“When We All Have Pocket Telephones”: A 1920s Comic Accurately Predicts Our Cellphone-Dominated Lives

Much has been said late­ly about jokes that “haven’t aged well.” Some­times it has do to with shift­ing pub­lic sen­si­bil­i­ties, and some­times with a gag’s exag­ger­a­tion hav­ing been sur­passed by the facts of life. As a Twit­ter user named Max Salt­man post­ed not long ago, “I love find­ing New York­er car­toons so dat­ed that the joke is lost entire­ly and the car­toons become just descrip­tions of peo­ple doing nor­mal things.” The exam­ples includ­ed a par­ty­go­er admit­ting that “I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve down­loaded it from the inter­net,” and a teacher admon­ish­ing her stu­dents to “keep your eyes on your own screen.”

All of those New York­er car­toons appear to date from the nine­teen-nineties. Even more pre­scient yet much old­er is the Dai­ly Mir­ror car­toon at the top of the post, drawn by artist W. K. Haselden at some point between 1919 and 1923. It envi­sions a time “when we all have pock­et tele­phones,” liable to ring at the most incon­ve­nient times: “when run­ning for a train,” “when your hands are full,” “at a con­cert,” even “when you are being mar­ried.” Such a com­ic strip could nev­er, as they say, be pub­lished today — not because of its poten­tial to offend mod­ern sen­si­tiv­i­ties, but because of its sheer mun­dan­i­ty.

For here in the twen­ty-twen­ties, we all, indeed, have pock­et tele­phones. Not only that, we’ve grown so accus­tomed to them that Haselden’s car­toon feels rem­i­nis­cent of the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, when the nov­el­ty and pres­tige of cell­phones (to say noth­ing of their grat­ing­ly sim­ple ring­tones) made them feel more intru­sive in day-to-day-life. Now, increas­ing­ly, cell­phones are day-to-day life. Far from the lit­er­al “pock­et tele­phones” envi­sioned a cen­tu­ry ago, they’ve worked their way into near­ly every aspect of human exis­tence, includ­ing those Haselden could nev­er have con­sid­ered.

Yet this was­n’t the first time any­one had imag­ined such a thing. “Rumors of a ‘pock­et phone’ had been ring­ing around the world since 1906,” writes Laugh­ing Squid’s Lori Dorn. “A man named Charles E. Alden claimed to have cre­at­ed a device that could eas­i­ly fit inside a vest pock­et and used a ‘wire­less bat­tery.’ ” In the event, it would take near­ly eight decades for the first cell­phone to arrive on the mar­ket, and three more on top of that for them to become indis­pens­able in the West. Now the “pock­et tele­phone” has become the defin­ing device of our era all over the world, though the social norms around its use do remain a work in progress.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed con­tent:

The First Cell­phone: Dis­cov­er Motorola’s DynaT­AC 8000X, a 2‑Pound Brick Priced at $3,995 (1984)

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Film­mak­er Wim Wen­ders Explains How Mobile Phones Have Killed Pho­tog­ra­phy

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

The World’s First Mobile Phone Shown in 1922 Vin­tage Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Yossarian22 says:

    I think it’s remark­able that a one hun­dred year old com­ic strip is so dead on with its pre­dic­tion. Even the inven­tor of the first mobile phone thought it would­n’t catch on because no one would want to car­ry around a phone all day that required a three pound bat­tery.

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