Famous First Words: Of All the Things They Could Have Said

Today marks the 140th anniversary of a momentous occasion in the history of human communication. March 10, 1876 was the day Alexander Graham Bell, the sort-of inventor of the telephone, uttered into his famous device, “Come here! I want to see you!” The man who heard those words from the next room was Thomas A. Watson.

Actor_portraying_Alexander_Graham_Bell_in_an_AT&T_promotional_film_(1926)
This man is not a telephone inventor, but he once played the role of Alexander Graham Bell, who according to some historians, wasn’t either. Film commissioned by AT&T. (Early Office Museum.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Though the message wasn’t glamorous, it was kind of genius. If Watson responded by ducking into the room, Bell would immediately know his message had been received and understood and they would know that they’d finally invented the device that would be sure to change the world.

Watson did receive the message, or at least close enough to it. He would later report that Bell had said, “Come here! I want you!” And of course, that’s how the children’s game of Telephone was invented.

Still, the world was sufficiently impressed. The well-connected Bell obtained a patent, edging out the claims of electrical engineer Elisha Gray and other telephone-like inventors who are each worthy of mention by a more thorough or trustworthy blog than this one.

But no matter where the somewhat controversial credit for the telephone’s invention should fall, there’s little question that Bell was responsible for launching it into commercial viability, maybe in part because he handled the pressure of those first words so beautifully. Because to me, that would be the most terrifying part of getting in on the invention of a communication method with the potential to take off.

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I don’t know what words were first to be uttered over a walkie-talkie, but given that the device wound up being called a “walkie-talkie,” I’m guessing the lost words weren’t terribly creative. photo credit: mob on the radio via photopin (license)

 

I know that I couldn’t handle such pressure, because a week ago, my sons had some allowance money burning holes in their pockets. They begged me to take them to a store so they could spend some of their hard-earned cash.

What they decided to buy was a set of walkie-talkies, with a video component so they can see one another as they’re talking. It’s pretty much just a lower tech version of FaceTime, exciting for them because our family has not yet reached the era of kiddo smart phones.

They’re really pretty cool little toys and the boys have had a lot of fun with them. But that first night we brought them home, my youngest, who lacks patience for such things, disappeared to play with something else while his older brother and I figured out the new walkie-talkies. We dug them out of their many ridiculous layers of plastic packaging, installed the appropriate batteries, and followed the instructions to synch them.

Then my son ran to another room and yelled, “Say something, Mom!”

I admit that for a second or two, I panicked a little. It felt like a momentous occasion, the breaking in of brand new walkie-talkies. If I said something boring or pointless, I would definitely lose cool mom points. If, on the other hand, I took a chance and ended up saying something stupid, my words might live on in embarrassing family lore.

I briefly thought through my options:

  1. The practical approach, like Bell’s first telephone call to Watson: “Come Here! I want to see you!” (perhaps not so practical when I can already see an image of him in the device).
  2. The highfalutin approach, like Samuel Morse communicating from DC to Baltimore, for the first time with the telegraph: “What hath God wrought?” (sure to garner epic mockery in the annals of family history)
  3. The seasonal approach, like that of Neil Papworth  to the phone of Richard Jarvis, demonstrating the world’s first text message: “Merry Christmas” (hardly appropriate at the beginning of March)
  4. The careless approach, like Ray Tomlinson’s 1971 note to himself in the first successful e-mail: “most likely…‘QWERTYIOP’ or something similar.” (Perhaps it will take an FBI investigation to uncover what happened to the “U”)
  5. The taunting approach, like Motorola’s Martin Cooper to his AT&T rival Joel Engel in the first successful cell phone call: “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end.” (That’s just not very sportsman like.)

    20160310_090527
    But seriously, it wouldn’t hurt the kid to clean his room.

In the end I went with the mom approach: “Time to clean your room!” It turned out, the darn audio didn’t work. But the video worked just fine, because I clearly saw my son stick his tongue out at me before he rushed into the room and grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand to take it to his brother.

It occurred to me that perhaps what Bell meant to say to his assistant was, “Come here! I want you…to clean up this dreadful experiment!” But Watson, being no dummy, hurried into the room with a big smile on his face. And history was made. Good thing, too, because if not, 140 years later, we might all still be communicating by terribly pretentious telegram.

