What is communication? It stems from community, communion, comprehension. A coming together, a shared experience. It bridges distances – personal, geographical, cultural, political. It is humanity’s most innate instinct and society’s most powerful tool.
Of course, it all began with the humble (but mighty) pen. Next followed the printing press, and then, in 1838, a man called Samuel Morse invented the first electrical telegraph.
Telegram sent to Frank Smythson by a customer in 1915 and a Smythson Unicode telegraph book, 1909
On the 24th of May 1844, the very first telegram was sent from Washington D.C to Baltimore, bearing the message:
‘What hath God wrought?’
What hath he wrought indeed.
When technology began to take the world by storm, speed became the new currency. The distances it bridged grew ever broader, until the notion of communication became abridged to the universal ‘.com’ of the Internet era. Gone were the days of lingering over long-awaited letters. The world seemed to shrink, and with it, some would argue, so did some of the long-held values of social interaction.
Smythson telegram pad and leather case from a 1902 catalogue, and iPad cases from the Spring Summer 2013 collection
Society’s relationship with technology has always been conflicted. The opportunities and benefits it brought were immeasurable – but somewhere along the line, the art of communication appeared to lose its way.
Language itself suffers terribly at the hands of the digital age. We seem to have landed ourselves in some
post-apocalyptic world of dismembered words, a dismal wasteland strewn with acronyms.
What has become of a society that replaces the act of laughing with a monosyllabic substitute that has all the spontaneous eloquence of a lobotomised mollusc? Hard to be sure whether ‘lol’ even qualifies as a syllable. Somewhere, Shakespeare is turning in his grave at the fact that ‘ROTFL’ is used as verb. Not to mention the king of lexical cringe: YOLO. (For those of you fortunate enough not to be familiar with this, it stands for ’You Only Live Once’). Because God forbid we should waste precious seconds of said life going to the trouble of actually pronouncing words. Alas, the age of antisocial media is upon us.
Even more bemusingly, there is apparently such a thing as the ’American Association Against Acronym Abuse’ or ‘AAAAA.’ One can only hope there’s a 12 step program for that – and yes, the first step is admitting we have a problem.
Graphic designer Jean Jullien’s exhibition 'Allo?' at the Kemistry gallery in east London looks at how today’s technology affects the way we interact and communicate with each other.
It’s not all bad news though – art comes in many weird and wonderful new forms. What kind of world would it be, after all, without silk-shirted Koreans pony-trotting their way exuberantly across our screens?
Doesn’t bear thinking about.
In fact, the modern world’s most life-changing invention was born from what many claim is the highest art form of all: music.
On the 3rd of March 1847, Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh to a deaf mother and a father who taught elocution and speech correction. Fascinated by acoustics from a young age, he learned to translate conversations to his mother by tapping code onto her arm, a technique very similar to the dot-and-dash system invented by Morse ten years earlier.
Bell had a passion for the piano, and his mother used to enjoy sitting for hours with him, holding her hand to the instrument to feel its vibrations as he played. Driven to uncover the source and mechanisms of the music, he lifted the lid of his piano one day to discover that the sound was being produced by the vibration of multiple wires. That moment marked the beginning of his life’s work.
At the age of 29, Bell presented a musical or ‘harmonic’ approach as a possible development of the telegraph – inspired by the idea of transmitting sound across a wire; of being able to ‘talk with electricity.’
It was exactly 137 years ago today that he made his historic breakthrough and the telephone was born. Bell’s
notebook entry of the 10th of March 1876 describes that seminal moment, as he spoke through the instrument to his assistant in the next room and uttered the famous first words:
‘Mr Watson – come here – I want to see you.’
Alexander Bell’s notebook, diary entry of March 10th 1876
Communication was the cornerstone of Frank Smythson’s venture when he first opened his doors to the world in 1887. The importance of it lived and breathed in every personalised card he printed, every gift he wrapped.
Smythson catalogue from 1912, featuring Frank's handwriting
Frank was himself a remarkable innovator. In 1908 he created his iconic Featherweight Panama Diary, which contained the thinnest paper ever produced that could be written on in ink without bleeding. Though many have tried to recreate it, Frank’s Featherweight paper still remains unmatched by any other. Designed to be ‘carried inside a gentleman’s breast pocket without causing the least disfigurement’, the Panama was the world’s first practical, portable diary. It was, in many ways, the iPad of its time.
1908 Panama diary from the Smythson archives
The diary remains virtually unchanged to this day, and its unfaltering popularity amid our extensive range of technology accessories is perhaps a promising portent of the enduring permanence of penmanship.
On that note, G2G. BFN, BS.
(Just to clarify, FYI, that last one stands for ‘Back Soon.’)