Ma Bell or mobile, phones drive us nuts

Robert Rufa Columnist

In the beginning, there were no telephones. When people wanted to communicate, they walked up to someone and said, “Hi.” If they were far apart, they sent someone with a message. “Go to the village across the valley and tell George I said hi.” If they couldn’t send someone, they either went themselves or forgot about it. If they forgot, George would think they stopped caring.

Over time we came up with different ways to communicate, but they mostly involved writing on paper — you know, letters. While it got the job done, people craved the intimacy of speech. It’s hard to emote on paper unless you’re Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Samuel Morse did his best with the telegraph, and it did provide an instantaneous form of communication (as long as people who knew Morse code were doing the communicating for you), but can you imagine “How do I love thee/stop/let me count the ways/stop”?

Then along came Alexander Graham Bell with just the thing — the telephone. It was crude at first, and early phones involved cranking and party lines. But finally George could reach out and touch someone across the miles, as long as someone else with the same number wasn’t already using the phone. That’s what the party line was all about, by the way.

Eventually almost every home in America had a phone — and a number they could call their own. Now George would know the call was probably for him when the phone rang, and he’d be able to hear someone say “I love you” or “Your prescription for Epidermathinaglim is ready” without worrying that someone was listening in. Providing of course he didn’t miss the call.

Answering machines solved that little problem. Now if someone called when George wasn’t home, they could leave a message and he could call them back. Maybe. Some people would just hang up because they hated talking to a machine.

Finally someone came up with the perfect solution — the cellphone. Now George could take his phone with him and never be out of touch, and if Lucy wanted to invite him to a Fourth of July BBQ at the last minute, he wouldn’t miss the call.

Of course, early cellphones weren’t much smaller than phone booths, so it was hard to put one in your pocket or purse. But now cellphones are small, and despite their size you can do a lot of things with them besides make calls — browse the web, order something from Amazon, text a friend, play games, locate a restaurant, take pictures, watch a movie, find George’s cellphone if he’s kidnapped, make a latte.

OK, I made that last thing up, but everything else is close to true. I’m not kidding.