CHAPTER IX.-THE FUTURE OF THE TELEPHONE
In the Spring of 1907 Theodore N. Vail, a rugged, ruddy, white-haired man, was superintending the building of a big barn in northern Vermont. His house stood near-by, on a balcony of rolling land that overlooked the town of Lyndon and far beyond, across evergreen forests to the massive bulk of Burke Mountain. His farm, very nearly ten square miles in area, lay back of the house in a great oval of field and woodland, with several dozen cottages in the clearings. His Welsh ponies and Swiss cattle were grazing on the May grass, and the men were busy with the ploughs and harrows and seeders. It was almost thirty years since he had been called in to create the business structure of telephony, and to shape the general plan of its development. Since then he had done many other things. The one city of Buenos Ayres had paid him more, merely for giving it a system of trolleys and electric lights, than the United States had paid him for putting the telephone on a business basis. He was now rich and retired, free to enjoy his play-work of the farm and to forget the troubles of the city and the telephone
But, as he stood among his barn-builders, there arrived from Boston and New York a delegation of telephone directors. Most of them belonged to the "Old Guard" of telephony. They had fought under Vail in the pioneer days; and now they had come to ask him to return to the telephone business, after twenty years of absence. Vail laughed at the suggestion.
"Nonsense," he said, "I'm too old. I'm sixty- two years of age." The directors persisted. They spoke of the approaching storm-cloud of panic and the need of another strong hand at the wheel until the crisis was over, but Vail still refused. They spoke of old times and old memories, but he shook his head. "All my life," he said, "I have wanted to be a farmer."
Then they drew a picture of the telephone situation. They showed him that the "grand telephonic system" which he had planned was unfinished. He was its architect, and it was undone. The telephone business was energetic and prosperous. Under the brilliant leadership of Frederick P. Fish, it had grown by leaps and bounds. But it was still far from being the SYSTEM that Vail had dreamed of in his younger days; and so, when the directors put before him his unfinished plan, he surrendered. The instinct for completeness, which is one of the dominating characteristics of his mind, compelled him to consent. It was the call of the telephone.
Since that May morning, 1907, great things have been done by the men of the telephone and telegraph world. The Bell System was brought through the panic without a scratch. When the doubt and confusion were at their worst, Vail wrote an open letter to his stock-holders, in his practical, farmer-like way. He said:
"Our net earnings for the last ten months were $13,715,000, as against $11,579,000 for the same period in 1906. We have now in the banks over $18,000,000; and we will not need to borrow any money for two years."
Soon afterwards, the work of consolidation began. Companies that overlapped were united. Small local wire-clusters, several thousands of them, were linked to the national lines. A policy of publicity superseded the secrecy which had naturally grown to be a habit in the days of patent litigation. Visitors and reporters found an open door. Educational advertisements were published in the most popular magazines. The corps of inventors was spurred up to conquer the long-distance problems. And in return for a thirty million check, the control of the historic Western Union was transferred from the children of Jay Gould to the thirty thousand stock-holders of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.
From what has been done, therefore, we may venture a guess as to the future of the telephone. This "grand telephonic system" which had no existence thirty years ago, except in the imagination of Vail, seems to be at hand. The very newsboys in the streets are crying it. And while there is, of course, no exact blueprint of a best possible telephone system, we can now see the general outlines of Vail's plan.
There is nothing mysterious or ominous in this plan. It has nothing to do with the pools and conspiracies of Wall Street. No one will be squeezed out except the promoters of paper companies. The simple fact is that Vail is organizing a complete Bell System for the same reason that he built one big comfortable barn for his Swiss cattle and his Welsh ponies, instead of half a dozen small uncomfortable sheds. He has never been a "high financier" to juggle profits out of other men's losses. He is merely applying to the telephone business the same hard sense that any farmer uses in the management of his farm. He is building a Big Barn, metaphorically, for the telephone and telegraph.
Plainly, the telephone system of the future will be national, so that any two people in the same country will be able to talk to one another. It will not be competitive, for the reason that no farmer would think for a moment of running his farm on competitive lines. It will have a staff- and-line organization, to use a military phrase. Each local company will continue to handle its own local affairs, and exercise to the full the basic virtue of self-help. But there will also be, as now, a central body of experts to handle the larger affairs that are common to all companies. No separateness or secession on the one side, nor bureaucracy on the other--that is the typically American idea that underlies the ideal telephone system.
