I Remember Mama . . . Bell

Many newspapers now run only paid memorial announcements, but the New York Times is one of a few that still publish professionally written obituaries to die for. My most recent favorite is Margalit Fox on the violin maker Carleen Hutchins.


Mrs. Hutchins was known for her pragmatism. In 1957 her friend Virginia Apgar, a doctor and amateur violinmaker, began to covet a shelf made of perfect maple. The shelf was in a phone booth in the medical school of Columbia University, where Dr. Apgar taught.

One night she and Mrs. Hutchins stole into the building with some tools and a replacement shelf, stained to match. As Dr. Apgar stood guard, Mrs. Hutchins set to work.

It gets better, but what really got to me was that the old Bell Telephone System, whatever else you could say about it, had standards that consumers took for granted. To think that before mobile phones, generations of Americans scribbled their notes on slabs of luthier-grade hardwood without knowing it.

And don't miss the Times's link to Dr. Apgar's page at the National Library of Medicine.


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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