At last week’s inaugural Infrastructure Observatory conference, MacroCity, archivist Rick Prelinger delivered a fantastic opening lecture looking back at the history of telephony in the Bay Area.
From the earliest exposed copper wires vulnerable to shorting out in San Francisco’s morning fog to 1970s phone phreaks and the future of NSA surveillance, it was a great talk; you can view the slides here (and follow Rick on Twitter for yet more).
[Image: From the Ellensburg Daily Record, June 16, 1914].
Amidst dozens of examples and images in his talk, the one that really stood out for architectural purposes was his citation of something called the “human telephone,” as originally reported in the Ellensburg Daily Record on June 16, 1914. A reorganized and cleaned-up version of that article appears above.
As Prelinger described it, the human telephone was like an electromagnetic update to the oracle at Delphi: a lone female figure with access to distant voices, dancing slowly across a dance floor secretly wired from below, an interactive surface whose hidden technology extended up into her very clothing.
There were copper wires woven through her dress, copper-soled shoes on her feet, even copper nails hammered in the floor below, and this all effectively turned her into a living telephone network—the “human telephone” of the article’s title—receiving voices from some continent-scale network invisible to spectators’ eyes. Oracular and alluring, she would then invite members of the audience to join her in this choreography, where ghostly conversations-at-a-distance would ensue.
[Image: An otherwise irrelevant photo of people ballroom dancing, via Wikipedia].
In Prelinger’s own words:
Prior to the opening of PPIE [the Panama Pacific International Exhibition], Paciﬁc Telephone was asked to furnish service to the Ball of All Nations in May 1914. They built a hidden network of wires under the ﬂoor, connected with copper nails set close apart in the ﬂoor. The spouse of a telco employee wore copper-soled shoes from which wires ran up through her clothing to a telephone set. She asked her dancing partners whom they’d like to talk with, and suddenly they were on the phone. A switchboard operator listened in on all conversations and whenever she heard a name rushed through a call on special lines.
This wired ballroom—like some telephonic update of the khôra, that Platonic dance floor and moving surface so mythologically important to the first days of Western architecture—presents us with an absolutely incredible image of people waltzing amidst voices, metallurgically connected to a matrix of wires and lines extending far beyond the room they first met within.
The copper woman in the center of it all becomes more like an antenna, stepping and turning inside a glossolalia of distant personalities all vying for time on the invisible network she controls with every move of her feet. Sheathed in metal, she is part golem, part conjurer, part modern oracle, kicking off the weird seance that was the early telephone system, guiding us through a switchboard of words from nowhere all woven together in this awesome dance.