Past, Present & Beyond – Pt. 2: Don’t fracture your opponent’s Tympanum

Barbara Roden continues on with R.D. Cumming's fascination with the new-fangled telephone system in Ashcroft.

In the summer of 1914, Journal owner/editor R.D. Cumming documented the progress of the installation of a local telephone service in Ashcroft.

After several weeks of delays, it was ready to go in early September, and on Sept. 5 The  Journal published a list of the names and numbers of subscribers. Thirty-eight businesses and households were connected, including the Government Telegraph Office (Ashcroft 1), Ashcroft Hotel (2), Harvey Bailey (4), Grand Central Hotel (6), C.P.R. (7), M. Dumond Hardware (8), B.C. Express Co. (9), Lady Minto Hospital (18), the Government Office (19), and the Pastime Poolroom (20).

R.D. Cumming was, of course, one of those who had an “instrument” installed in his home (Ashcroft 34; other up to date householders included Joseph Burr, Dr. Sanson, A. Haddock, and J.J. Ting). The Journal office was Ashcroft 16, and on Sept. 9, 1914 it received its first phone call. One can imagine Cumming poised over the instrument, waiting breathlessly for this momentous occasion, only to be disappointed: “On Wednesday the Journal had its first call on the telephone,” he wrote on Sept. 12. “We replied promptly, anticipating a word with the ‘hello girl’, but it was a false alarm and we were stung.”

The “hello girl” (operator) was Miss Thelma Porter, aged 16, who had recently left school. That would seem to be a parallel with our own age, in which a young person takes to new technology in a way that older people might find difficult. Sadly, Thelma seems to have encountered a few difficulties in her new job; difficulties unrelated to the technology, for on Sept. 26 Cumming wrote in the paper, “Flirting with the ‘hello girl’ over the phone is strictly prohibited.”

The comment would seem to indicate that Thelma had a few complaints about early customers, who were almost overwhelmingly male (only two of the initial 38 Ashcroft phone numbers were explicitly in the names of women; it’s fairly safe to assume the rest were men, or businesses run by men). Poor Thelma; one wonders what she had had to put up before saying something to Cumming.

This misgiving aside, however, Cumming felt that the phone system was a success. On Sept. 19 he wrote: “The telephone service which has been installed in Ashcroft, and which has been placed in commission this week, although long in coming, certainly justifies itself by its efficiency upon its arrival. The system is very much up to date and no expense has been spared by the government in making it one of the most durable as well as serviceable plants ever installed in a small town. The support which it has received proves to what an extent the telephone has been needed in this town.” In the same issue he noted that “Every family in Ashcroft should hook up to the telephone system, because you can not only order your groceries without going out in the cold or rain, but you can call up the Journal and report your local news items.”

R.D. Cumming truly was a man well ahead of his time, for those words from a century ago anticipate the advent of online shopping, as well as instantaneous news reporting. However, he encountered at least one difficulty which is not a factor in the 21st Century, and on Sept. 26 felt the need to advise, “Don’t shout through the telephone or you will fracture your opponent’s tympanum.”

On Oct. 31 Cumming wrote triumphantly that “The telephone line between Ashcroft and Savona . . . has been completed and is giving good service. This connects Ashcroft with Walhachin, Savona, and Kamloops. On the way there are two subscribers, Messrs Semlin and McAbee being connected between here and Walhachin. This new line means that practically the whole interior of B.C. is connected by telephone.”

It truly was a marvel in its day. In our world of instantaneous communication it’s easy to forget that there was a time when being in contact with someone who lived outside your community meant writing and posting a letter and then waiting for a response, or resorting to a telegram (which could be faster, but the expense of which mounted up quickly). The telephone system from Ashcroft to the outside world opened up that world in a way that had previously been impossible to imagine, and R.D. Cumming was – perhaps more keenly than most – aware of just what that meant.

The telephone system within Ashcroft was not quite as world-expanding, but it did mean that rather than trekking down the street to speak with others – an uninviting prospect in winter, or during the heat of high summer – one could be in communication with someone else from the comfort of one’s home. Cumming obviously embraced this new technology, signing up his home and business as soon as possible (I feel rather sorry for the workmen who put the equipment in at The Journal office, who doubtless had Cumming peering over their shoulders and peppering them with questions the entire time). And like many people who quickly embrace the latest communication devices, he was impatient with those who dragged their heels. In Dec. 1914 he wrote in the paper, “It is aggravating when you have something important to say to a person, to find that they are not connected by phone.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us that “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be . . . and there is no new thing under the sun.” So we see with technology, where the most amazing modern advances, and attitudes towards them, have their parallels in the past. I only wish that R.D. Cumming had been around to see the Internet. He would have loved it. . . .

Barbara Roden