“The telephone is the instrument of the devil”

Early Telephone station.
Early Telephone station.

News of the telephone spread quickly in Sweden.  In 1885, Stockholm had the greatest telephone penetration in the world. Nowhere else were there as many phones in use. Expansion of telephone service outside the capital also started quickly, thanks to the many local telephone associations.

Only a few years after the telephone was first demonstrated in Stockholm in 1877, the general public was thus aware of the new invention. At first, phones were found in general stores, telegraph offices and drug stores. The general store received a telephone number such as 1 or 2 and acted as a news center for the village. People went to the store and asked if anyone had phoned. If so, the proprietor would read the message.

Not everyone was thrilled by these developments, however. The telephone was often viewed with skepticism and not a little fear. There was something magical about sounds coming from a thin wire, and many people were afraid that the contents of the lines would spill out in some way if there was a break. Many elderly persons refused to touch a telephone for fear of electrical shock. Others tried to take advantage of the telephone, relates Peter Andersson in his book, “Telecommunications yesterday and today.” In some towns persons suffering from rheumatism went to the telephone stations in the hope that the electrical impulses received by their bodies would cure them.

The greatest fear, however, was that the telephone was in some way able to attract evil spirits, or at least thunder and lightning. In one town it was in fact difficult to obtain premises and to recruit a manager for the telephone station, since there was widespread concern about the possible effects of the telephone lines and electricity in the station.

The build out of the telephone network quickly became evident to rural residents, who saw telephone poles being set in the ground and “telephone acrobats” climbing the poles to draw lines that crisscrossed the countryside. In the cities, lines were drawn across the roofs, creating over time an extensive network of telephone antennas and lines above the rooftops.

The telephone thus provoked anger. There were farmers, land owners and property owners who refused to allow this nuisance to pass over their land or buildings or who simply pulled down lines and destroyed them. Theft and sabotage were common as the telephone network expanded. And in the churches, the preachers likened the telephone to an instrument of the devil.

Today, the misconceptions arising from new technology cause us to smile.

“At the same time, it is often wise to be critical when new technology is introduced,” observes Lars Ingelstam, professor in the technology and social change program at Linköping University. “We shouldn’t call people idiots just because their perception of new technology has now been shown to be incorrect.”

The telephone changed people’s lives, just like the automobile would do a few decades later. And technology in general has continued - and will continue – to affect our lives deeply, bringing both fear and hope.

Author: Marika Ehrenkrona

Mexico, 1928, telephone cable joining

Mexico, 1928, telephone cable joining


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