1916: The Blog: Prologue
Everything in this book actually happened. Except the stuff that didn’t.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this T.S. Eliot passage in the two weeks since my grandfather passed. He was nearing 90 years old, so nobody could accuse him of not living a full life. He was a salty old crow, fiercely independent – which allowed him to live in his own home until the very end. When he went, he left an attic stuffed with old boxes and artifacts from his life. Yet neither my father nor any of my aunts and uncles seemed particularly interested in methodically combing through papers and documents from more than a half-century ago. So, I took on the task.
The climb into the musty attic was difficult. Given my grandfather’s advanced age, I guessed that there’s no way he had touched anything up there in at least three decades. I dove into the first box I could find. It contained the type of ephemera one would expect from a lifetime of careful record keeping. There was a receipt from when he had his car’s oil changed in 1954. In 1974, he wrote the McDonald’s corporation to complain about the company recasting the character of Grimace as a good guy. They sent him a coupon for a free cheeseburger that, almost certainly out of spite, went unused.
As I moved through the boxes, I saw one that appeared to have some of his paraphernalia from World War II. As I pulled the box toward me, I saw an old chest underneath. Considering that people put their most valuable items in such sturdy chests to protect them, I immediately cleared it off and set out to open it.
On top of the chest, still faintly visible, the name “Sebastian” was painted in yellow. When I lifted the top, there were some old, yellowed papers bunched against the sides of the chest next to what appeared to be an antique typewriter of some kind.
But this old typewriter was different than those I had seen on television shows about antiques. On top of the keyboard were places for several light bulbs; one was still affixed in a socket, one was broken in half. Two cords ran from the back of the typewriter; one was clearly a power cord, while another frayed cord almost appeared to be for a telephone. A third cord ran from the right side, attached to a wooden block that housed a small wooden ball. Underneath the device, the words “York Connectivity Co., Kearney, Nebraska” appeared, along with the year “1915.”
Puzzled, I began skimming some of the papers contained within the chest. They were arranged by date, beginning in the year 1916. Many of them were signed “Sebastian.” Not only was that not my grandfather’s name, he wasn’t even born until 1927. Why would my grandfather be in possession of something belonging to “Sebastian,” and what was this weird machine, anyway?
The first mystery was solved easily. Sebastian Schneider was my grandfather’s father, born in Milwaukee in 1889. Clearly, my grandfather kept this device as a favor to his old man.
My own father didn’t have much recollection of Great-Grandpa Sebastian. He recalled maybe he worked as a reporter for a newspaper or something, but sadly, he died in 1948, the same year my father was born. Through the years, our family has spun the yarn that Sebastian’s death was due to loneliness brought on by the death of his wife just three weeks prior. But my foray through old coroner’s records disputes this romantic tale. To be generous, let’s just say Sebastian died of a broken heart. And falling out of a third story window may have contributed.
But my Internet searches couldn’t find any mention of the “York Connectivity Company” from Kearney, Nebraska. I took photos of the weird typewriter-like device and showed them to one of the staff members at the State Historical Society, with no luck. He said he had never seen such a thing. I e-mailed the photos to typewriter experts across the country, with no satisfactory response. Everyone was stumped.
Then, one day, I received an anonymous e-mail with the tip I had been seeking. This nameless individual told me to search the recesses of the Historical Society for a 1937 book called Clandestine Government Flimflammery by little-known conspiracy theorist Tierney Buxton. So, I did.
According to Buxton, in late 1915, the York Connectivity Company discovered that not only could telephone cords carry voice information, they could also carry data encoded by sound sent over those same wires. The company began a quiet trial of their new product, hoping to test it to see how users would take to the new technology. They produced roughly 120 of the machines, requiring each user to sign a confidentiality agreement; if the machines didn’t work, York didn’t want word getting out before they could fix the bugs.
Information being a finite resource, newspapers moved quickly to crush this service. The possibilities were endless; if consumers were allowed to share news stories with one another at no cost, it would jeopardize newsprint’s near-monopoly status.
Thus, the large media corporations, led by magnates like William Randolph Hearst, spent untold sums on lobbyists, buying congressmen willing to outlaw the sharing of text over phone lines. In late 1919, Congress passed a law not only outlawing data sharing but also mentioning it in public or in print, so citizens could never even be aware such technology existed.
The media conglomerates, who at the time knew President Woodrow Wilson had suffered a severe stroke and was incapacitated, threatened to divulge this information to the public if the bill wasn’t signed into law. Fearing America would be outraged if they learned the first lady was actually secretly serving as president, Edith Wilson quickly signed the bill in private.
And thus, according to Buxton, the first “Internet” was dead. (Buxton was later arrested for trying to smuggle four lobsters in his pants into a movie.) Congress would later accidentally revoke this law when a resolution honoring the 1991 World Series champion Minnesota Twins mistakenly deleted 2,652 pages of the federal code.
Yet for a brief period of time, this communication network was up and functioning. And it appears I may now be in possession of the only evidence to prove it.
And now, with this book, you are also in possession of the evidence. What follows are the unedited network postings of my great-grandfather, Sebastian Schneider, during the year 1916. As Edward Thomas once said, “The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.” Hopefully, although he died more than sixty years ago, these writings grant him new life.
Chapter One coming soon…