The inventor of the telegraph initially named it tachygraph. “Tachy” meaning fast. However, the French army preferred “tele”, meaning far.
Before anything else, language was encoded in fire. Beacon to beacon, the phryctoria of Ancient Greece, a series of towers distributed across mountain-tops, spread information by two sets of five torches. A topography freckled with blaze, the whole surface of the world became a letter. Landscape supporting courier-flame.
People underestimate the potential of email as a site for intimacy. I’ve fallen in love over email twice. email@example.com was my first email address — what was yours?
Collapsing time and distance was always first a military endeavor, war was the most compelling argument for closeness. Absorbed in the turmoil of the French Revolution, Claude Chappe formulated a building-scale device to send words of national and military importance. The optical telegraph was a series of towers mounted with arm-like contraptions –– vertical poles with a horizontal bar held at their apex that bent on each of its sides, like elbows. Inside the shelter of the tower, a puppet master controlled its poses. Standing successively in the landscape, the towers waved their limbs at each other, sending messages from Paris to Lyon in 9 minutes.
A few years ago, at Lonestar Zine Fest in Austin, TX, I bought a booklet called “Casa De Cambio” from an artist named Alán Serna. In it he prints an enlarged image of a prepaid telephone card called “Viva Mexico” in blue risograph ink, almost covering the page. A type of card that enables long-distance phone calls at a fixed price per minute. I remember my mom buying them as a kid after post-mass dinner at “Taqueria Jalisco” — a restaurant in Texas named after the state that she immigrated from, the place she bought the cards to call back to. She would buy a $5 card, which she remembers gave her around 30 minutes of time. I call my mom, often while I’m cooking, our conversation spacious and littered with small interruptions — a timer going off, the static of water against hands. Sometimes these gaps feel the most intimate. The luxury of calls with no time limit.
It was a Thursday in 1858 when HMS Agamemnon and USSF Niagara met at a halfway point, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, to join together their respective halves of the first transatlantic cable in a quick kiss, before parting and steaming back to Valencia, Ireland and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, laying the lengths of cord as they went. The cable failed after a few weeks, but not before Queen Victoria’s telegram managed to breach the Atlantic gap in just 16 hours. Steadfast, they developed a more durable wire, replacing gutta-percha with polyethylene and dropped it again into the water. In the first 24 hours of service of TAT-1, the first telephone line to reach between the US and the UK, there were 588 calls made from London to the United States. I wonder how many of them were lovers? A disembodied voice dependent on a thinly threaded line, tracing the peculiarities in the submarine plateau.
Antonio Meucci met Esterre Mochi in 1834 while they both worked at Teatro della Pergola in Florence, Antonio as a stage technician, Esterre as a costume designer. They married, moved to Cuba, then moved to New York. Esther fell ill to rheumatoid arthritis and her mobility became limited. Antonio designed a system he called a “telettrofono” that allowed him to communicate with her from his basement laboratory to their bedroom — bridging a (short) distance. This became the first version of the telephone.
The main characteristic of mental activities is their invisibility. Although they do not appear, they manifest. I am made aware of their visibility –– that delicate shift from personal to inter-personal –– when caught in a pact with my phone, messaging you, and someone near asks: “So, who is making you smile like that, huh?”
Cellmapper.net shows three cell phone towers near my house that carry our words. They receive and transmit electromagnetic waves that hold binary information — our texts, our phone calls — from my phone to yours and from yours back to mine.
84 Howe Street — CAMPUS VIEW APARTMENTS — a collection of rectangular panels, clearly visible on the roof, arranged in a square cluster, matching the color of the clouds — an honest tower.
30 Whalley Ave — COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT — concealed in a large box sitting on the roof, its color matching the hotels’, which in the light of the setting sun, was livid.
Somewhere between 220 and 224 Park Street — HARRISON COURT / THE DINMORE — no noticeable tower.
I think we like emails because they allow for formality. We still crave the lace of the letter, the composure of the text, the vellum. We can approximate it in email. It suggests we should behave more coherently. My grandmother would always sign off her texts with: Lots of love, grandma”. As if she never fully understood that I had her contact saved, and would know it was her. It felt like a relic of letter-writing. Sometimes I still sign off my texts, “E x”. A gentle epistolary mark.
0E, 1E, 2J, 3E, 4J, 5E, 6J, 7E, 8J, 9E