I Remember Mama . . . Bell

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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. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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