With My Pen Held High

 

penI tend to avoid controversial topics on this blog, and when I occasionally wander into cultures and histories that are not my own, I try very hard to treat them with respect. I have intentionally chosen to make this little corner of the blogosphere a place where anyone could feel welcome.

But I certainly recognize that people who engage in communication of any kind designed for public consumption are faced with the choice of whether or not they push the envelope into the realm of offensiveness. And I celebrate the freedom of that choice, because it means that when something needs to be said, it can be said in public and it can be considered by the public.

Yesterday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo was a terrible assault on that freedom. With the people of France, with the members of the media, and with all writers, speakers, and illustrators who communicate on a public platform, from the widest national media outlet to the tiniest blog, I am adding my voice. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press matters profoundly. And so I raise my pen up high and say, Je suis Charlie!

Off the Scale and Into the Box, to Grandmother’s House We Go

Okay, okay, so I haven’t posted on this blog in something like a month. And yes, I am aware that there are dire consequences to such neglect. I know very well that if I am not posting, then no one can be reading and if no one is reading, then no one is talking about what I am posting, and if no one is talking about what I am posting then I will never reach the gazillion readers that might provide me with a large enough platform for a traditional publisher to consider taking a risk on publishing my novel that approximately .000001% of my blog followers will someday check out from the library.

I’m not complaining. The industry is what it is and I suppose it might be fair to say either I want to play or I don’t. Except that I do, most of the time. And other times, like over the course of the last month, I don’t. You could say I am taking an extended break. And, yes, I do mean “taking” because I probably won’t post again for something like a month. The reason for this is simple.

 My sons are 8 and 5 and they never will be ever again. In fact, my five-year-old is planning to turn six in the next couple weeks, and I’m going to have to let him. So while they are eight and five (almost six), I would really like their summer vacation experiences to include a mother who is available to read a book with them, or play a board game with them, or throw a ball with them. What I don’t particularly want their summer to include is a mother who is shoeing them away so she can read just one more blog, or research just one more post.

In fact, I am only sharing this one because I have shipped my children off for a couple days at Grandma’s house. Obviously I don’t mean that I literally shipped them since the US Postal Service declared back in1920 that it would no longer accept children as parcel post. And, yes, like all regulations (and safety warnings) that appear a little unnecessarily ridiculous, someone actually did it.

U.S. Mail Storage Box
But it looks so child friendly.

All 5-year-old Charlotte May Pierstorff of Grangeville, Idaho wanted to do was visit her grandmother who lived just 75 miles away in Lewiston, Idaho. Of course this was 1914 and so simply hopping in the family minivan and heading an hour or so down highway 95 wasn’t an option yet. The only good route across the fairly treacherous landscape was to take a train, an expensive proposition for the Pierstorff family.

Little May’s parents were poor, but they were also clever (or desperate for a date night).  They did what any caring parents would do. They pasted a postage stamp on their young daughter and dropped her in the mail. And at the time, they were completely within the law to do it.

The US Postal Service had begun offering domestic parcel post service in January of 1913 and while there were restrictions on poisons and certain types of live animals (smelly ones), there weren’t any regulations specifically prohibiting the mailing of people. Little May weighed in at 48 ½ pounds, just under the maximum allowable weight for a live chicken, which, it seems, was good enough for the Grangeville Postmaster.

Chicken Suit
And what grandma wouldn’t be delighted to receive this in the mail?

Mail clerk Leonard Mochel (a cousin of May’s mother, which makes the story a little less disturbing) took charge of the world’s largest chicken and saw her safely to her grandmother’s house in Lewiston. As a package, May’s train fare was only 53 cents, about a third of what she would have paid as a passenger.

May Pierstorff was likely the first child to travel by mail, but despite an outcry from postal employees, she was certainly not the last. Finally on June 13, 1920, the USPS announced that it could no longer accept children as parcel post, as children were clearly not “harmless live animals which do not require food or water while in transit.”

USPS service delivery truck in a residential a...
Just think of the mess my children could make of this back seat.

Having just driven my children the two hours to Grandma’s house in a car packed with snacks,  I have to agree with the USPS on this one. Children are most definitely not harmless (and they can be a little smelly). And believe me, despite my very noble sounding rationale for my lengthy absence from the blogosphere, I don’t think it will win me a Mother-Of-The-Year award any time soon. My kiddos still irritate me and there are days when I find myself wishing they would just hurry and grow up a little already. I still snap at them occasionally, or let myself get too distracted to listen to them tell me about their latest imaginary adventure. I may even wish from time to time that I could drop them in the mail and ship them off to family members who are less tired and can recognize how wonderfully adorable my children really are.

