The Convivial Society, No. 25
"There's No Telephone In Heaven"
In this installment of The Convivial Society, I'm glad to be rolling out a new occasional feature for the newsletter: excerpts from recent books on technology and society. In this case, you will find a selection from Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt's Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter(Harvard University Press, 2019).
Fernandez and Matt are both professors at Weber State University. Their book explores the relationship between digital media and our emotional lives by placing our present experience within a broader history of how technology has mediated emotion. The following excerpt is taken from their chapter titled "Awe," and it reflects on some fascinating aspects of the reception of the telephone.
You can read more from Fernandez and Matt in a recent op-ed featured in the Washington Post, and you can follow them both on Twitter (@luke_fernandez / @ALongingForHome).
Regular programming will resume with the next newsletter. As always, welcome to new readers!
“There’s No Telephone in Heaven”
If the invention of the telegraph and its extension around the globe brought with it both awe-filled hopes for transcendence and salvation as well as eventual disappointments, other new media inventions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries excited many of the same dreams and then dashed them as well. The telephone, phonograph, and radio all seemed to hold within them unknown potential that might offer humans new powers. Americans, however, soon discovered their limits. Yet even when their fascination with one device waned, they quickly vested their hopes in the new ones that emerged. Historian David Nye writes of this tendency, noting, “Despite its power, the technological sublime always implies its own rapid obsolescence, making room for the wonders of the next generation. The railway of 1835 hardly amazed in 1870, and most Americans eventually lost interest in trains (though that particular ‘romance’ lasted longer than most). . . . During each generation the radically new disappeared into ordinary experience.”
However it was not merely that Americans transferred their excitement from one technology to another, it was that the emotions they felt about these inventions changed dramatically over time. Twentieth century awe differed markedly from nineteenth- or eighteenth-century awe. Technologies had changed; so too had emotional culture. Gradually, Americans became convinced that awe—with its connotations of superstition, fear, and submissiveness before a powerful God—was an outdated feeling, one that earlier, more primitive people had felt. Even as early as 1869, signs of such attitudes were emerging. A poet celebrating the telegraph described it as the work of Morse, “our modern Prometheus,” and declared it had ushered in a new age: “No more the hours of awe and gloom, Which filled our childish hearts with dread. . . . Now science grabs the lightning’s fire.” Unlike the mythological Prometheus, the American Prometheus of the nineteenth century no longer need stand in fearful awe of the gods.
Poets were joined by moral philosophers who questioned the value of awe and wonder. The influential English philosopher, educator, and psychologist Alexander Bain, whose work was read on both sides of the Atlantic, wrote of wonder and the sublime, noting, “In matters of truth and falsehood, wonder is one of the corrupting emotions. The narrations of matter of fact are constantly perverted by it.” Wonder, he believed, was on the decline: “The discovery of uniform laws makes wonder to cease in one way by showing that nothing in nature is singular or exceptional. . . . [S]cience and extended study naturally bring a man more or less to the position of ‘nil admirari,’ depriving him of the stimulating emotion bred of inexperience. Even the unexplained phenomena can be looked at with composure by the philosophic mind.”
Reflecting this new appraisal of awe, Dr. David Inglis, in 1898, reported on what he termed a “Remarkable Exaggeration of the Sense of Awe” in the New York Medical Journal. There he told of a patient who experienced too much awe. He described a well-educated woman who felt “intense awe” whenever she saw a rainbow, red sunsets, or the aurora borealis. Inglis believed her case illustrated “the type of mind of the early ancestors of our race.” He continued, “My patient seems to me to represent the probable mental state of early man before the intellect had reasoned out the causes and relations of natural phenomena. The average man reasons these things out, and, coming of generation after generation which has reasoned them out, he is born with a mind in which the fear of the great and strange forces of Nature is relatively small.” As Inglis concluded, because of her sense of awe and mystery, “this patient is a reversion to an early type. She is an aboriginal.”
Many psychologists concurred that some religious feelings were useless vestiges of the past. James Leuba, a psychologist of religion, described the fear with which many regarded God as representing “the lowest form of religion” and a “survival of a by-gone age.” Awe, he believed, was more evolved and noble than fear, though it too contained an element of “arrested fear.” He suggested that “the stage of culture at which awe can be the dominant religious emotion is also passed”; it was becoming “obsolete.” Those who still felt fear and awe when they contemplated nature and God, he wrote, were not to be celebrated, for the emotions were “in no way praiseworthy.” He concluded, “The powerful support which traditional Christianity—and of course, other forms of religion also—receives from the emotional reaction in question is due to the fact that both are survivals of an earlier age. . . . [T]he lapse of intelligence induced by emotion brings man down to the level of antiquated religious beliefs.” In 1917, social psychologist William McDougall likewise described “the long persistence of fear and awe in religion,” suggesting that it was fading away among the “more highly civilized peoples at present time.” Across the Atlantic, a year later, Max Weber famously observed “that there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.” Awe and wonder were becoming outdated emotions, ill-suited to the modern, rational world.
If awe was no longer welcomed in modern society, neither was the tendency to regard machines as providentially designed. Many Americans continued to hope these inventions would offer new possibilities for communion with the dead and connection to the greater forces of the universe, but they eventually came to regard the machines themselves as the product of human effort rather than divine inspiration. This change did not happen overnight. Some still continued to invoke God or mysterious powers when talking about new technologies. Ministers still sometimes claimed them as God’s creation. Yet the frequency of such pronouncements gradually declined, just as excited celebrations of human ingenuity began to emerge.
Many observers of turn-of-the-century inventions focused more on their human creators than on their relationship to divinity. Americans still regarded these new devices as holding the potential to tap into strange and mystical forces of the universe, but it was humans, not gods, who were doing this. For instance, to many the phone seemed magical but not quite divine. As a newspaper reported in 1877,
Neither in the picturesque phrases of half-civilized man nor in the boldest flights of fancy or tradition is there anything quite so weird as the speaking telegraph. In all the Eastern legends of magic, people who are placed wide apart never communicate directly with each other by speech. After the magician has drawn his circles in the sand, and lighted the mystic fire, and spoken the cabalistic words, he may perhaps summon the distant one by occult influence or through the agency of a genie. It is a thousand times more astounding as a mere conception that the voice, the tones, the very utterance of a friend who is miles on miles away, may be distinctly heard by the listener who holds to his ear the trumpet of the telephone.
Yet by 1901, some had become so accustomed to the telephone that the New York Times declared, “This is an annihilation of time and space which would belong in the realm of magic if it was not a commonplace of daily experience.”
Even if phones were becoming commonplace, marketers nevertheless continued to focus on their magical qualities. “The Magic Flight of Thought” was what the telephone offered, according to a 1914 AT&T advertisement. It declared that while humans had long hoped to move across time and space instantaneously, now it was possible, thanks to the technical expertise of the phone company: “The flight of thought is no longer a magic power of mythical beings, for the Bell Telephone has made it a common daily experience. . . . [T]houghts of people are carried with lightning speed in all directions.” The phone was magical and awe-inspiring, but the Bell Company, not God, had created it. And in doing so, the company had given what once were considered divine powers to mere mortals.
The long-standing hopes that these new inventions would help men and women transcend their mortal limits did not completely disappear either; however, many of them came to rest on the technical skills of the human creators rather than on divine intervention. Shortly after inventing the phonograph, Thomas Edison explained that it offered the possibility of immortality. He declared that one of its key uses would be to create a “Family Record” which would preserve “the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying member of the family.” Elsewhere, he elaborated on this use, noting, “Centuries after you have crumbled to dust, [the phonograph] will repeat again and again to a generation that will never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.” These were not merely the wild promotions of the phonograph’s inventor—instead, they revealed a widely shared desire for communion with the dead, for a guarantor of immortality. The Farmer’s Cabinet, a New Hampshire newspaper, spoke with a similar reverence about the phonograph and its powers to reshape the boundaries between mortals and immortals:
Nothing could be more incredible than the likelihood of once more hearing the voice of the dead, yet the invention of the new instrument is said to render this possible hereafter. It is true that the voices are stilled, but whoever has spoken or whoever may speak into the mouth-piece of the Phonograph, and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be reproduced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has turned to dust. A strip of indented papers travels through a little machine, the sounds of the latter are magnified, and possibly centuries hence hear us as plainly as if we are present. Speech has become, as it were, immortal.
In sum, as Evan Eisenberg points out, the phonograph offered a form of séance. Yet it was a séance created by Edison, not God, and one at which the dead said nothing new or unexpected. Their voices were frozen in the past rather than communicating new thoughts in the present.
When radio, or wireless telegraphy as it was often called, was first invented, it too excited hopes of connections to the otherworldly. And some observers still discussed their feelings in terms of the religious awe they felt. Historian Susan Douglas maintains that the radio’s rise and spread during the 1920s was a sign “that people were hungering for otherworldly contact, for communion with disembodied spirits, for imaginative escapades that affirmed there was still wonder in the world.”
A case in point was the popular belief that the radio would allow listeners to tune in to the ether and happen upon voices talking long after the speakers had died. The New York Times carried word that “the voices of famous men who have spoken over the radio are still wandering in the ether and if wireless development continues at the present rate they may be picked up a hundred years hence, according to engineering experts of the Marconi Company.” Engineers told the reporter that radio messages “were never lost” and might “go on forever.” They claimed that they had “actually trapped messages after they have passed a third time around the earth. It is not impossible, they say, that fifty years hence the voices of men long dead may be still wandering about and be picked up by sensitive instruments.” Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote that it was both “interesting . . . and appalling, to realize that only the turn of a knob stood between you and all the voices, human and instrumental, vibrating at that moment throughout the world.” She claimed that “every ripple of the surrounding ether was soaked with transmissible sound—always had been, from that matter, so that in the air that beat upon the ears of the aborigines camped on the banks of the Potomac (if they had but known how to tune in) were hidden the words of Socrates discoursing in the Agora of Athens, of Cataline declaiming before the Roman senate, of the Sermon on the Mount."
Yet such speculations revealed the limits of the machine and the limits of faith. Listeners were not going to pick up any new sermons from Jesus; nor were they going to actively communicate with him, or Socrates, or Cataline. They might hear echoes of their words, spoken long ago, but the telephone, phonograph, or radio could not rouse the dead. Hearing these voices from the past might be thrilling, but it was not the true or complete connection for which earlier generations had longed.
And there was a rising tide of skepticism about the devices as well. For instance, many Americans scoffed at the idea that one could telephone to heaven, though their grandparents had believed they might send a telegram there. In August 1890, the New York Times reprinted news of what a London paper termed called “Telephone Insanity.” “In the infirmary connected with the Central Police Station the doctors have received to-day a curious case of what they call ‘telephonic madness.’” A young lady had stopped in the middle of the streets and “shouted at the top of her voice, ‘Hallo! Hallo!’ the preliminary words used here when a person wishes to converse with another through a telephone. A crowd at once gathered around the young lady, who put her hands to her mouth and ears in telephonic fashion. ‘Is that you, Saint Peter?’ continued she, as if speaking into a tube. ‘Right, give me my keys? What? You cannot be bothered! Then send your commissionaire. I must get home!’” After watching the woman do this for some time, the crowd gradually concluded “that she was wrong in her mind. A constable took her to the police station, where she went on in the same way, declaring that she heard distinctly through the telephone the celestial music of Paradise; that she could hear Saint Cecilia playing the piano, and that the chorus was composed of cherubim.” She was sent to an infirmary by the police.
Such delusions apparently were quite common at the turn of the century. For instance, a Lexington, Kentucky, newspaper, the Blue-Grass Blade, reported in 1905 that “a doctor of this city named Lillokrone developed religious mania and rigged up his boarding house a telephone with which he imagined he could communicate with heaven. He landed in Bellevue Hospital, psychopathic ward.” “Was Telephoning to Heaven, but Policeman Got Him before Central Makes Connection” was the headline in a Spanish Fork, Utah, paper in the same year. Whereas few had mocked those who imagined they might telegraph to heaven and communicate with the dearly departed, a new skepticism was visible by the late nineteenth century. Such beliefs were coming to be regarded as signs of madness or “religious mania,” not religious awe and reverence.
That skepticism was visible even in popular songs of the era. “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven” told of a “tearful little child” who tried to call her mother on the phone, proclaiming “call her; won’t you please; For I want to surely tell her, We’re so lonely here.” The child’s request was poignant precisely because listeners knew such a feat was impossible. Those who heard the song might have held out hopes for communicating with the dead, but they no longer seemed to believe telegrams or phone calls would be the means of conversing with them. A number of newspapers carried similar accounts of small children longing to call heaven to talk with dead loved ones. The Valentine Democrat, for instance, carried a “Child’s Query” in 1911:
“He is five years old, and his brother, two years older, had just died at the family home on G. Street. He was talking it over with his grandfather.
‘Say, grandpa,’ asked the little fellow, ‘where has Roger gone?’
‘To heaven,’ answered his grandfather
. . . . .
‘Have they got a telephone in heaven?’
But there was no reply.”
By the early twentieth century, the desire to phone heaven was portrayed as a sign of youthful innocence and naïveté, described as a longing that would eventually be outgrown. Whereas in the nineteenth century, adults had hoped to telegraph to heaven, in the twentieth century such dreams had become a mark of an immature intellect.
In fact, some pundits openly mocked the hopes for connection with God, heaven, and the dead. A 1923 comic in the syndicated series Somebody’s Stenog, depicted a woman tuning in to her newly purchased radio. A man, watching her tune her set, asked what she was able to hear. She replied, “I’m liable to get Mars or Juniper [sic] the way this little box is working—Hush I hears Harps playing and sounds like wings flapping and people singing hymns. . . . Oh Ted—I bet I got Heaven—” Her friend replied, “Babe, you’re a nut—it’s that revival meeting in the church next door!”The dream of using technology to connect with heaven, once at the mainstream of American thought in the nineteenth century, was increasingly marginalized in the twentieth. There were newly imposed limits to the religious awe one should feel and express in the face of new technologies.
Finally, while nineteenth-century observers believed the inventions of the age reflected God’s glory and were part of his plan, many twentieth-century Americans saw the new devices as reflective of the genius of individuals. A century before, God had been in the machine; now men and women had created machines that were Godlike. A poem from the 1930s, entitled “Radio,” illustrated this new viewpoint. It began,
There is no land so barren, bleak
That I will not abide therein;
There is no storm that wrecks and maims
But I survive its direful din.
. . . .
The poet then suggested the radio was enormously powerful:
For, under God, no power lives
But hides in fear before my presence.
Yet lest anyone be confused, the poet quickly cleared up the nature of
radio’s power, as well as its origins:
“Radio,” they name me now—
Product of research and science.
This trend of celebrating technology’s power but desacralizing its origins became even more pronounced over the course of the twentieth century. Often Americans regarded their televisions, computers, and phones with astonishment, thought of them even as magical, but did not express the same religious awe of a century before. These were the products of “research and science,” artifacts of human ingenuity rather than divine inspiration. To think otherwise—and to express religious or spiritual awe—was to be seen as backward, primitive, and to risk mockery.
Excerpted from BORED, LONELY, ANGRY, STUPID: CHANGING FEELINGS ABOUT TECHNOLOGY, FROM THE TELEGRAPH TO TWITTER by Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt, published by Harvard University Press.
Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.