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).

Iain Spillman – guest blog

Oliver_Joseph_Lodge3  Oliver Lodge (1851-1940)

Researching Oliver Lodge at the BT Archives

By Iain Spillman

During my research in the BT archives in Holborn, one of the most interesting finds was a long out of print biography of Sir Oliver Lodge.  The 1974 book by W.P. Jolly, Sir Oliver Lodge: Psychical Researcher and Scientist, sat uneasily among the heavily-bound volumes of technical and engineering data and aroused further curiosity as its title gives precedence to Lodge’s spiritualist interests, particularly telepathy, over his considerable contributions to telecommunications through electromagnetism and radio.

The concepts of extending telegraphic techniques to vision and to thought had been established since the telephone’s invention. Even Alexander Graham Bell had asked, ‘what is to prevent someone from discovering a way of thinking at a distance by electricity?’[1] While many, such as William Henry Preece, Engineer-in-Chief of the British General Post Office, dismissed Lodge’s logic as ‘fanciful speculation,’ telephony and telepathy remained culturally intertwined.[2] Both Lodge’s career and work reflected this association perfectly. Not only was he the second person ever to send a radio signal (after Tesla and before Marconi) but also became President of The Society for Psychical Research, succeeding Frederic W.H. Myers in 1901.

Lodge immediately introduced a rigorous scientific methodology to the Society’s experiments, principally in applying the same telegraphic logic that isolated a ‘wanted message amongst a background of electronic noise which is always received with any signal.’[3]  In psychical research, two different mediums (‘automatists’) provide scripts that are individually insignificant but achieve meaning when compared by ‘interpreters’ who search for the correspondence.[4] Jolly’s account of the experiment reveals that two of the ‘automatists’ originally participated under pseudonyms. ‘Mrs. Willett’ was a Mrs. Tennent and was related by marriage to Myers while ‘Mrs. Holland’ was an alias for Rudyard Kipling’s sister, Trix.[5] The timings of Lodge’s presidency, the Society’s experiments in ‘cross-correspondences’, and the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Wireless’ in 1902 have already been noted  by Laurence Davis in his essay, ‘Science and Technology: Present, Past and Future’ but does not ‘claim that Kipling was influenced by Lodge, or that Lodge equated wireless transmission with spiritualism.’[6]

While it has been acknowledged that Lodge held Trix Kipling in high regard as a medium any further compulsion to speculate upon her influence should be resisted without reference to Rudyard Kipling’s earlier texts.[7] The Society for Psychical Research had come to Kipling’s attention the previous decade as he mentions it in his short story, ‘The Dreitarbund’ (1887). Here, the three principal characters (Houligan, Marlowe and Bressil) feign receiving telepathic messages in order to win the hands in marriage of Miss Norris, Miss Emmett and Miss Yaulton. Their scheme is prompted by the book Phantasms of the Living (1896), written by S.P.R. members Myers, Edmund Gurney and Frank Podmore, (the latter, at the time, held a senior post within the British General Post Office).  Kipling appears not consider the ideas of ‘thought transference, brain-waves, percipients and people of that kind’ too seriously as he concludes the story by asking, ‘if the Psychical Research Society pops a good notion into your head, why on earth shouldn’t you work it out?’[8]

The publication of ‘The Finest Story in the World’ in 1891 sees Kipling more receptive to the possibility of telepathic communication, particularly when it involves the creative process of writing. In the text, an unimaginative bank clerk, Charlie Mears, has ambitions to be a writer and asks the story’s narrator for advice. Mears is able to give lucid accounts of sea voyages in the ancient world, the increasingly intricate detail of which convinces the narrator that Mears is not creating these stories but remembering past lives. However, the narrator is prompted to curse ‘all the poets in England’ as they draw Mears from ‘direct narrative’ by spurring ‘him to imitate them,’ the result of which is described by Kipling as ‘a confused tangle of other voices most like the muttered song through a City telephone in the busiest park of the day.’[9] ‘The Finest Story in the World’ certainly appears to be the foundation of ‘Wireless.’ Here, the dead John Keats is apparently summoned by the chemist’s assistant Shaynor acting as the medium, or perhaps the ‘automatist’? While the narrator (again, anonymous and maybe unreliable as in ‘The Finest Story in The World’), who had arrived at the shop to witness a telegraphic experiment, acts as the observer or ‘interpreter’.