I have missed and will continue to miss blogging regularly because I have had the pleasure to virtually meet some really interesting people out there in the blogosphere. And I am fairly certain that there are at least a gazillion more really interesting people waiting to be virtually met. But that will have to wait a little while longer because next summer, I will be the mother of sons who are nine and six (nearly seven), and though I’m sure they will still be occasionally irritating (and smelly), they won’t ever again be the same as they are right now.

The Practical Historian Learns a New Word

Because even though "blogiversary" remains a made-up word, it's still a thing.
Because even though “blogiversary” remains a made-up word, it’s still a thing.

Exactly one year ago today I posted for the first time on this blog. Unless you’re closely related to me, there’s a pretty good chance you missed it. But I am delighted that there are a few more of you out there now, some even so kind as to offer polite comments and feedback and many with fantastic blogs of your own. And so I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate my first blogiversary (mostly because I love made-up words).

The question is how does a blogger who claims to write about history write with any authority about a form of communication that can only really be traced back to 1994? The word blog itself didn’t crop up until 1999 as a portmanteau (another great word, not made-up) of  “web” and “log” because a webllogging jokester decided to use the phrase “we blog” and it stuck.

Now you could say it’s just gotten plain out of hand with words like vlog (a video blog), travelog (a travel blog), and splog (a spamming blog) seeping into our language. Of course we can all thank Merriam-Webster for this trend.

Now THAT'S a dictionary. Webster's Third New I...
Now THAT’S a dictionary. Webster’s Third New International thankyouverymuch. (Photo credit: Martin Criminale)

Back in 1961, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary hit the bookshelves and boy did it make folks mad. In this edition, editor Philip Gove had the nerve not only to eliminate English words that hadn’t been in use since before 1755, but in doing so he freed up space to include words that were commonly spoken leading up to and into 1961. He even went so far as to include alternate spellings and once wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “the basic responsibility of a dictionary is to record language, not set its style.”

He wasn’t wrong, of course. Despite the controversy, Webster’s Third went on to become a respected and widely relied upon resource even if it did contain the word “ain’t.” But I can see the concern. Without a steadfast standard what is to prevent just anybody from making up words willy-nilly (a word that has been more or less in common use since 1610 and that can still be found in Webster’s, tucked between willy-mufty and willy-wagtail).

The truth is that language evolves constantly and so do the ways in which we communicate with one another. What started out as a few escribitionists (a word that has not yet made it into most dictionaries) with online journals, blossomed into thriving online communities of people sharing their thoughts on absolutely anything until even politicians, respected journalists, and hack writers like me decided to get in on the action.

Actually this is not my first blogging experience. Twice during my graduate studies, I was required to establish and maintain edublogs in order to support class reflection and discussion. The first focused on teaching rhetoric in a university setting. I assure you it was not even as exciting as it sounds.

The second was entirely devoted to the life and works of Jane Austen. It included only the most serious of posts like when I offered a reading of Persuasion from the perspective of Avril Lavigne and wrote “Seize upon the scissors” a lot. In case you’ve never read Jane Austen’s personal letters (but who hasn’t?) you’ll have to trust me when I say that is well worth a chuckle or two.

So when I returned to blogging seven years later because a fellow writer insisted that I couldn’t get published without a blog (though like most future bestsellers I’ve yet to get published with one), I really wanted to be sure that I found the right niche that would allow me to write comfortably and consistently.

I decided on history because as a writer of historical fiction I research nitpicky and highly blog-worthy historical details all the time anyway (and that’s the reason I can use the phrase “boat-licker” properly). It seemed like a good fit. Then as I found my blog voice I discovered what I really write is part history (sometimes true, occasionally made-up) and part personal essay (usually true, often exaggerated). I have also been known to throw in a little math and science or food from time to time. And, I’d like to think, a little splash of wit.

So since I’ve been at this a year now, I’m thinking I should come up with a word that accurately describes the type of writing I attempt here in my little corner of the blogosphere. I’m also thinking that it should contain the word blog. Maybe more than once. I’m open to suggestions.