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Tech Perdu: John Darnton



[Editor's introduction: Consider the dinosaur. Although it has not made the fern-bar scene or feasted on its fellow colossi since the late Cretaceous, it remains vital to the world’s imagination. As every kid, palaeontologist, and movie producer knows, there is something inherently lovable and enthralling about these vanished Gargantuas, as well as something that evokes pathos—when we contemplate their lost, lumbering grace, their great dignity and gravity, we often have the nagging sense that what has replaced them has not necessarily been for the better.

So, too, for the dinosaurs of communications technology. The digital gizmos that have made them obsolete have nothing of their charm, nobility, or romantic allure—at least not according to the seven writers assembled here, who offer bittersweet encomiums to the typewriter, the rotary phone and the phonebooth, letter-press printing, black-and-white photographs, 45rpm records, telexes and telegrams, and writing and receiving letters via good, old-fashioned snail mail. Read on, and be here then.]

I doubt that many people mourned at the end of the 20th century when the telex died. A lot of people didn’t know what telexes were or had only a vague sense that they were used to send cablegrams or telegrams, which were killed off by e-mail. In January 2006, Western Union discontinued telegrams. It’s hard to imagine the number of scrapbooks in which all those hastily pasted messages—about money, marriage, love, and death—still reside.

For some, for businessmen, airline pilots, and journalists bouncing around what used to be called “the Third World,” telexes were essential lifelines to the home office, clunky, upright machines that communicated with one another. Imagine two overgrown typewriters, one here and the other, say, in Nevada. You sit down and bang out a message on a keyboard, dial up a number and send it off. The machine falls silent. You wait and stare at it. After a decent interval, which could last hours (if Nevada is out to lunch), the machine suddenly lurches to life, a tiny bulb lights up the paper roll, and the keys start striking it magically all on their own. Presto, Nevada answering.

Of course in real life it never seemed to work that smoothly. The keyboard you found yourself sitting at might be French or, even worse, Portuguese, with a bewildering configuration for accent marks. Or you forgot to hit the special key to transmit numerals, which led to gobbledygook and could bring trouble (an Associated Press correspondent, Michael Goldsmith, was personally throttled and jailed for a month by Central African Emperor Bokassa, who thought his indecipherable mistakes were code). Or the telex could only be worked by an operator who found it hard to rouse himself from slumber unless a certain number of dollars (remember, this was a long time ago) crossed into his palm.

Usually reporters pounded out their stories on a portable typewriter, then retyped it onto a five-hole paper tape that was then fed into the telex. Once you got a connection, you typed WRU (who are you?), which generated an automatic “answer back”. Then you pushed a button and the tape flew through like a panicky snake. That saved money. One foreign correspondent carried his own tiny paper punch with him, and whenever he pulled it out I was reminded of that scene in M*A*S*H when Elliot Gould pulled out a bottle of olives for the martinis. Old hands like to tell stories about the times they were so close to deadline on a big story they had to file live over the telex.

These days correspondents in the field simply dial up a number on a satellite phone. One good thing about that is that it’s harder for a repressive government to pull the plug. One bad thing is that the ease of communication runs both ways—meaning it’s easier for your editors to reach you.

John Darnton is an award-winning journalist and best-selling novelist. He worked for 40 years at the New York Times, winning two George Polk awards and a Pulitzer Prize. His new novel, Black & White and Dead All Over, employs obsolete journalistic technologies as murder weapons.

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