Going Wireless in the Belle Époque
A Photo Essay by Erik Born
A cable, marvelous as it is, maintains a tangible and material connection between speaker and hearer: one can grasp its meaning. But here is nothing but space, a pole with a pendent wire on one side of a broad, curving ocean, an uncertain kite struggling in the air on the other — and thought passing between. — Ray Stannard Baker, 1902
The wireless telegraph is not difficult to understand. The ordinary telegraph is like a very long cat. You pull the tail in New York, and it meows in Los Angeles. The wireless is the same, only without the cat. — Albert Einstein, 1938
I. The Wired City, ca. 1890
There are too many wires. Under a network of wires so dense as to block out the sky, several pedestrians have been frozen, mid-stride, in contemplation of this spectacle of infrastructure.
The image is centered on a telephone pole, the physical support for the lines of communication leading off into many different directions. Someone — an eavesdropper? a Victorian repairman? — has climbed up to the third rung of the pole. Beneath him, several passersby, including two businessmen and a costermonger with her clients, are taking a break from their business, completely absorbed by the scene.
As they gaze up at the cables, perhaps they are wondering, “How did our world become so wired?”
Images of the wired city were popular at the turn of the twentieth century, when the telegraph, telephone, and electrical networks were rapidly expanding. The common scene involved a group of city-dwellers going about their business, mostly oblivious to the modern technology suspended precariously above their heads.
The congestion of wires attests not only to the limitations of wired technology, but also to nascent service practices. To keep up with the demand for service, telephone wires were usually laid one-at-a-time with each new subscription. At the time, there was no practical way of consolidating multiple wires into one cable, though techniques were developing for sending and receiving multiple messages on the same channel.
A mid-19th-century innovation, the utility pole was intended to consolidate telegraph wires and isolate them from the general public. One unintended use of the utility pole was as a site for lynchings.
In the 1890s, utility poles were increasingly removed in high-traffic areas. While wires held out the promise of instantaneous communication, they also constituted a threat to urban environments, because a downed wire, vulnerable to the elements, could prove fatal to the unlucky passersby.
Gradually, the wired infrastructure moved from the center of cities to their periphery. To replace the haphazard wired infrastructure, urban planners consolidated wires and increased the height of utility poles.
Out of sight, out of mind — ultimately, such images created a sense that the fearsome power of electricity was under control.
II. Wireless Futures from the Belle Époque
While wires tended to remain far overhead or buried underground, a satirical image of the wireless future could frame humans and technology on the same plane.
In reality, however, wires continue to occupy a tenuous position at the periphery of everyday life.
Many observers at the turn of the twentieth century were convinced that the advent of wireless technology spelled the end of wired infrastructure. As one engineer put it,
“Telegraphy without wires — how attractive it sounds. No more unsightly pole lines disfiguring the streets and highways, ornamented with the dangling skeletons of by-gone kites. No more perpetual excavation of the streets, to find room beneath their surfaces for additional circuits that cannot possibly be crowded on to the staggering lines that darken the sky with their sooty cobwebs.”
One the main attractions of wireless technology, as Grant Wythoff argues, was that it promised to wrap the vast infrastructure of wired systems around the bodies of individual users, thereby creating a form of “pocket wireless,” not unlike a smartphone.
The projected capabilities of such wireless gadgets easily outpaced technical limitations, though science and fiction remained interdependent in these wireless futures.
In 1910, Robert Sloss’s predictions about a coming “Wireless Century” combined a fictional narrative of a voyage to the North Pole with a concrete description of recent developments in wireless engineering.
Sloss’s predictions about applications for wireless technology included contacting a family member, receiving an opera broadcast, shopping for a wedding dress virtually, and even using a wireless energy generator to power a spaceship. In a strange mixture of indicative and subjunctive moods, Sloss negotiated the liminal status of wireless technology between the real and the imaginary:
“All the things in the course of the ‘story’ up to this point, which have sounded so wonderful, are actually problems that have been already solved today, or that are by no means part of the realm of pious wishes or overwrought hopes and expectations. No, they are facts that are only waiting to be introduced into our practical life.”
