Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mark Twain sounds off

I'm currently writing up my talk from September at Paraflows, and digging into Mark Twain's observations on the technology of his day. He's probably the first author to be published on the absurdity of one-sided conversations. Alexis Madrigal, the Atlantic's tech editor, notes how Twain picked up on the oddity of "speech detached from its surroundings and social environment, existing fully only on the electrified line connecting two people."

In 1906 the New York Times recorded the old salt's reaction when shown the teleharmonium, my personal favorite when it comes to electromechanical musical instruments weighing 200 tons or more. Twain remarked that

"The trouble with these beautiful, novel things is that they interfere so with one's arrangements. Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this I have to postpone my death right off. I couldn't possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again."

That's a pretty great summation of how exciting modern invention can be. Check out the rest of the account for some of his experiences cussing over the phone. (if you can access it, Times archive here)