Friday, December 07, 2007


The Photo Telephone

From Ben Zimmer's fascinating history of the verb tase, I learned that the inventor of the Taser, Jack Cover, named the device after the initial letters in the title of one of the Tom Swift adventure novels, Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle (1911).

This made me nostalgic about the Tom Swift books, which along with the Hardy Boys books were favorites of my childhood. Perhaps I should have included the Hardy Boys books on my list of comfort books, since I continue to read them to this day.

But to return to Tom Swift. One of the books about him is Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1914), which opens as follows:
"Tom, I don't believe it can be done!"

"But, Dad, I'm sure it can!"

Tom Swift looked over at his father, who was seated in an easy chair in the library. The elderly gentleman—his hair was quite white now—slowly shook his head, as he murmured again:

"It can't be done, Tom! It can't be done! I admit that you've made a lot of wonderful things—things I never dreamed of—but this is too much. To transmit pictures over a telephone wire, so that persons cannot only see to whom they are talking, as well as hear them—well, to be frank with you, Tom, I should be sorry to see you waste your time trying to invent such a thing."

"I don't agree with you. Not only do I think it can be done, but I'm going to do it. In fact, I've already started on it. As for wasting my time, well, I haven't anything in particular to do, now that my giant cannon has been perfected, so I might as well be working on my new photo telephone instead of sitting around idle."
Instead of sitting around idle, I used to work for a telecommunications firm as a programmer on various computer and Internet telephony projects, including video phones. Even when the video was turned off, you would see a picture of the person you were talking to, because all subscribers to the service were required to upload photographs of themselves when registering. A picture of your interlocutor would always appear on the computer screen. It was Tom Swift's Photo Telephone come to life.

We had to use our own telephony software — the common expression for this was "eating your own dog food." But the programmers on the project (an irreverent lot) almost to a man refused to submit actual photographs of themselves. Usually they uploaded photographs of movie stars, such as Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, who resembled the programmers not at all.

Here is the picture I uploaded to represent my antediluvian, troglodyte self on the Photo Telephone:

In real life my rib cage doesn't show and I wear glasses.

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