One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
I hate to tell you this, but, contrary to common knowledge, we are the ones living in a “simpler time”, not our parents or their ancestors. We have E-mail, and I-phones and twitter and face-book and every other pseudonymous instantaneous electronic communication device which, with apologies to Socrates, proves that a life under punctuated is a life not worth being self-obsessed about. Sharing every naval-infatuated idea has become de rigueur for the Obama generation. There is no longer room for confusion or miss-interpretation, only for over-interpretation. And that makes the world much simpler.
For the first two million years of human evolution the limit to language was the sum of the speed of sound divided by the speed of walking, divided by the number, width and depth of rivers and oceans, and the height of mountains and width of deserts separating you from the persons you wished to speak to. Those kinds of obstacles and those kinds of delays made the world a very complicated place. When the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, the War of 1812 had been over since the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December, 24, 1814. That was three years you needed to refer to while talking about just one battle, because of the delays in communications. How much more complicated can you get than that?
Mail was the first invention in long distance communications. Cyrus the Great of Persia invented pony express riders to carry “words” to bind his empire together. According to Herodotus these civil service riders were so dedicated that “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”; which is not the official motto of the U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Postal service has no official motto.
The next major technical advance in communication didn’t come along until 1792, when Claude Chappe invented a ‘semaphone’ network in France. In his sales brochures he called it a “telegraph” (Greek for “far writing”). It required a series of towers spaced 20 miles apart, upon each of which were erected two moveable arms connected by a longer moveable arm. A Chappe telegraph operator repeated the 174 different combinations of arm positions to relay up to two words a minute. Although this was such a dependable system that the Swedes kept theirs running until 1880, Chappe never saw it turn a profit, for two reasons. First he threw himself down a well in 1805. And second, it never turned a profit. Worse yet, for Chappe’s family, he copyrighted every thing about his brilliant invention... except the name.
In 1837 a failed Calvinist minister, a proslavery Federalist, a pedantic anti-catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy freak and looney named Samuel Fineley Breese Morse, co-opted the name for his “electronic telegraph” which he copyrighted from top to bottom, including the name. The first recorded “Mores Code” telegraphed was “A patient waiter is no loser”, in 1838; the dot and dash equivalent of “The quick bown fox”, etcetera. The more famous message, “What hath God Wrought”, was telegraphed as a publicty stunt in 1844 and was suggested by Anne Ellsworth from my home town of Lafayette, Indiana. She was married at the time to Mr. Roswell, who gave his name to the New Mexico town where, in 1947, aliens attempted to communicate with humans. Their message appears to have been the alien equivalent of “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” So far nobody has answered that message.
The ultimate expression of this more complicated communication is the traditional or “snail” mail service. The complexities involved stagger the imagination. You write a letter. You take the letter to a collection point, a post office or mail box. A representative of the United States Postal Service (your stand in) then physically carries the actual letter to your friend’s home. There, your friend reads your words from the very paper you once held. It sounds fraught with opportunity for delays and errors, and it is. And yet it has worked in America for two centuries. And what is most amazing is that we expect it to work, and complain when it doesn’t.
As of 2008 the 656,000 employees of the USPS (as it likes to refer to itself) processed 667 million pieces of mail every day (7,700 every second). They generated $75 billion in fees and charges, which left them with a $2.8 billion loss. Still nobody (well, a few libertarian lunatics) are suggesting that snail mail delivery cease.
The ultimate complication of this ultimate complication of expression was Parcel Post, in which individuals were encouraged to send not only words from one end of the nation to another, but goods as well. The service was started in 1912 as an attempt to encourage economic development in rural America.
The first flaw in the plan became visible when Postal authorities deemed it permissible to mail live chicks (in special containers) for 53 cents apiece. Now farmers could order chicks from breeders and they would be delivered, cheaply and reliably, right to the farmer's front door. It was a great boon to the egg industry nationwide. But problems arose when some of the little cheepers in ever shipment died in their boxes en route, and the customers sought reimbursement from the Post Office. The rules denied the customer’s appeals, but they appealed anyway. What was not noticed at the time, was the fatal flaw in the logic of “live” parcel post.
The path to Parcel Post ad nauseam was first visible on the morning of February 19, 1914, when Mrs. John E. Pierstroff of Grangeville, Idaho, loaded her four year old daughter, May Pierstroff(above), into the mail car of the Camas Prairie train bound for Lewiston, Idaho, 55 miles away. A few moments later Harry Morris, the conductor, stumbled upon the little girl sitting quietly alone, atop a pile of mail bags. Morris checked the 56 cents postage on the tag tied to May’s coat, and since the mother was no where to be seen, allowed the girl to ride in the mail car to Lewiston. There, mail clerk Leonard Mochel delivered May to her destination, the home of Mrs. Vennigerholz, the girl’s grandmother.
It was the beginning of a disturbing trend. Later that same year postal workers in Stillwell, Indiana accepted a parcel post box marked, “live infant”. They delivered the box to South Bend where the “package” was accepted and opened by the infant’s divorced father. Cost for the trip was 17 cents. The next year a Pensacola, Florida probation officer shipped six year old Edna Neff to her father in Christiansburg, Virginia. The postage was 15 cents.
The public was unsettled by this mailing of children, since the percentage of child molesters amongst the population in 1914 was about the same as it is today. The negative publicity probably prevented another child mailing until 1919, when it appears a press agent for the Aluminum Company of America arraigned for the mailing of five year old Marmi Hood and four year old Evan Hedge to their respective fathers, who were locked down inside in the company’s plant in Alco, Tennessee, surrounded by union picket lines. After a two hour tearful visit, complete with news photographs, the children were “mailed Special Delivery” back to the Alco, Tennessee Post Office, where their mothers were anxiously waiting for them. Postage for the stunt both ways was $2.26 cents.
On June 13, 1920 The US Post Office Department issued new rules, announcing that children would no longer be accepted as a parcel post. The coda to this regulation, and perhaps a comment on the continued poverty in rural America even during the “Roaring Twenties”, was the C.O.D. package mailed to an undertaker in Albany, New York. It arrived on November 20, 1922, and carried no “return address”. In the box was body of a child who had died of natural causes. She was buried “...through the kindness of individuals” under the name of “Parcella Post.” How could you call such a world "simpler" than ours?
As you would expect from people living in such complicated times, the denizens of that ancient confusion were able to predict the problems and solutions faced by our current “simpler" electronic age. It turns out the philosophical antithesis to twitter was written in 1854, not long after the Mores telegraph hinted at the self obsessed simplicity which was to follow.
It was written by that old foggey, Henry David Thoreau. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys”, wrote Henry David, “which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And, what with the current Texas Governor advocating the re-secession of Texas from the union of states, it would appear that our modern politicians are leading the way by getting simpler and simpler all the time.