It has become a cliche of the cell phone age to hate that other people carry on their conversations in public. Something about hearing half of a dialogue seems to irk those with even the slightest tendency to be tech reactionaries. They are a sign of the particular brand of decline associated with new things. "Why did those phones seem like the embodiment of everything I had to escape?" complains Philip Roth's narrator in Exit Ghost. "They were an inevitable technological development, and yet, in their abundance, I saw the measure of how far I had fallen away from the community of contemporary souls."
But lest you think that it was only the mobile telephone that flummoxed and annoyed early observers, we bring you Mark Twain's wonderful 1880 piece, "A Telephonic Conversation."
Sage Stossel, one of our contributing editors and a living memory bank of The Atlantic's archives, described the piece like this: "In 1880, Twain, bemused by this new device that permitted eavesdroppers to hear only one side of a conversation, wrote an amusing description of overhearing his wife talk on the telephone."
There is something fundamentally wrong about a one-sided conversation, "the queerest of all the queer things in this world," as Twain puts it. It's speech detached from its surroundings and social environment, existing fully only on the electrified line connecting two people.
Twain, of course, makes the dislocations of the new communication mode funny. His liberal use of incongruity feels snarky, but not in a bad way. And maybe that's because he wasn't opposed to the telephone, even if he found some of its aftereffects odd. His family was one of the first to install a telephone in the city of Hartford.
Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world, -- a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don't hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can't make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says. Well, I heard the following remarkable series of observations, all from the one tongue, and all shouted, -- for you can't ever persuade the gentle sex to speak gently into a telephone
Read the rest of Twain's "A Telephonic Conversation."
Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.