The line of authority, in such a system, will begin with the local manager. From him it will rise to the directors of the State company; then higher still to the directors of the national company; and finally, above all corporate leaders to the Federal Government itself. The failure of government ownership of the telephone in so many foreign countries does not mean that the private companies will have absolute power. Quite the reverse. The lesson of thirty years' experience shows that a private telephone company is apt to be much more obedient to the will of the people than if it were a Government de- partment. But it is an axiom of democracy that no company, however well conducted, will be permitted to control a public convenience without being held strictly responsible for its own acts. As politics becomes less of a game and more of a responsibility, the telephone of the future will doubtless be supervised by some sort of public committee, which will have power to pass upon complaints, and to prevent the nuisance of duplication and the swindle of watering stock.
As this Federal supervision becomes more and more efficient, the present fear of monopoly will decrease, just as it did in the case of the railways. It is a fact, although now generally forgotten, that the first railways of the United States were run for ten years or more on an anti-monopoly plan. The tracks were free to all. Any one who owned a cart with flanged wheels could drive it on the rails and compete with the locomotives. There was a happy-go-lucky jumble of trains and wagons, all held back by the slowest team; and this continued on some railways until as late as 1857. By that time the people saw that com- petition on a railway track was absurd. They allowed each track to be monopolized by one company, and the era of expansion began.
No one, certainly, at the present time, regrets the passing of the independent teamster. He was much more arbitrary and expensive than any railroad has ever dared to be; and as the country grew, he became impossible. He was not the fittest to survive. For the general good, he was held back from competing with the railroad, and taught to cooperate with it by hauling freight to and from the depots. This, to his surprise, he found much more profitable and pleasant. He had been squeezed out of a bad job into a good one. And by a similar process of evolution, the United States is rapidly outgrowing the small independent telephone companies. These will eventually, one by one, rise as the teamster did to a higher social value, by clasping wires with the main system of telephony.
Until 1881 the Bell System was in the hands of a family group. It was a strictly private enterprise. The public had been asked to help in its launching, and had refused. But after 1881 it passed into the control of the small stock-holders, and has remained there without a break. It is now one of our most democratized businesses, scattering either wages or dividends into more than a hundred thousand homes. It has at times been exclusive, but never sordid. It has never been dollar-mad, nor frenzied by the virus of stock-gambling. There has always been a vein of sentiment in it that kept it in touch with human nature. Even at the present time, each check of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company carries on it a picture of a pretty Cupid, sitting on a chair upon which he has placed a thick book, and gayly prattling into a telephone.
Several sweeping changes may be expected in the near future, now that there is team-play between the Bell System and the Western Union. Already, by a stroke of the pen, five million users of telephones have been put on the credit books of the Western Union; and every Bell telephone office is now a telegraph office. Three telephone messages and eight telegrams may be sent AT THE SAME TIME over two pairs of wires: that is one of the recent miracles of science, and is now to be tried out upon a gigantic scale. Most of the long-distance telephone wires, fully two million miles, can be used for telegraphic purposes; and a third of the Western Union wires, five hundred thousand miles, may with a few changes be used for talking.
The Western Union is paying rent for twenty- two thousand, five hundred offices, all of which helps to make telegraphy a luxury of the few. It is employing as large a force of messenger- boys as the army that marched with General Sherman from Atlanta to the sea. Both of these items of expense will dwindle when a Bell wire and a Morse wire can be brought to a common terminal; and when a telegram can be received or delivered by telephone. There will also be a gain, perhaps the largest of all, in removing the trudging little messenger-boy from the streets and sending him either to school or to learn some useful trade.
The fact is that the United States is the first country that has succeeded in putting both telephone and telegraph upon the proper basis.
Elsewhere either the two are widely apart, or the telephone is a mere adjunct of a telegraphic department. According to the new American plan, the two are not competitive, but complementary. The one is a supplement to the other. The post office sends a package; the telegraph sends the contents of the package; but the telephone sends nothing. It is an apparatus that makes conversation possible between two separated people. Each of the three has a distinct field of its own, so that there has never been any cause for jealousy among them.
To make the telephone an annex of the post office or the telegraph has become absurd. There are now in the whole world very nearly as many messages sent by telephone as by letter; and there are THIRT-TWO TIMES as many telephone calls as telegrams. In the United States, the telephone has grown to be the big brother of the telegraph. It has six times the net earnings and eight times the wire. And it transmits as many messages as the combined total of telegrams, letters, and railroad passengers.
