clearly you see how much that was to come depended on it. It turned every home and workplace into the equivalent of a telegraph office. It gave the individual the ability to contact others immediately, at that moment, without having to leave the room or depend upon a third party such as a telegrapher. At first they could reach across town, which was revolutionary in itself. With time, they learned to talk to different cities, then different countries and even – at great expense and for strictly limited times, at first – via undersea cables to other continents. In our time we saw the telephone networks coupled with radio technology, then with communications satellites, and then with computers. So that now we take for granted a global access that would have been unimaginable even to the 19th century which had come to take revolutionary changes in technology in its stride, as we shall see.

We, looking backward, can see how many future developments were built firmly upon that telephone network. Without a telephone network, no fax transmissions, for one thing, and no internet. And if today’s cell phones function without a nervous system of telephone wires, there never would have been such a thing as a cell phone, let alone an iPhone, if that system of landlines had not existed first. So let’s take a look at how the first aspect of everyday life came to function at electric speeds.

Inventions rarely spring from the labors of only one man; usually they build upon the work of others, acknowledged or otherwise, and sometimes the question of who should get the credit (not to mention the profits) is bitterly disputed. The invention of the telephone is one of those cases, but Alexander Graham Bell is commonly credited as the inventor of the first practical telephone, and this is not the place to pursue the claims of others. Regardless what others may have contributed, Bell was the man who obtained the patent, in 1876, and he was the man who made it into a practical business proposition. Developing commercially practical telephones, adapting telephone exchanges and switching plug boards developed for telegraphy, he developed a hugely successful business. It has been argued that, regardless whether it was Bell who invented the telephone, it has he who invented the telephone industry.

He was Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University, training teachers in the art of instructing deaf mutes how to speak. Information on how he came to invent the telephone, and how the telephone operates, is easily found. I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that on March 10, 1876, Bell spoke the famous sentence to his assistant, Thomas Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” and Watson answered. This was the first successful bi-directional transmission of clear speech.

In June, Bell exhibited a working telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In August, he made a call between two points 10 miles apart, setting up a telephone using telegraph lines. In 1878, Thomas Edison invented the microphone that made long-distance calls practical. From that point on, it was a matter of continuous improvement, with various inventors and engineers adding additional features. Already in 1876, Hungarian engineer Tivadar Puskás, working for Edison on another project, invented the telephone switchboard, which allowed for the formation of telephone exchanges, which were soon linked via “trunk” lines. Today’s fiber-optic cable and digital technology are only improvements on this basic framework.

Like most commercial innovations, telephones were expensive at first, and therefore were at first relative luxuries for individuals, being mostly limited to commercial use. By the turn of the century, however, forests of telephone poles supporting dozens of telephone wires were common sights in all American cities. You can imagine the effect of American life easily enough by remembering the effect the internet has had on your own. More input, quicker, with more people. At first a novelty, it became a convenience, then a necessity, with unanticipated side-effects (the decline of letter-writing, for one) and logical (but often equally unanticipated) further developments as one technology was married to another (the public opinion poll, eventually). At first sketchy and rudimentary (for decades, many rural areas would be connected via “party lines” sharing service, each household having a distinctive ring pattern to know that a given call was for it rather than its neighbors), services were upgraded gradually but pretty continuously (as party lines, for instances, became private lines).

Perhaps the most drastic effect was to subtly change America’s sensory mix, in the way that the internet today may be changing us. As I said, nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane?