I got the notion for this column from a combination of things, which fits well, as a combination of things is what this column is all about. A few evenings ago I was sitting here, in my recliner, and happened to glance over at my antique telegraphic receiver, (a gift from my wife’s grandfather’s past) as it sits in its place, in the corner of the family room, atop our small and elderly pump organ. I had just come from the living room, after a frustrating bout with my cellphone, which was not working, and which I had left alone on the couch, in the hope that one of the dogs might use it for a chew toy.
As I looked at that old, wooden telegraph box I started thinking of how much things have changed, in the area of communications, since Grandpa Burr’s youthful days, working with the telegraph system of the Maine Central Railroad. At first I thought about how little the telegraph has in common with how we communicate today, but then I wondered if those differences are as vast as I first imagined.
In communications, the whole idea is to communicate. Wow, give me a gold star for figuring that one out. Actually, as long as people have been around, and talking, communication has existed. (A few people I know were probably talking as they exited the womb, but that’s a story for another day, or not. You know the type.) When the written word was invented, those communications became portable, independent of the presence of the individual, and even somewhat permanent. Still, the system was slow. It took just as long to send a papyrus or paper message to another person, as it did to go visit them yourself. This system is still in use today, by the United States Postal Service.
A truly novel departure from those written words, and, likewise, the post office, was invented by Native Americans, and they were using it long before any mailman was ever bitten by a dog. They called their system smoke signals. Actually, I don’t know what they called it, but smoke signals were what it was. Those signals, and their message, reached the receiving person at the speed of light. No, smoke doesn’t travel at the speed of light, but the signals actually did. It is known that the signal would be seen in the light of the sun, shining on the smoke. One encampment immediately saw that far off signal of another, and replied, obviously, with their own returning signal, spelling out the timeless letters: L.O.L. A few glitches in this system were little things called cloudy days and nighttime. Also, it had privacy issues, as we would call them today. Hence, the invention of the aforementioned postal service, and the sealed envelope.
You see, from the reading of words on a page, or a scroll, or a cave wall, to smoke signals, telegraphs, and beyond, it has always been about the speed of light. It has always been about receiving a message from a sender, sent to the one the message was intended for, through light entering our eyes, or sound entering our ears after some device has turned the lightning-fast signal into sound waves. The brain receives a signal through one or both of those senses, and declares, “I am not alone. Aunt Mildred just said hello to me.”
To me, all the rest is just window dressing in the grand scheme of communications. (Do people still dress windows?) This opinion is probably because I do hate my phone. The advancements are, admittedly, monumental, but are only icing on the cake of the very idea of a message, a thought, actually leaving one brain and slamming into another. In my time we have gone from black and white television and rotary dial phones, (We really don’t dial someone’s number anymore, even though we might use those words. There are no more dials on phones, and there haven’t been dials for a few generations now, if you haven’t noticed.) to high definition, wall-sized, curved, inch-thick video systems, and high speed, world-wide internet connections. We also use those things called cell phones, or now we just call them phones, which is where this column started in the first place. We ‘post’ things without postage or the post office, and some of us twenty-first century dinosaurs still use email more than social networks. True, vintage dinosaurs, like myself, also still use the post office once in a while. One day I will probably consider stepping up to smoke signals, but not quite yet. One thing at a time.
So, the other night my phone failed me, just as telegraph wires must have occasionally failed Grandpa Burr and the other users of their time. I thought of this as I looked at that old telegraphic receiver, there on the antique organ. I sat there, realizing that communication is about the message, indeed, but not just about what the message actually is. It is more about the fact that a message has been sent in the first place, at the speed of light, and then received, as a welcome gift, from one thinking brain to another. Everything, and nothing, has changed. Whether by smoke signal, snail mail, cell phone, a smile, or the nerve signals sent from one hand holding another, we are all just humans… trying to connect.
“George’s World,” a new 740-page collection of George’s columns from The World, is available at xlibris.com, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and your favorite bookstore. “The Smoke And Mirrors Effect,” George’s first novel, can be seen at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Happy Reading!