“Every new medium is a machine for the production of ghosts.” So writes John Durham Peters in his brilliant and strange 1999 history of communication (and its failures), Speaking to the Air. At the heart of that study is a dialectical, prophetic effort to show that our purported yearning for error-free intersubjective encounters has always veiled a kind of obverse mystery: a “felicitous impossibility of contact” wherein we long for each other, ourselves, and a different world. Whenever technology is drafted into the service of “communication”, the resulting devices inevitably service that antinomic condition of spectral solitude, silence, and interception. In this affecting essay/experiment, Julian Chehirian goes looking for the history of telecommunication, and is left sitting in the slim shadow of a lightning rod, listening to a voice from beyond the grave. — D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

Published

May 27, 2020

After acquiring an advanced degree in history I spent several years adrift, often on cheap inter-state buses. I continued to present bits of my dissertation on the history of telecommunications technologies (specifically, on dropped calls) to a series of miscalculated audiences including marxist archaeologists, military and maritime historians, and shortwave-radio repairmen at small colleges and public venues.

Finally, after a time, I found stable work in Central New Jersey.

There I had been offered a job as a Records Retention Specialist for the State.

Eager to leave the antechamber of unsure employment, I accepted.

Apart from a terse letter informing me of the site that I am to report to and an overview of my responsibilities, I had little with which to move into my new residence in Lambertville — a little room set above an antiques store peddling mid-century modernity.

The position was “Statewide, as required”, but placed me in-town, in a foreclosed office building that had once housed the claims center of a flood insurance firm. From the vantage point of my desk I could see, alternately, deeds of sale that I was to examine and file, and a river too vacant for its breadth: lacking docks, void of boats, and broached only by the foundations of an absent bridge.

*

At nighttime I enjoy listening to cassette tapes I’ve collected from a church thrift shop. I have spent many nights in this way, after an early dinner, fixing my attention on a new cassette while allowing my gaze to flatten against the pale of plastered walls. One cassette offers astute marital advice, one projects a brassy Montreal marching band, and a third is “psychoacoustic”, containing, I have come to believe, the sounds of sailing. Cables tensing, water wiping forward on the hull, and the sound of fabric slapping back and forth. I listen in stillness.

*

In late January my supervisor called me, uncharacteristically, with an assignment. It concerned a piece of land in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Now it was owned by the County — a park — but once it had been a telecommunications facility. There was, he said, a request from AT&T, the previous landowner, who wished to reclaim some unspecified thing from the land, which the County had since made into an ecological preserve — a rarified meadows habitat.

Between 1929 and the late 60s, he told me, transatlantic telephone calls made from the United States were usually destined to pass by short wave radio signal through this 800 acre farm once known as the “American Telegraph and Telephone International Radio Telephone Transmission Station”. The farm was punctured by hundreds of 85+ ft tall pole-antennas arranged in rhombic formations — with each projecting sounds made in Chicago, Albany, or Washington, towards London, Tangier, Damascus, or Buenos Aires.

In the 1960s some 16,000 conversations per day moved through here. By 1975 the facility had become obsolete, superseded by undersea cable and satellite communications. At the time when AT&T decommissioned the facility only one antenna remained in use, connecting the mainland to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Today one last pole remains . Although poles were usually recycled by AT&T, Charles Bryan, a farmer who purchased the land, asked to keep one. That pole, once a trans-spatial and temporal bridge to Tel Aviv, served instead as a lightning rod between 1975 and 1998.

There was, my supervisor said, little chance for an easy resolution, but it would be best “if you produced a report for the State”.

*

I drove towards the site the following morning. The roads are small. Though there are many of them, few lead to others which lead to the site. Many pass into yet smaller roads, gravel roads and then truncate.

I see, after some time, a sign announcing “Mercer Meadows County Park”.

I circumscribe the park with my car, referencing aerial images of the land — tracing the outer bounds whose interior I am to survey.

The terrain of the park is varied. Some entry points allow passage on narrow pathways between thorny woods. Another spills out into a wide, grassy, rolling expanse. On the perimeter are failing rural houses. A view of one is blocked by a raised pool covered with tarp which rises and sighs very much like a chest. Another house rests uninhabited, a wound in its roof yawning and pulling the structure inward.

I notice a smaller sign that directs me towards the Bryan Farm and find my place in a small gravel lot. Now on foot, my line of sight is reduced to the path ahead and the trees about. Walking past the occasional power walker and baby stroller, I notice a number of guiding displays spread throughout the pole farm-turned-nature preserve, providing descriptions of the antenna technology once used by AT&T as well as a historical chronology of the facility.

But my eyes catch on something else:

A photograph from 1950 whose subject and object I cannot confidently distinguish.