This universal trend toward consolidation has introduced a variety of problems that will engage the ablest brains in the telephone world for many years to come. How to get the benefits of organization without its losses, to become strong without losing quickness, to become systematic without losing the dash and dare of earlier days, to develop the working force into an army of high-speed specialists without losing the bird's- eye view of the whole situation,--these are the riddles of the new type, for which the telephonists of the next generation must find the answers. They illustrate the nature of the big jobs that the telephone has to offer to an ambitious and gifted young man of to-day.
"The problems never were as large or as complex as they are right now," says J. J. Carty, the chief of the telephone engineers. The eternal struggle remains between the large and little ideas--between the men who see what might be and the men who only see what IS. There is still the race to break records. Already the girl at the switchboard can find the person wanted in thirty seconds. This is one-tenth of the time that was taken in the early centrals; but it is still too long. It is one-half of a valuable minute. It must be cut to twenty-five seconds, or twenty or fifteen.
There is still the inventors' battle to gain miles. The distance over which conversations can be held has been increased from twenty miles to twenty-five hundred. But this is not far enough. There are some civilized human beings who are twelve thousand miles apart, and who have interests in common. During the Boxer Rebellion in China, for instance, there were Americans in Peking who would gladly have given half of their fortune for the use of a pair of wires to New York.
In the earliest days of the telephone, Bell was fond of prophesying that "the time will come when we will talk across the Atlantic Ocean"; but this was regarded as a poetical fancy until Pupin invented his method of automatically propelling the electric current. Since then the most conservative engineer will discuss the problem of transatlantic telephony. And as for the poets, they are now dreaming of the time when a man may speak and hear his own voice come back to him around the world.
The immediate long-distance problem is, of course, to talk from New York to the Pacific. The two oceans are now only three and a half days apart by rail. Seattle is clamoring for a wire to the East. San Diego wants one in time for her Panama Canal Exposition in 1915. The wires are already strung to San Francisco, but cannot be used in the present stage of the art. And Vail's captains are working now with almost breathless haste to give him a birthday present of a talk across the continent from his farm in Vermont.
"I can see a universal system of telephony for the United States in the very near future," says Carty. "There is a statue of Seward standing in one of the streets of Seattle. The inscription upon it is, `To a United Country.' But as an Easterner stands there, he feels the isolation of that Far Western State, and he will always feel it, until he can talk from one side of the United States to the other. For my part," con- tinues Carty, "I believe we will talk across continents and across oceans. Why not? Are there not more cells in one human body than there are people in the whole earth?"
Some future Carty may solve the abandoned problem of the single wire, and cut the copper bill in two by restoring the grounded circuit. He may transmit vision as well as speech. He may perfect a third-rail system for use on moving trains. He may conceive of an ideal insulating material to supersede glass, mica, paper, and enamel. He may establish a universal code, so that all persons of importance in the United States shall have call-numbers by which they may instantly be located, as books are in a library.
Some other young man may create a commercial department on wide lines, a work which telephone men have as yet been too specialized to do. Whoever does this will be a man of comprehensive brain. He will be as closely in touch with the average man as with the art of telephony. He will know the gossip of the street, the demands of the labor unions, and the policies of governors and presidents. The psy- chology of the Western farmer will concern him, and the tone of the daily press, and the methods of department stores. It will be his aim to know the subtle chemistry of public opinion, and to adapt the telephone service to the shifting moods and necessities of the times. HE WILL FIT TELEPHONY LIKE A GARMENT AROUND THE HABITS OF THE PEOPLE.
Also, now that the telephone business has become strong, its next anxiety must be to develop the virtues, and not the defects, of strength. Its motto must be "Ich dien"--I serve; and it will be the work of the future statesmen of the telephone to illustrate this motto in all its practical variations. They will cater and explain, and explain and cater. They will educate and educate, until they have created an expert public. They will teach by pictures and lectures and exhibitions. They will have charts and diagrams hung in the telephone booths, so that the person who is waiting for a call may learn a little and pass the time more pleasantly. They will, in a word, attend to those innumerable trifles that make the perfection of public service.
