Kate Procter’s column last month about creative, experimental farmers with a desire to make life better stirred thoughts about the cumulative effect that small improvements have brought us to the bountiful life we enjoy today.
At the time I was reading Charlotte Gray’s Reluctant Genius – the Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell. The inventor of the telephone who would change the lives of all those who came after that communications breakthrough’s creation in the 1870s, was a pure creator. Once the telephone was patented, he moved on to other projects that seized his creative mind (though he was wealthy for the rest of his life because of his greatest invention. It was left to others to add, little by little, to his basic invention to make it what it is today).
As with most things, the big companies that first expanded the telephone network were in the business for the quickest and biggest profit so early access to telephones was reserved mostly to city dwellers. It took the leaders of rural communities creating their own small telephone companies, to extend service to small towns, villages and farm residences.
Like most people at that time, we shared a party line when I was growing up. There were advantages, especially for gossips who listened in on their neighbours conversations. More practically, I remember when a neighbour’s Christmas tree caught fire one December night. One long ring on the party line alerted neighbours to the danger and within minutes, before the local volunteer fire department could arrive, the men of the neighbourhood were helping keep the damage to a minimum.
One improvement built on another until even the creative mind of Bell wouldn’t recognize what the telephone has become – not just a communications tool but a source of infinite amounts of information right in your hand. In fact it seems that the telephone’s original use – to talk to others – is among the least valued of the functions of the modern cell phone. Some people feel it’s actually rude to call someone when you could text them instead without interrupting whatever they’re doing.
Today more and more people have given up their land-lines and rely only on their cell phones.
Other things we take for granted have seen incremental improvements as well. When homesteading immigrants took up their farms they had to travel roads we’d consider trails today. Early on, it was the responsibility of every landowner to devote time to maintaining and improving those roads. That didn’t work out very well and soon townships hired staff to work on roads. Still, roads were so primitive that people actually looked forward to winter when the mud would freeze and they could build sleigh roads.
Little by little, improvements in road building technology improved our roads. We’ve come to the point where people in my neighbourhood grouch because we still have a gravel road when many others in the township enjoy paved roads.
Look at the changes in television over the years. We had one neighbour who had a television when I was young. It would be a privilege for our family to be invited over to watch Saturday night hockey or I Love Lucy. Eventually, my sister who was working in the city bought us a set but we received only one channel, Doc Cruickshank’s CKNX Television in Wingham. Soon that wasn’t enough for many people who subscribed to cable or satellite services. Now, people unhappy with that cost are getting their news and entertainment over the internet.
We take our comfortable modern life for granted. Sometimes we need to look back at where we’ve come from to appreciate what we have.◊