Senate Technophobia, 1930 Style

In 1930, U.S. Senator Carter Glass (Virginia) introduced the following resolution:

Whereas dial telephones are more difficult to operate than are manual telephones; and

Whereas senators are required since the installation of dial telephones in the Capitol to perform the duties of telephone operators in order to enjoy the benefits of telephone service; and

Whereas dial telephones have failed to expedite telephone service; therefore, be it

Resolved that the sergeant-at-arms of the Senate is authorized and directed to order the Chesepeake & Potomac Telephone Co., to replace with manual telephones, within 30 days after the adoption of this resolution, all dial telephones in the Senate wing of the United States Capitol and in the Senate Office Building.

The resolution passed.

(source: Visions of Technology, edited by Richard Rhodes)

15 thoughts on “Senate Technophobia, 1930 Style”

  1. I think this is more an example of techno culture shock. As far as I can tell, dial phones of the era were not any more difficult to use than later models, but compared to the simplicity of having an operator do the work for you, being forced to dial a number may seem like an affront to one’s dignity (especially for those pampered souls in the upper echelons of government). This is really a fascinating peek into the nature of the 1930s era senate. If we think folks like John Edwards with his extravagant haircut expenses is out of touch with the regular man, imagine the separation between Senators and the regular Joe on the street back then.

    Here’s a little more info on the issue. Interestingly, many of the younger Senators preferred the dial phones.

  2. I’m pretty sure that they operated the same way that modern (rotary dial) telephones do. At the Smithsonian, there was once an early generation dial system set up so that visitors could watch what the switching equipment did when they dialed the phone. From the user’s standpoint, it was just like a modern rotary.

  3. Pure speculation on my part:

    1. The dial phones put some operators out of work, and the operators were probably patronage jobs, so the Senate didn’t like that and were defending their clients.

    2. It felt more “Senatorial” to pick up the phone and say “put me through to Mr. Jamoke!” Otherwise you had to look it up and dial the number yourself, which probably felt pretty menial in comparison.

    Probably not “technophobia” in the strict sense at all. A new technology that enhanced the power and prestige of the Senators would be welcomed — something that seemed to undermine both would not be.

  4. I suspect that Lex’s point #2 was the key one. Note the snarky comment in the resolution about Senator’s being required to perform the duties of telephone operators.

    This is related to the attitudes of certain executives who–until fairly recently–felt that they would lose status if they touched a computer keyboard.

  5. There are still some lawyers who don’t touch a keyboard, or only do so occasionally and ineptly — they rely on subordinates to do all that stuff.

  6. Ditto – on head architects & computers. The extent of their computer literacy is reading e-mail and putting their appointments for next week into the calendar…no CAD, Word (forget Excel), or graphic programs. Then they act surprised when told 2 days is not enough to draw and render 15 elevations!

  7. “Then they act surprised when told 2 days is not enough to draw and render 15 elevations!”

    Well, they figure you’ve got these great computers, can’t you just push a button to generate the elevations???

  8. “Tradition dies hard in the US Senate, where members still sit at desks on the Senate floor that come with inkwells and blotting sand, while two brass spittoons stand ready near the podium at the front of the room. The Senate has carefully preserved these relics, much as it seems determined to preserve the institution’s more recent tradition of hostility toward computers and the Internet.

    In November, the Senate Rules Committee voted to deny a request by Senator Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming) for permission to use his laptop computer at his seat. Citing the Senate’s overarching ban on the introduction of mechanical devices onto the floor, the Rules Committee reasoned that the sound of a tapping keyboard might distract other members from their august deliberative duties.”

    Two words. Term limits.

  9. Sounds like normal politician behaviour to me. How dare they ask me to do something menial like dial my own number? A very large proportion of our politicos would not know how to switch on a computer or operate a photocopier – you press that button, see – and if they could they would demand telephone operators.

  10. ban on the introduction of mechanical devices onto the floor, the Rules Committee reasoned that the sound of a tapping keyboard might distract other members from their august deliberative duties.

    I wonder if an iPhone without moving parts would then be authorized…

  11. By and large I’m amazed by this post because one always thinks of Americans grabbing whatever’s new and using it with enthusiasm.

    However, Helen writes: “How dare they ask me to do something menial like dial my own number?” and herein may lie the clue. Not in the actually dialling, but having to leave a message with a secretary and spell out their names, like a supplicant, possibly even asked to wait just a minute while she answered another call. Loss of status. This flies in the face of the “I’ll have my girl call your girl” meme and may have felt quite degrading.

    OTOH, when I first went to work in the US, I was quite impressed at how many executives had IBM Selectrics on their desks, and who could – and did without hesitation – use them fairly efficiently.

    Maybe the difference between government and the more pragmatic world of business.

  12. If your time is valuable you only want to phone someone if you can actually reach him. If, instead, you reach his secretary or voicemail and have to leave a message, you have wasted time (as this line of thought goes). Better to have your assistant phone his assistant and then hand the phone to you when the person you are trying to reach comes online. This way of thinking, however, is in tension with a kind of do-it-yourself attitude that is typically if not exclusively American: why waste time waiting for the help to do something for you when you can get it done quicker and probably better on your own.

  13. Yes, Americans are far more likely to muck in and help themselves. Referring to the Selectrics on executives’ desks, this never did take off in status conscious Britain. It was only after computers came in, and there was some status in having a computer on your desk, that British executives learned to type.

    Strange,isn’t it, how typing has evolved into being an elevated skill instead of a “helper” skill.

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