Already the Bell System has gone far in this direction by organizing what might fairly be called a foresight department. Here is where the fortune-tellers of the business sit. When new lines or exchanges are to be built, these men study the situation with an eye to the future. They prepare a "fundamental plan," outlining what may reasonably be expected to happen in fifteen or twenty years. Invariably they are optimists. They make provision for growth, but none at all for shrinkage. By their advice, there is now twenty-five million dollars' worth of reserve plant in the various Bell Companies, waiting for the country to grow up to it. Even in the city of New York, one-half of the cable ducts are empty, in expectation of the greater city of eight million population which is scheduled to arrive in 1928. There are perhaps few more impressive evidences of practical optimism and confidence than a new telephone exchange, with two-thirds of its wires waiting for the business of the future.
Eventually, this foresight department will expand. It may, if a leader of genius appear, become the first real corps of practical sociologists, which will substitute facts for the present hotch-potch of theories. It will prepare a "fundamental plan" of the whole United States, showing the centre of each industry and the main runways of traffic. It will act upon the basic fact that WHEREVER THERE IS INTERDEPENDENCE, THERE IS BOUND TO BE TELEPHONY; and it will therefore prepare maps of interdependence, showing the widely scattered groups of industry and finance, and the lines that weave them into a pattern of national cooperation.
As yet, no nation, not even our own, has seen the full value of the long-distance telephone. Few have the imagination to see what has been made possible, and to realize that an actual face- to-face conversation may take place, even though there be a thousand miles between. Neither can it seem credible that a man in a distant city may be located as readily as though he were close at hand. It is too amazing to be true, and possibly a new generation will have to arrive before it will be taken for granted and acted upon freely. Ultimately, there can be no doubt that long-distance telephony will be regarded as a national asset of the highest value, for the reason that it can prevent so much of the enormous economic waste of travel.
Nothing that science can say will ever decrease the marvel of a long-distance conversation, and there may come in the future an Interpreter who will put it before our eyes in the form of a moving-picture. He will enable us to follow the flying words in a talk from Boston to Denver. We will flash first to Worcester, cross the Hudson on the high bridge at Poughkeepsie, swing southwest through a dozen coal towns to the outskirts of Philadelphia, leap across the Susquehanna, zigzag up and down the Alleghenies into the murk of Pittsburg, cross the Ohio at Wheeling, glance past Columbus and Indianapolis, over the Wabash at Terre Haute, into St. Louis by the Eads bridge, through Kansas City, across the Missouri, along the corn-fields of Kansas, and then on--on--on with the Sante Fe Railway, across vast plains and past the brink of the Grand Canyon, to Pueblo and the lofty city of Denver. Twenty-five hundred miles along a thousand tons of copper wire! From Bunker Hill to Pike's Peak IN A SECOND!
Herbert Spencer, in his autobiography, alludes to the impressive fact that while the eye is reading a single line of type, the earth has travelled thirty miles through space. But this, in telephony, would be slow travelling. It is simple everyday truth to say that while your eye is reading this dash,--, a telephone sound can be carried from New York to Chicago.
There are many reasons to believe that for the practical idealists of the future, the supreme study will be the force that makes such miracles possible. Six thousand million dollars--one- twentieth of our national wealth--is at the present time invested in electrical development. The Electrical Age has not yet arrived; but it is at hand; and no one can tell how brilliant the result may be, when the creative minds of a nation are focussed upon the subdual of this mysterious force, which has more power and more delicacy than any other force that man has been able to harness.
As a tame and tractable energy, Electricity is new. It has no past and no pedigree. It is younger than many people who are now alive. Among the wise men of Greece and Rome, few knew its existence, and none put it to any practical use. The wisest knew that a piece of amber, when rubbed, will attract feathery substances. But they regarded this as poetry rather than science. There was a pretty legend among the Phoenicians that the pieces of amber were the petrified tears of maidens who had thrown themselves into the sea because of unrequited love, and each bead of amber was highly prized. It was worn as an amulet and a symbol of purity. Not for two thousand years did any one dream that within its golden heart lay hidden the secret of a new electrical civilization.
Not even in 1752, when Benjamin Franklin flew his famous kite on the banks of the Schuylkill River, and captured the first CANNED LIGHTNING, was there any definite knowledge of electrical energy. His lightning-rod was regarded as an insult to the deity of Heaven. It was blamed for the earthquake of 1755. And not until the telegraph of Morse came into general use, did men dare to think of the thunder-bolt of Jove as a possible servant of the human race.
