Design & UX
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Dots, Dashes and Dudes Behaving Badly

By Alex Walker

Here’s a familiar sounding story:

A new ‘technology’ comes along and is initially dominated by a small clique of ‘in-the-know’, mostly male, often bearded, ‘tech geeks’.

Quite soon that ‘technology’ goes mainstream and is adopted by women and men, young and old, families, couples and single for all sorts of new and innovative needs.

And then some of those original guys get a bit grumpy because things aren’t like they were in the good ol’ days™.

And some of them behave badly.

Sound familiar?

Gamers? Programmers?

No. I’m talking about….

The Telegraph

Looking back now, it’s impossible for us to understand the sense of gobsmacked wonder that the invention of the telegraph caused in the mid 1800s.

At a time when the word ‘technology’ meant ‘steam-powered’, the concept of invisibly, instantaneously communicating across hundreds of miles was indistinguishable from pure magic.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse: 1850’s Tech Hipster?

But as any successful tech tends to do, the user base expanded quickly in both size and diversity.

And since operating a telegraph machine was a learnable skill where size and strength were no real benefit, it was a job that attracted a lot of young, smart, single, often working-class women.

This meant that many early city telegraph services became the first offices staffed by a predominantly female, technically-literate information workers.

This had some interesting flow on effects.

The Moral Decay of the Society?

Firstly, companies were happy to employ women – they were paid less – but generally pressured them to resign when they married. This ‘woman’s place is in the home’ idea got a lot of momentum as former Civil War soldiers began returning to the workforce.

Geeks. Morse testing the first telegraph (ok I tweaked the outfits)

There is no doubt that many 1800’s men were threatened by the concept of women that weren’t financially reliant on a father or husband. This fear played out in many ways.

Some lashed out petulantly. Male telegrapher would transmit profanities over the wires designed to make female operators feel uncomfortable. In 1875 the Chicago Western Union office dismissed operator Ed Agnell after listening in on his expletive-laced transmissions to other offices.

Others spread rumour and innuendo about the ‘immoral conduct’ of female co-workers – a particularly devastating attack in the era of Victorian social values.

Women were also excluded from union membership for many years. At an 1865 vote to admit women to the National Telegraphic Union, the Boston delegate, a Mr. Stover claimed

..as operators they (women) are no honor to the profession. … the result is constantly making blunders to such an extent that I know every telegraphic superintendent .. are weeding them out. I trust we shall do nothing to bring them into the union’.

When immediately rebuked by conference organisers, Mr. Stover went on to assert that while there were a very small number of good female telegraph operators, the business skills required to achieve this level of proficiency were not proper “womanly” behavior, and inferred that any women that DID succeed must not be a proper woman.

What a charming fellow. *sigh*

Again he was strongly rebuked by both men and women, but we’d have to believe Stover wasn’t alone in his views.

There were also genuine arguments put forward that the telegraph was leading to the moral downfall of society. Letters to newspapers warned that poor, innocent, young women risked being tricked into marrying scoundrels and villains over the telegraph wire.

I didn’t say it was a plausible argument – but that’s what they claimed.

Regardless of this ever-present threat of malevolent marriage, women didn’t seem to be discouraged from entering the industry. By 1920 there were nearly 17,000 women telegrapher working across the US, making it the third most common employment (behind domestic services and teaching).

Wired Love

There was also a certain amount of awe and fascination for those who ‘controlled the wires’ so telegraph operators took up an important place in the pop culture of the late 1800s.

Railway Stories book: The 'Girl Op'

Railway Stories: The ‘Girl Op’

The telegraph office provided daily opportunities for an eligible young bachelorette to come into contact with young businessmen, and dime store novels often centered around the adventures of sassy, modern ‘girl ops’.

In 1880, Ella Cheever Thayer, a working telegrapher, published what must be the first novel concerning a cyber-romance – ‘Wired Love’ is the story of two telegraphers who fall in love without ever meeting in real life.

So what can we take from all that?

Perhaps I’ll just finish with the words of Lewis H. Smith, the editor of the NTU’s Telegrapher periodical magazine in 1865 and a very progressive fellow for his time:

“If men and women could change places, how think you the former would come out? If we were hampered and excluded as women have been for centuries, where would be our boasted superiority?”

Smith attracted flak from the NTU rank and file for his position, but never backed away from them.

So, here’s a salute to the eloquent voice of Mr. Lewis H. Smith! And another to all Lewises since.

  • Ralph Mason

    Fascinating history lesson, Alex. It reminds me that I want to read The Victorian Internet, a book about the telegraph. The online world isn’t as new as we like to think. (I wonder what they called trolls back then.)

    • http://sitepoint.com Alex Walker

      The Victorian Internet? That sounds right up my alley, Ralph Mason. I got a lot of the background to this piece from a book called ‘My Sisters Telegraphic: Women In Telegraph Office 1846-1950’ (http://www.amazon.com/My-Sisters-Telegraphic-Telegraph-1846-1950/dp/0821413449)

      >I wonder what they called trolls back then.

      J.W. Stover, I think ;)

      • Ralph Mason

        The Victorian Internet?

        Yes, I’ve read quite a bit about the book and how fun it is to read. I keep meaning to order it: http://www.amazon.com/The-Victorian-Internet-Remarkable-Nineteenth/dp/162040592X

        The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph’s creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than ever before or since, and its story mirrors and predicts that of the Internet in numerous ways.

  • M S i N Lund

    Windows 8 seems to have thrown a lot of kindle on this fire.

    In pretty much every single discussion about how much the win8 GUI sucks, you now have DOS-lovers saying stuff like:
    “Whaaat, you cant find that button/menu/function anymore? Aww, just type crt+s+alt+sggfndgh+_fftrrweddbf+strhgfhgfhrthtrsy” ….and done., just like it was in your beloved XP.
    Whaaat you don’t know how to do that?
    Well, tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut….”

    Yeah, people today just wont pay the proper respect to those who took the time to learn how to manipulate individual electrons inside the CPU, with tweezers.

  • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    Very interesting. I do love a bit of history :) I think it’s especially interesting to see how media has developed. In the past they used to say that reading certain types of fiction corrupted the mind, led to more crime, etc. etc. Since then it’s been applied to television, videos, video games, the internet, mobile phones …

    It appears that as a race, we don’t change over the centuries as much as we’d like to think we do. Just the fact that we still have to converse about equality goes some way to proving this too.

    • http://sitepoint.com Alex Walker

      Agree, @kerrybutters:disqus. I suspect if we looked hard enough we’d find similar stories buried in ancient Sumeria or the Aztec ruins.

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