This mixture of fact and fiction, also evident in the allegorical engraving accompanying the article, underscores Sloss’s utopian vision of a wireless world in the offing.
The wireless revolution promised not only to do away with the familiar urban infrastructure of physical wires, but also to enable the creation of a new electrified world without borders. Since wireless signals are universally available, at least in theory, to anyone with a receiver, the spread of wireless technology was taken to be a sign of impending universal social equality. Ultimately, wireless technology was thought to promote free circulation, a dominant precondition for progress since the Enlightenment.
In hindsight, it is probably easier to identify with the predictions attached to wireless gadgets, many of which have come true, than with those attached to the social and political implications of wireless infrastructures, which remain speculations.
III. In Praise of Wireless Infrastructure
“Infrastructure is not sexy,” as comedian John Oliver puts it. Only when infrastructures malfunction do they receive public attention. Otherwise, one of the defining characteristics of infrastructure is invisibility. With wireless technology, this invisibility is only partly due to the medium of transmission.
Even though wireless technology is itself invisible, the same need not be true of wireless infrastructures. As media theorist Lisa Parks observes,
“We describe ourselves as a ‘networked society’ and yet most members of the public know very little about the infrastructures that support such a designation — whether broadcasting, web, or wireless systems.”
For Parks, our widespread ignorance of networking technology is due largely to the increasing invisibility of that technology in the public sphere.
Today, mobile antennas are increasingly packaged inside, rather than outside, of consumer electronics. Antennas are shot into orbit on satellites. Cellular towers are driven out into the suburbs, or hidden in plain sight inside sailboat masts, barn silos, bell towers, flag poles, church spires, or summit crosses. And artificial structures are designed to resemble natural objects, such as the strange case of “antenna trees.”
As Peter Schaefer argues, the displacement of technology and the emphasis on immaterial infrastructures “promote a teleological narrative of physically connected data transfer systems progressing to lighter, cleaner networks that are increasingly disconnected from the natural world.”
Today, many advocates of wireless convergence believe that wireless infrastructures will eventually replaced their wired counterparts, thereby increasing access, reducing costs, and removing the necessity of a material support for digital technology. To counter these assumptions, media theorists have recently taken to showing the material underpinnings of what are usually perceived to be immaterial technologies.
After exposing the common governmental practice of concealing infrastructures inside “antenna trees,” Lisa Parks has drawn on fieldwork and historical maps showing “signal territories” with the aim of increasing technological literacy about infrastructures.
Operationalizing Adrian Mackenzie’s theory of “wirelessness,” Jussi Parikka has illuminated the critical engineering practices informing the Weise 7 group’s wireless devices.
In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, journalist Andrew Blum helped popularize some of this work with a mixture of reporting on data centers, underground fiber-optic cables, and the engineers who construct and operate them.
Many of these strands were brought together in a special issue of Amodern on “Network Archaeology,” which made a plea for expanding the field of media archaeology from objects and artifacts to include the study of networks and the history of connections.
To these studies, I would add that significant historical alternatives to today’s strategies of concealment and displacement can be found in previous attempts to come to terms with the place of communications infrastructures in the public sphere.
In the early twentieth century, cities tended to celebrate their infrastructure more than we do today. There was an entire genre of “wireless poetry,” consisting of odes to antenna towers, and these towers themselves attracted thousands of visitors a year. Just as late 19th-century postcards often paid tribute to smokestacks as signs of industrial progress, producing strange images of smog-covered destinations, early 20th-century postcards often featured antenna towers as signs of a region’s communications prowess.
Since modern wireless telecommunications rely on the invisible medium of electromagnetic waves, they were unable to draw on the dominant iconography of network infrastructure, such as cables, switches, and transmitters, commonly found in representations of wired systems. However, wireless infrastructures remained “visible” in another sense — namely, in that they were a highly symbolic means of negotiating the modern politics of visibility.
At once material and invisible, wireless media ultimately encourage us to rethink the common visual and conceptual paradigm of what it means to be modern.
Erik Born is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley where he is writing his dissertation on the pre- and early history of radio and television.