Thus it happened that when Bell invented the telephone, he surprised the world with a new idea. He had to make the thought as well as the thing. No Jules Verne or H. G. Wells had foreseen it. The author of the Arabian Nights fantasies had conceived of a flying carpet, but neither he nor any one else had conceived of flying conversation. In all the literature of ancient days, there is not a line that will apply to the telephone, except possibly that expressive phrase in the Bible, "And there came a voice." In these more privileged days, the telephone has come to be regarded as a commonplace fact of everyday life; and we are apt to forget that the wonder of it has become greater and not less; and that there are still honor and profit, plenty of both, to be won by the inventor and the scientist.
The flood of electrical patents was never higher than now. There are literally more in a single month than the total number issued by the Patent Office up to 1859. The Bell System has three hundred experts who are paid to do nothing else but try out all new ideas and inventions; and before these words can pass into the printed book, new uses and new methods will have been discovered. There is therefore no immediate danger that the art of telephony will be less fascinating in the future than it has been in the past. It will still be the most alluring and elusive sprite that ever led the way through a Dark Continent of mysterious phenomena.
There still remains for some future scientist the task of showing us in detail exactly what the telephone current does. Such a man will study vibrations as Darwin studied the differentiation of species. He will investigate how a child's voice, speaking from Boston to Omaha, can vibrate more than a million pounds of copper wire; and he will invent a finer system of time to fit the telephone, which can do as many different things in a second as a man can do in a day, transmitting with every tick of the clock from twenty- five to eighty thousand vibrations. He will deal with the various vibrations of nerves and wires and wireless air, that are necessary in conveying thought between two separated minds. He will make clear how a thought, originating in the brain, passes along the nerve-wires to the vocal chords, and then in wireless vibration of air to the disc of the transmitter. At the other end of the line the second disc re-creates these vibrations, which impinge upon the nerve-wires of an ear, and are thus carried to the consciousness of another brain.
And so, notwithstanding all that has been done since Bell opened up the way, the telephone remains the acme of electrical marvels. No other thing does so much with so little energy. No other thing is more enswathed in the unknown. Not even the gray-haired pioneers who have lived with the telephone since its birth, can understand their protege. As to the why and the how, there is as yet no answer. It is as true of telephony to-day as it was in 1876, that a child can use what the wisest sages cannot comprehend.
Here is a tiny disc of sheet-iron. I speak--it shudders. It has a different shudder for every sound. It has thousands of millions of different shudders. There is a second disc many miles away, perhaps twenty-five hundred miles away. Between the two discs runs a copper wire. As I speak, a thrill of electricity flits along the wire. This thrill is moulded by the shudder of the disc. It makes the second disc shudder. And the shudder of the second disc reproduces my voice. That is what happens. But how--not all the scientists of the world can tell.
The telephone current is a phenomenon of the ether, say the theorists. But what is ether? No one knows. Sir Oliver Lodge has guessed that it is "perhaps the only substantial thing in the material universe"; but no one knows. There is nothing to guide us in that unknown country except a sign-post that points upwards and bears the one word--"Perhaps." The ether of space! Here is an Eldorado for the scientists of the future, and whoever can first map it out will go far toward discovering the secret of telephony.
Some day--who knows?--there may come the poetry and grand opera of the telephone. Artists may come who will portray the marvel of the wires that quiver with electrified words, and the romance of the switchboards that trem- ble with the secrets of a great city. Already Puvis de Chavannes, by one of his superb panels in the Boston Library, has admitted the telephone and the telegraph to the world of art. He has embodied them as two flying figures, poised above the electric wires, and with the following inscription underneath: "By the wondrous agency of electricity, speech dashes through space and swift as lightning bears tidings of good and evil."
But these random guesses as to the future of the telephone may fall far short of what the reality will be. In these dazzling days it is idle to predict. The inventor has everywhere put the prophet out of business. Fact has outrun Fancy. When Morse, for instance, was tacking up his first little line of wire around the Speedwell Iron Works, who could have foreseen two hundred and fifty thousand miles of submarine cables, by which the very oceans are all aquiver with the news of the world? When Fulton's tiny tea-kettle of a boat steamed up the Hudson to Albany in two days, who could have foreseen the steel leviathans, one-sixth of a mile in length, that can in the same time cut the Atlantic Ocean in halves? And when Bell stood in a dingy workshop in Boston and heard the clang of a clock-spring come over an electric wire, who could have foreseen the massive structure of the Bell System, built up by half the telephones of the world, and by the investment of more actual capital than has gone to the making of any other industrial association? Who could have foreseen what the telephone bells have done to ring out the old ways and to ring in the new; to ring out delay, and isolation and to ring in the efficiency and the friendliness of a truly united people?