While there appears to be a correlation between the detail of ‘Wireless’ and Sir Oliver Lodge’s experiments, the extent of any influence can only be determined through further detailed investigation of The Society for Psychical Research’s work and additional research into Kipling’s life and writing.

[1] Moffet, Cleveland, ‘The Edge of the Future: An Interview with Professor Alexander Graham Bell’, McClure’s Magazine, 1, 1 (June, 1893), 39-43 (p.41).

[2] Preece, William Henry, ‘Electricity in the Service of Man’, Blackfriars: The Post Office Magazine, January 1989, 1-7 (p.2).

[3] Jolly, W.P., Sir Oliver Lodge: Psychical Researcher and Scientist (London: Constable, 1974), p. 167.

[4] Jolly, Lodge, pp.167-8.

[5] Jolly, Lodge, p.168.

[6] Davis, Laurence, ‘Science and Technology: Present, Past and Future’, in The Cambridge Companion to Rudyard Kipling, ed. by Howard J. Booth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 52-63 (p. 60).

[7] Lee, Lorna, Trix: Kipling’s Forgotten Sister (Peterborough: Pond View, 2011), p.57.

[8] Kipling, Rudyard, ‘The Dreitarbund’ [1887], in Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy (Cambridge: Pegasus, 2011, pp. 99-103 (pp.100,103).

[9] Kipling, Rudyard, ‘The Finest Story in the World’, The Contemporary Review, Jul 1, 1891, 60, 9-31(pp.15-16).

 

Fiction on the Phone – Guest Blog

Iain Spillman is a second year student at Nottingham Trent University studying for a BA (Joint Honours) in English and History. Prior to returning to university, Iain had an accomplished and varied career within entertainment retail. In June 2016, Iain was awarded a ten-week SPUR bursary, assisting Sarah Jackson with her research on literature and telephony. During this placement, Iain will be blogging about his experience and research findings at the BT Archives in London.

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SPUR is Nottingham Trent University’s Scholarship Project for Undergraduate Researchers.

 

Free Thinking

On Tuesday 7th June, I recorded my essay on frostbite and snow candy for BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking series. This was my first commission as one of the ten 2016 BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers. The programme was presented by Matthew Sweet and broadcast later that night, along with a discussion with the Icelandic writer Sjón. My essay was included in Ian McMillan’s ‘Pick of the Week‘ on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 12th June. You can listen to it in full on BBC Radio 3 SoundCloud.

Derrida on the Phone

I’ve just returned from presenting a paper entitled ‘Echographic Whispers: Picturing Derrida on the Phone’ at the fifth Derrida Today conference at Goldsmiths, London.  The telephone echoes in and across a number of Jacques Derrida’s works, and in this paper I offered a close up of his remarks on the remains of a telephone in the photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme in Athens, Still Remains (2010)….

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On Thinking

On Friday night, I was driving from Nottingham to the Peak District with my daughter and partner for a few days away. Twelve hours later, I was on a train from Buxton to Abergavenny, on the lookout for nine other confused academics. After a night in Crickhowell, during which I located the nine (easily distinguishable from the football team also staying at the hotel), and an awkward hour of trying to look ‘natural’ for a photographer, we were on our way to the Hay Festival where we found ourselves in the BBC tent being unveiled as the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers. It’s an honour to be selected to take part in the scheme – and especially exciting to be named alongside such a fantastic bunch of fellow researchers.

Now I’m back in the Peaks, thanking my family as always for their unending patience. Loitering near the neighbouring farm in the hope of picking up a wifi signal, I find myself loving the quiet, the glorious hills, and all these sheep.

New Generation Thinkers 2016-2017

The Operator

Doris Lessing became a telephone operator in Salisbury (now Harare) in 1937. In ‘My Mother’s Life’, part 2 (Granta 17, 1985), she writes: ‘My mother experienced this as a final defeat: her daughter was a common telephone operator. The life she was leading … was “fast,” cheap and nasty’.

 

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Conan Doyle on the line

To celebrate the birthday of Arthur Conan Doyle (born 22 May 1859), here is Watson telephoning Nathan in ‘The Three Garridebs’ (1924) before passing the receiver on to Holmes:

‘Just ring him up, Watson.’
I did so, and heard a thin, quavering voice at the other end of the line.
‘Yes, yes, I am Mr. Nathan Garrideb. Is Mr. Holmes there? I should very much like to have a word with Mr. Holmes.’
My friend took the instrument and I heard the usual syncopated dialogue.

 

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