In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Devil’s Foot” Dr. Watson receives a telegram from the great detective, and says of his friend that “he has never been known to write [a letter] when a telegram would serve”.
In the late nineteenth century letters were, in the face of the immediacy of a telegram, hopelessly old-fashioned, and by 1898 Holmes had gone a step further, and had a telephone installed in his flat at 221B Baker St. The detective was obviously a man who embraced new technology, and during his heyday (1881–1914) there was rather a lot of it to embrace.
We live in an age of rapid advances; but so too did those who lived a century ago. Their technology might look quaint to us, but it was the prototype of so much that we take for granted today. Without the first telephones, as cumbersome as they were, there would be no smartphones now; and while you might think that “technogeeks” – people obsessed with technology – are a recent phenomenon, you would be very wrong.
One early technogeek was Ashcroft’s R.D. Cumming, who in the summer of 1914 was anticipating the arrival of a communications system unlike anything Ashcroft had ever seen. Cumming’s excitement about its arrival, installation, and use could hardly be contained, and he was as anticipatory of it then as many people are today when Apple announces that a new model of iPhone is on the way.
Nowadays, of course, we have all manner of social media in which to broadcast our thoughts and views, and communicate with others who are as interested as we are; avenues not available to Cumming. However, as owner and editor of the Ashcroft Journal from 1912–1958, he had a whole newspaper at his disposal; and for much of 1914 he kept up an almost breathless running commentary on every aspect of the telephone system that was coming to town.
In January 1914, Ashcroft was connected to only two communities – Lillooet and Clinton – by telephone, and anyone wishing to avail themselves of that still rather newfangled device had to use the only phone in town, which was located at the telegraph office. Cumming, who had been a shopkeeper before assuming editorship of The Journal, was keenly aware of what a wonderful business tool the phone could be. In January 1914 he wrote in the paper, “The amount of business that can be done in a few moments over the telephone is remarkable, and it can be done to such a satisfaction that the telegraph cannot approach.” In this he sounds remarkably like a present-day businessman, musing about the possibilities that new technology (online shopping, for example) might bring.
Cumming also realized, however, that this technology could connect far-flung people, much as e-mail, Facebook, and other social media sites do today: “The telephone accommodation between Ashcroft and Lillooet and Clinton brings these towns closer together than they ever were before and make the people close neighbours rather than strangers at a long distance.”
In February he noted that “There are prospects of Ashcroft being connected to Savona by wire in the summer. This would put the town in connection with Kamloops, as well as the whole of the Okanagan Valley.”
As thrilling as this prospect undoubtedly was to Cumming (and others), what really got him excited was the fact that in summer 1914, Ashcroft got its own in-town telephone system. In early June he reported that “The switch-board for the telephone has arrived and is being installed at the Central [Hotel, then the site of the town’s post office]. Mr C.E. Gooding, who is the government official in charge of the work, advises that we will be in communication with each other in about two weeks.”
Later in June he noted, “The wires for the local telephone system are being put into the homes and offices of the various subscribers. The instruments will arrive in a few days. We understand the wire is already here so that we should be in touch with each other in a very short time.”
Anyone who has had dealings with phone companies – which is to say, most people reading this column – will doubtless be laughing hollowly and rolling their eyes at Cumming’s optimism (and will be noting that the phone company’s estimate of completion time was as hopeful then as it is now). However, Cumming was – in those early days of the telephone – living in a state of blissful ignorance regarding promised vs. actual delivery dates.
On July 4 he was still hopeful: “The instruments for the local telephone service are being installed and a short time should see the completion of the system.” On July 11 he wrote, “Work in connection with the setting of the poles for the local telephone will begin Monday, and a week or two should see the system in complete working order,” and on July 18 came the news that “The erection of the poles for the local telephone wires is progressing rapidly. The installing of the instruments and the wires connecting same is about done, and a short time should see the work complete.”
Alas, there appears to have been a delay in proceedings (modern readers will smile as they realize that not much has changed in a century), and work slowed down for several weeks after July 18. It was not until Aug. 29 that Cumming was able to report that “The cable for the local telephone has arrived and in a short time all connections will be made and we will be in direct communication with each other in our own homes. Ashcroft will be a very much up to date town.”
To be continued