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The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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7th August 2003 - Communication Explosion

The Victorians are often credited as being pioneers of modern technology in the field of communications, and the telegraph was one of their foremost achievements. Indeed, listed upon the Whistler Centre database of correspondence are over 250 telegrams, a great many sent by the Whistler to family, friends, and business acquaintances.

On 18 December 1858 the satirical journal Punch ran the following story about the expansion of the telegraph phenomenon, an article which perhaps brings to mind similar discussions from the late-twentieth century regarding mobile phones and the internet.

THE HOUSE TELEGRAPH

A Telegraph all over London? The wires brought to within 100 yards of every man's door? A Company established to carry it out?

Well - I don't know. There's a good deal to be said on both side.

It certainly would be pleasant to be within five minutes of such a message as "Dine at the Club with me at seven;" or "SQUATTLEBOROUGH JUNCTIONS" at six premium; I've sold your hundred, and paid in the cash to your account;" or "Little stranger arrived safe this morning at twelve; mamma and baby doing well;" and one might occasionally be grateful for such a warning as "KITE and POUNCE took out a writ against you this morning - Look alive;" or "JAWKINS coming to call on you; make yourself scarce."

But think on the other hand of being within five minutes of every noodle who wants to ask you a question, of every dun with a "little account;" of every acquaintance who has a favour to beg, or a disagreeable thing to communicate. With the post one secures at least the three or four hours betwixt writing the letter and its delivery. When I leave my suburban retreat at Brompton, at nine A.M., for the City, I am insured against MRS. P.'s anxieties, and tribulations, and consultings, on the subject of our little family, or our little bills, the servants' shortcomings, or the tradesmen's delinquencies, at least till my return to dinner. But with a House Telegraph, it would be a perpetual tete-a-tete. We should be always in company, as it were, with all our acquaintance. Good gracious, we should go far to outvie SIR BOYLE ROCHE's famous bird, and be not in two places only, but in every place within the whole range of the House-Telegraph at once. Solitude would become impossible. The bliss of ignorance would be at an end. We should come near that most miserable of all conceivable conditions, of being able to oversee and overhear all that is being done or said concerning us all over London! Every bore's finger would be always on one's button; every intruder's hand on one's knocker; every good-natured friend's lips in one's ear.

No - all things considered, I don't think society is quite ripe for the House-Telegraph yet. If it is established I shall put up a plate on my door with "No House-Telegrams need apply."

(This text has been extracted from The Victorian Dictionary
compiled by Lee Jackson - visit the website at www.victorianlondon.org)