Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ayrton's 1901 Prediction of Cellular Phones


In 1901, Professor William Edward Ayrton predicted that people would soon be able to talk one-on-one across the globe, thus describing the basic function of the cell phone, as distinguished from broadcast radio which was then in its infancy.

I am particularly struck by his description of the likely conversation (see below).  A few years ago, I was in the middle of the Yucatan jungle, and received a very similar call from one of my colleagues, who did not know where I was, asking if I was available to attend a meeting.

Here is a summary of Ayrton's statement from "The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine" of March 1902 :

In commenting on Mr. Marconi's paper (read before the Society of Arts in May) Professor Ayrton said that we were gradually coming within thinkable distance of the realization of a prophecy he had ventured to make four years before, of a time when, if a person wanted to call to a friend he knew not where, he would call in a very loud electromagnetic voice, heard by him who had the electromagnetic ear, silent to him who had it not. "Where are you?" he would say. A small reply would come, " I am at the bottom of a coalmine, or crossing the Andes, or in the middle of the Atlantic." Or, perhaps in spite of all the calling, no reply would come, and the person would then know that his friend was dead. Think of what this would mean, of the calling which goes on every day from room to room of a house, and then think of that calling extending from pole to pole, not a noisy babble, but a call audible to him who wants to hear, and absolutely silent to all others. It would be almost like dreamland and ghostland, not the ghostland cultivated by a heated imagination, but a real communication from a distance based on true physical laws.

From Engineering Magazine (Jul 1901) as described in ‘Marconi and his Transatlantic Signal’, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (March 1902), Vol. 63, p782.

A postscript:  In perusing Vol. 63 of "The Century Illustrated" on Google Books, I am struck by the fact that each edition of this monthly mass-market magazine was hundreds of pages long (monthly books really), and absolutely full of magnificently detailed technical articles (with engineering drawings), poems, works of art, history, humor, first-person accounts, descriptions of foreign lands and experiences, and insight into current events -- an in-depth exploration of the cultural detail of the world at the time.

No publication today even comes close to matching it.  Most modern people don't even know our own language well enough to fully understand this magazine, and they certainly don't understand the cultural and historical references in it that still form the basis of American culture. Yes, we have Ayrton's cell phones now, but most of us don't have any idea of how they work.  Nor would we care to read a magazine explaining them.  They are simply magic placed into the hands of modern barbarians.

No comments:

Post a Comment