George Bernard Shaw on the Phone

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George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950)

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

George Bernard Shaw was born on this day (26 July) in 1856. An Irish playwright and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, Shaw’s most well-known works include Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). In his 1905 preface to The Irrational Knot, however, Shaw insists that the reader ‘must not suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living’:

My last attempt was in 1879, when a company was formed in London to exploit an ingenious invention by Mr. Thomas Alva Edison – a much too ingenious invention as it proved, being nothing less than a telephone of such stentorian efficiency that it bellowed your most private communications all over the house instead of whispering them with some sort of discretion. This was not what the British stockbroker wanted; so the company was soon merged in the National Telephone Company, after making a place for itself in the history of literature, quite unintentionally, by providing me with a job.

[George Bernard Shaw, ‘Preface’ [1905], The Irrational Knot [1880] (London: Constable, 1924), pp.6-7]

Shaw goes on to describe the American artificers working for Edison as ‘deluded and romantic men’ who ‘adored Mr. Edison as the greatest man of all time’ and ‘execrated Mr. Graham Bell, the inventor of the rival telephone, as his Satanic adversary’ (p.7). Despite his fellow workers’ repeated claims to be on the brink of some new telephonic invention of their own, Shaw asserts that ‘I was, I believe, the only person in the entire establishment who knew the current scientific explanation of telephony’ (p.8).

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