”The Horse Doesn’t Eat Cucumber Salad”
By Jack Kinsella
Nobody knows who invented the first postal system – it was probably the same guy who inventing writing: “Hey! I just invented writing. Come on over and I’ll tell you what this letter says!” The first postman was probably that guy’s slave.
Early postal systems were developed by Hammurabi, Sargon II, King Cyrus the Great and Darius of Persia. But they weren’t designed to deliver mail so much as they were designed to gather intelligence.
(But that was before postal unions. Since then, all intelligence has been banned from the postal service. For example, to address public complaints about slow service inside post offices, the USPS removed all the clocks.)
Until the invention of the telephone, the postal service represented the only option for communication across long distances. A person in New York might write a letter to a person in San Francisco and might receive a reply in less than two months.
In 1860 Johan Phillip Reis produced a device that could transmit musical notes and on some occasions, intelligible speech. The Reis transmitter was difficult to operate, but since it could transmit human voices over distances, it could be called a “telephone” – even if nobody could use it except Reis.
Later, Thomas Edison tested the Reis equipment and found it capable of transmitting human speech, including “the inflections of the voice, the modulations of interrogation, wonder, command, etc.”
Alexander Graham Bell is credited with having invented the telephone in 1876, but it was actually invented much earlier, in 1832, by an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci.
Meucci patented his teletofono in 1871, but, Meucci, who frequently lived on public assistance, did not renew it after 1874 because he was short ten bucks.
Indeed, in 2002 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution that recognized Meucci’s pioneering work on the telephone, saying;
“if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell.”
But since Meucci didn’t renew, Canadian Alexander Graham Bell was first to get to the patent office with his own telephone invention, barely beating Chicago inventor Elisha Gray, who tried to patent his telephone device on the very same day.
Which in retrospect, I think, may have been a good thing. Somehow, “Gray Telephone” doesn’t have the same ring to it as does “Bell Telephone” – it sounds like a telephone service for spies.
And “Meucci Teletefono” — it just doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue. (In fact, it tends to make it hurt).
History tells us that the first words ever spoken over a telephone were uttered by Alexander Graham Bell; “Watson, come here! I want to see you!” That is sort of true.
They were the first words ever spoken in English over a telephone.
In reality, Johann Reis was the first person to ever transmit human speech over the airwaves via an electronic device, sixteen years before Bell used his to phone Watson.
Maybe if Reis were calling someone to do something useful, like ‘come here’ or “pick up a loaf of bread and two quarts of milk” then Johann Reis might be history’s Alexander Graham Bell.
That could have changed history. When Bell Telephone’s monopoly was broken up into regional phone companies, they were immediately nicknamed “Baby Bells.”
If Reis had been the official inventor of the telephone, then the breakup into regional phone companies would probably have been nicknamed, “Reis’s Pieces” — and then how could ET phone home?
In any event, it was Johann Reis, not Alexander Graham Bell, who uttered the immortal words that made up the first sentence ever transmitted by telephone:
“Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat.”
It means, “The horse doesn’t eat cucumber salad.”
In summary, then, the history of communications goes like this. First, somebody invented writing. Then he wrote a message and sent it via somebody else, thereby inventing the postal service.
But by 1860, so many people were trying to feed cucumber salads to their horses that it necessitated the invention of the telephone.
One can instantly see the advantages of a telephone over the Pony Express. Once they stopped feeding their horses cucumber salads, the Pony Express could get a message across the country in a matter of weeks.
With the advent of the telephone, the same message could be transmitted instantly.
(“Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat.” It DOESN’T? Gee, thanks.)
But telephones were bulky, expensive gizmos tied to telephone poles by wires on one end and bolted to the wall of your house on the other. In 1973, Dr. Martin Cooper of Motorola figured out a way to transmit telephone service over a radio link, creating the first mobile phone.
In 1983, the first commercially available cellular phones were hard-wired into vehicles. By 1990, there were 12.4 million cell phones worldwide. By 2010, there were 4.6 billion mobile phones — at which point we stopped talking on them.
The first text message was sent from a computer to a mobile phone in December 1992. The message, “Merry Christmas” unintentionally threw human civilization back to the days when horses ate cucumber salads.
We have gone from the invention of writing to the invention of mail to the invention of the telephone to the invention of the mobile communications device that we use to write letters instead of talking. And according to a recent study conducted by Pew Research Group, that’s the way we like it.
According to Pew, some 83% of Americans own cell phones and three fourths of them send and receive text messages on their phones. Of those that use texting, the majority would prefer sending or receiving a text to making or receiving a phone call.
Text users send or receive an average of 41.5 messages per day and more than half of them would rather you texted instead of phoning them. Those that don’t text make or receive an average of twelve phone calls per day.
I enjoy the irony of having come full circle from the invention of writing as a method of communication five thousand years ago, to the rediscovery of writing as a preferred means of communication by the most technologically advanced among us.
Having discovered texting only recently, I am surprised to discover that I concur with the majority – I would rather receive a text that I can read at my leisure and reply to only if necessary to having to subordinate all my other activities to answering the telephone.
What does it all mean? I am not entirely sure when it comes to humans. But thanks to the advances of technology, entire generations of horses have never experienced the delights of a cucumber salad.
This Letter was written by Jack Kinsella on September 22, 2011.