"Central" and the Seers

THE poet is the seer. It is a poet who says of his fellows that they are “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” Long before the “practical man” gets through his processes of ratiocination and proves his fact; long before the genius has made his invention and the mechanic has tested it and pronounced it workable, the poet has reached his conclusion by a noble inspiration. The one conceives, the other acts.

Half a millenium before the telephone was invented, before Dr. Bell had patented his idea,—and it was the first time that an idea had been patented,—the poet Chaucer had written his “House of Fame,” or House of Sounds, as it might be called. In one of the Canterbury Tales he presented the idea that sound is but a reverberation of air. This he amplified, turned over, and made poetic, in the “ House of Fame.” In the familiar guise of a dreamer, he was carried by a great bird with silvery wings upwards, in the direction that sound naturally takes, for everything follows nature, he says, until he reached the place to which all earthly sounds tend. How do they go ? Take a stone; throw it into the water; it will make a ripple, perchance no larger than a pot-lid; but it will cause another wheel to appear, and that a third, and the third a fourth, and the fourth another, multiplying evermore until every brink has been touched.

Thus is it with every word: spoken in secret or aloud, it moveth the air about it, and that moveth the body next, and that another and another, until at last the reverberation has reached the House of Fame, — “the place in which it naturally belongeth.” This house is set equally distant from heaven and earth and sea, and all sounds of voice, or noise, or word tend thither.

Here,then, we see that Chaucer opened the first “Central Office.” He got his sounds there satisfactorily, but he went no further. Little did he dream of the fortune that waited five centuries, until one arose wise enough to lay the return wire, and complete the circuit, so that the sound need no longer be a mere deposit in the Central Office, but be safely carried to the particular person for whom it was intended.

This Central Office was a vast basket of willow and reeds, and it had as many entrances “as there be leaves on trees,”

And eke be day, in every tide,
Been all the dores opened wide,
And be night echoon unshette,

with no gatekeeper to hinder any kind of tidings from passing in.

If we were to ask the “Hello Girl,” of the twentieth century what messages she receives, she might well take up the words of the ancient poet, and tell us,

... tydyngea,
Other loude or of whisprynges.
And over alle the houses angles
Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles,
Of werres, of pes, of mariages,
Of restes, of labour, of viages,
Of aboode, of deeth, of lyfe,
Of leve, of hate, accorde, of stryfe,
Of loos, of lore and of wynnynges
Of hele, of sekeness, of bildynges,
Of faire wyndes, of tempestes,
Of qualme of folke and eke of bestes,
Of dyvers transmutaciouns
Of estates and eke of regiouns ;
Of truste, of drede, of jealousye,
Of witte, of wynnynge, of folye ;
Of plente and of grete famyne,
Of chepe, of derthe and of ruyne ;
Of good or mysgouvernement,
Of fire and of dyvers accident.

It would not be fair to Dr. Bell to say that the suggestion of the telephone came to him from Chaucer, nor would it be at all true; neither would it be fair to say that Chaucer lacked originality (even if we could define the word) because he had read Ovid’s lines of a thousand and a half years before his time. “They say” may stand as a pretty good synonym of the Latin Fama, and it fits into Ovid’s description of a place that he describes. “There is,” says he, “a place in the middle of the earth, betwixt the land, the sky, the sea, within the limits of the triple world, whence is seen whatever is anywhere, even beyond the horizon, and every voice pierces to the hollow ears. ‘They Say’ rules this place and has selected a house for herself at the tiptop of it. She has added innumerable avenues of approach, has made a thousand perforations, and has shut up the entrances with no gates, — they are open day and night. It is made throughout of sounding brass and thrills with noise. It returns words and repeats what it hears. No quiet is found within; there is silence nowhere, and neither is there clamor, but murmurs of a low voice, such as one hears from a distance, or like the sound of remote thunder, when Jupiter hurtles black clouds together. A crowd throngs the hall, the light and fickle common herd pass and repass. A thousand rumors, false and true, fly about clothed in confused words. Some fill empty ears with talk, others tattle what they are told; and fiction grows, for every gossip adds his quota to what is told him. There stands Credulity, there rash Error, there empty Joy and horrid Fear, hasty Sedition and Whispers from uncertain sources.” “She,” that is, “They Say,” busies herself with all that goes on in heaven and earth and sea, and gossips about all the world.

When Chaucer read what Ovid had written about this house of gossip, he said to himself, “I can improve on all this! I, too, will have a vast building in the air, but I will make it of osiers, far better adapted for its purpose than an orb of resounding brass, though brass may ring, and twigs will not.” So it turned out that Ovid made a house for the installment of a Central Office; that Chaucer opened the Office for receiving messages; and Dr. Bell laid the return wire. It was all accomplished in nineteen hundred years!

Thus the Seer antedated the practical man.