Appropriate Technology or not: transportation and communication?

Whilst I like technology, there are certain technologies I really dislike, these are: multi-storey buildings, cars and telephones. Basic rule is: if it ain’t in walking distance then it ain’t available.

During the 70’s the Australian government had a plan to decentralise, and make its services more accessible. The action it took was to centralise more and more things at the end of a telephone, a telephone typically located in Sydney, NSW. Check the telephone directory, try to figure out what name a government service has this year, phone up,pick a number and wait in a queue: how exactly is this accessible?

With the invention of telephones followed telephone directories: but was there ever a building directory? A quick internet search indicates that there was: City Directories. For businesses in the main, the primary requirement is to know where the business premises are, so that can get to the building and buy goods and/or services. Also in earlier days, streets didn’t have names and houses didn’t have numbers, though some houses may have had names: so it seems natural that the early post offices kept directories of people and where they lived: so that letters only addressed to a person could be delivered. Also given that local government authorities are responsible for building approvals and collecting “rates” payments, it would seem logical that such authorities also benefit from having and maintaining such a city-directory.

When all buildings are single storey and everything is within walking distance then there is a good chance that a person can become familiar with everything in their area just by walking around. When buildings increase in height then it becomes difficult to know what is inside the building. Also as the density of buildings increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to become familiar with everything that is in the area: the neighbourhood becomes an increasingly complex and hazardous wilderness. Therefore creating a walkabout city does not equate to increasing building density and favouring multi-storey buildings.

Some Historical Conjecture

When people lived in smaller communities, villages, then when they wanted to talk to someone they would just go visit their home, or catch up with them whilst walking in the street. Of course if visit the home, the person may not be in, but its a short journey, and not wasted as learnt something in the process: namely the person is not home. If the person is home, or meet them in the street, it may not be convenient to interrupt what they are doing. If it is a rare and occasional random visit then they may tolerate the interruption and politely welcome the visit. If the uninvited visits are too frequent, and disruptive then the visitor may be requested to stop calling. They may be requested to make an appointment first, but to do so they still need to visit and make the appointment in person. The difference is that making an appointment takes a few minutes, whilst the appointment may last for several minutes. Making the appointment however is still an interruption to the person being visited: a business may therefore have a receptionist to handle appointments and enquiries, households and individuals do not however have receptionists to handle uninvited interruptions.

As villages became increasingly connected and dependent, then travelling large distances to discover that someone wasn’t home or that a business was closed, became a major inefficiency. However, messengers could either deliver a verbal message or a written message. At least two such messages would be required to arrange a meeting. The first message to provide a list of suitable places and times, and the second message to accept one of the places and times, or the second message may reject suitability of all options on offer. If none of the options are suitable then several messages may be required to arrange a meeting. It should be noted that in this situation that the messenger has to find the person to deliver the message to, and wait for the reply. On arriving at the destination, the messenger may have to wait several hours to several days to deliver the message and receive a reply. The messengers primary purpose therefore is to save the sender’s time.

With the introduction of a postal service things start to change. In the first instance there is little difference to the messenger services, the letter still has to be delivered to the intended recipient however there is no need to wait for the reply. The other major difference is that no spoken messages are distributed, only written letters are delivered.

Whilst a messenger service required local offices, so that people had somewhere to send their messages from, the messengers delivered messages direct to the intended recipient. With the postal service, messengers deliver to the local post office, and then to the recipient. Thus messengers familiar with the locality and the local people, can more efficiently deliver the letters to the people concerned. Secondly letters can be accumulated in large batches at the post office, sorted, and then delivered in bulk to other post offices.

The post offices work to a timetable so that know when the offices are open and closed, so that deliveries can be made at the right time. So consistent time keeping between connected towns becomes important. That is a common time standard was required, such as Greenwich mean time (GMT). However having the standard is of little value, if the time n Greenwich cannot be transported or communicated to the local towns. The distances between towns being greater than the travel of sound from the bells of a town hall clock tower.

The need to deliver letters to recipients is reduced by the recipients themselves visiting the post office, either to check for mail or to send mail. Though post offices also operating out off general stores, which themselves dependent on transported goods. Thus have a one stop shop, as people go to get their groceries they also check for mail.

However to extend the collection system to larger areas, without need for more offices, the next thing to introduce would be post boxes . The post boxes remove the need for people to go to a post office to post their letters, but requires the post office to collect the post from the boxes: at predefined times of the day.

Now as the volume of post increases and the area serviced increases it becomes impractical for everyone to pick up post at the local post office, it is also inefficient to wait until can catch up with and deliver the letter direct to the intended recipient. For a small village and general store, letters can be sorted into pigeon hole boxes, but as the number of people increase, more such pigeon holes are required and space to put them. So why not shift these letter boxes to the people’s houses, a slot in the door or a box at the property gate? With such box the letters no longer have to be hand delivered direct to the recipient, the postal service can deliver at its convenience and the recipient can also retrieve from the letterbox at their own convenience. The one thing not typically introduced is the postal worker picking up letters from households when they deliver letters.

Anycase for people who can read and write the postal service removed the problem of people being available at the same time in order to communicate. Furthermore the written word provides a permanent record,an aid to memory, and clear identification of what was included and what was left out: it is something that can be built upon.

The main problem with the postal service however is the time taken to deliver a message. For two places in close proximity the minimum delivery time is likely 1 day, as the distance between places increases beyond walking distance, the time taken to deliver increases. The time increases not simply because of the distance to be travelled but also because of the number of sorting and distribution offices the post has to pass through to get to its final destination.

Whilst horse drawn stage coaches, and then steam trains, carrying reliable clocks, could transmit the time from Greenwich or other town used for a time standard, it would have still been desirable to check the time in Greenwich a lot faster and independently of those carrying the clocks. Simple messages could always be transmitted large distances by using various signalling systems such as semaphore. However such systems require someone to be available to observe the transmission of the message. Enter, the electrical telegraph line, morse code and ticker tape.

With the invention of  the electrical telegraph the post offices could be connected by wire. Central time could be more rapidly communicated to towns, and thus better able to determine that the train arrived late with the post. From the telegraph, then get the telegram which is either required to be delivered direct to the person or otherwise delivered to their letterbox. The telegraph however requires people who can translate the coding of the transmission into the language of the people. However, it is a powered machine and that allows for the development of increasing levels of automation. Thus arrives teleprinters and telephones.

… to be continued.