Of cell phones and immortal words

Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2003

When William Shatner invented the cell phone, I said to myself, "At last! A portable and non-intrusive instrument that will make possible the efficient transmission of important thoughts and feelings that might otherwise have gone unsaid."

Which is not to say that Mr. Shatner did that, i.e., transmit important thoughts and feelings. No. In fact he used the instrument primarily to call a cab or, as he put it, to have himself "beamed up."

A peculiar business, if you think about it, when it would have been a simple matter to install a switch on the cell phone that activated the "beaming" appliance remotely, without need of banal conversation with the attendant at the other end (usually an engine-room lackey with an annoying faux-Scots accent or, worse, another fellow who never said anything of consequence but prided himself that he did it in an utterly rational way).

That should have told me something - the "banal" part.

It was some years after Mr. Shatner's breakthrough before the cell phone became commercially available, and the first time I saw and heard the thing applied was at the entrance to a supermarket. A large, not to say loutish, fellow in an unwashed orange coverall held the tool to his ear and pronounced the following: "I'm going into the store, now."

In a moment of profound revelation, I knew that the cell phone would never rise from simply being the darling of the finger-in-the-nostril crowd.

And I chastise myself that I should have known that right there from the get-go, from what Mr. Shatner said. He might have said something momentous: "One small step for the Enterprise, one giant step for the beaming industry," for example. But he didn't.

The lout outside the store might have said: "I think, therefore I may bowl." But he didn't.

There have been other instances when the future should have been suspect to all those in attendance.

In 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse inaugurated his telegraph system by transmitting over its modest 35-mile length - between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md. - the following message: "What hath God wrought?"


Wrong. What Mr. Morse transmitted was, "Everything worked well." That "God wrought" stuff is a Biblical quote (Book of Numbers, I seem to recall or, rather, my stiff knuckles seem to recall) dictated by the granddaughter of the commissioner of patents at a later demonstration of the telegraph. (The granddaughter seems not to have understood that it was Mr. Morse who had done the wrought-ing.)

You see, Mr. Morse, an incurable geek, spoke only Banal (a geek dialect), as did his technical heir, though we may presume that, unlike his scion, Mr. Morse bathed and is unlikely to have appeared at his toy's inauguration in an orange coverall.

But I digress.

Telling you that "I found it" hearkens back of course to the Greek (I almost wrote "Grecian") for that thought: "Eureka." And it will be remembered, won't it (listen to your knuckles, Class), that in 1839 Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped some India rubber in which sulfur had been dissolved onto a hot stove, thereby "discovering" vulcanization. (More accurately, I think, Fate tossed the "discovery" into his lap. But that's another story.)

Anyway, Mr. Goodyear is said to have shouted, remarkably, "Eureka!"

One does that, doesn't one? Upon making an important discovery, one breaks into Greek.

I will posit that Mr. Goodyear is more likely to have said something like, "Woof, that really, really stinks! Mrs. G is gonna spaz out!"

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell - according to his own diary - said into the first telephone receiver (connected to his assistant's work station in the next room): "Mr. Watson - come here - I want to see you."

Thus, as history drones, transpired the first vocal telephony.

Subsequent accounts (probably an astonished Mr. Watson was their source) show the imperative actually to have been: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you." (I will leave it to the reader to ferret out the implications of that command and to commiserate with Mr. Watson's undoubted shock and awe.)

I would also caution the reader (even if the reader's name is not Horatio) that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

To wit: Mr. Bell, in fact, spilled some acid on his pants (your inventor, being a geek, tends toward the clumsy) and hollered, not knowing that his implement was still connected, "Mr. Watson! Come here! I want you!"

Not only that! But I submit that even though in those Victorian times the custom was toward the elevated locution, it is highly unlikely that the hapless Mr. Bell thought to say what he is purported to have said as he ruminated over his endangered nether regions.

No. More probably, he said, as the acid slowly ate through his pants, "What the #%&##!"

Having thus belabored the obvious for lo, these many paragraphs - that human commentary leans toward the pedestrian, the historian's frantic efforts at revision notwithstanding - I will end with a confession.

I did not say, upon perceiving the nascent cell phone: "At last! A portable and non-intrusive instrument that will make possible the efficient transmission of important thoughts and feelings that might otherwise have gone unsaid."

What I actually said, as I observed Mr. Shatner's usual struggle to remember his next line, was: "What a moron!"

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