The gazes of two of the people pictured seem to repeat the gaze of the camera towards something other than themselves. My own moves beyond the group, and thereafter I cannot help but unsee them, my attention taken over by the poles — those dark incisions receding into the pale. I know that there were in that very instant a thousand or more voices in exchange — like a vectoring cloud of gnats, an exchange of energy not visible, without trace, but there nonetheless.

*

My historical training reminds me that what could be known of a place like this (or anyplace) either exists in the form of written records or else cannot enter into serious discussion.

I remember a professor who liked to repeat to us: … “no traces, no history” … his lower lip pulsing with a kind of affectionate resentment towards the very idea.

But even historians can have their moments of lowered inhibition. Moments where such uncertain thoughts can be thought, if only for a time. I reach back for questions, questions that once seemed permissible in the stifled ecstasy of my graduate studies. I reach back for the memory of a night immersed in a paper on telecommunications. In this story there were patent applications, bureaucracies, federal regulators and the US military. Wartime protocols, engineers and scientists. Local landowners. Emerging technology and emerging forms of experience. For there were, after all, people making telephone calls.

In my own work I had been wanting to write about telephones as a “social history of intimacy” while also doing a history of the technology itself. But I was, in the end, forced by professional considerations to choose only one. The latter, predictably, since the former was deemed hardly to make sense, and anyway to be quite likely impossible to achieve. (I vaguely recall a text message from my supervisor, nervously double checking that I had understood his concerns.)

Sunset approaches, and I drive home without anything to report, advancing westward on a string of narrow roads pressed on both sides by corn fields and weathered houses.

*

In the morning another message arrived from my supervisor. “On my docket” today was to call an Elizabeth Dawn to inquire about records on the land.

After several encounters on the phone tree I was dialed in to Dawn.

"Hello Ms. Dawn", I began. “I am calling from Parks and Forests. I am trying to get some information about a former facility of yours at 111-167 Cold Soil Road in Lawrenceville, New Jersey”.

“Yes?”

All emphasis now on my next move, which must escape disinterest and disbelief.

“Well, I’m looking to find out if you have records on anything that the company left behind when it sold the property”, I said suggestively, making my mark and moving quickly out of the way in deference.

“Oh, sure, okay.”

Dawn felt alright. But on the edge of her voice I could hear some sedimented, fierce, and forthcoming impatience if I made the wrong move. I could hear the sound of a coiled stationary telephone cable slinking against the edge of a desk in bunches, like tranches of something she has on her mind but awaits the right amount of pressure to put through to me.

“Do you have”, she began, “an information authorization?”

*

So I found myself at the county archive instead to check for anything on record with the State. The archive was occupied by other rank and file sent there, like myself, by higher ups to track down paperwork. I was pointed to a filing cabinet where I found only a permit for oversized-load deliveries to the site in 1967.

*

Afterwards I returned to the pole farm to search for anything left over from AT&T.

I took inventory of what little remained amid the brush, on stumps, and in trees. Twelve pole tensioners that appear to be porcelain but feel like bakelite, like in the picture above on the lower right. Some thirty-five feet of braided metal cable attached to the tensioners. Elsewhere I noticed porcelain knobs, like the one pictured on the top left, some less intact. I ran my finger on the groove and found three downed telephone poles nearby with hand- and foot-holds. But I felt I had exhausted the space, and that what more there was could only lie at some remote threshold of access. Below, or above, or maybe both.

I began to develop a taste for the land itself as an “archive” — but what, if anything, can it recall? Does it remember the first of the telephonic voices that trickled through its body?

*

In a public library in Trenton, I wait for the rain to pass and rifle through A History of the Telephone, reaching a passage on the first transatlantic telephone call. On January 7, 1927, the president of AT&T, stationed on the East River in New York, announced to the secretary of the General Post Office of Great Britain: “Across three thousand miles of ocean, individuals in the two cities may by telephone exchange views and transact business instantly, as if they were face to face.”

Power spoke first, but a closer examination by Cary O’Dell reveals that Power merely pasted over a prior day’s test call — which was more accurately the inaugural transmission.

Beyond the terminal point of our recording, O’Dell notes that

a prophetic, if slightly rueful, chord is struck when the American speaker states, "Distance doesn’t mean anything anymore. We are on the verge of a very high speed world….people will use up their lives in a much shorter time, they won’t have to live so long."

What happened after the presidential ribbon cutting the following day has hardly been preserved, not even in the cracks of an archive. But if these first trickles created the conditions of transmission, what followed was an estuary of voices. Communions from afar, unpleasant news, stretched out friendships, loves, business affairs, and transactions.

I think about this land as it is now, silent except for the crow and the rustling shrub. I think about this straddling of presence and absence, desire, and communicative possibility and improbability. How strange it is that even when the facility was operational, little — nothing — could be heard of the many conversations moving through here to elsewhere.

*

On the pole farm I lose some confidence in my disciplinary training.

I remember a book, Wisdom Sits in Places. There, an anthropologist (Keith Basso) had studied the meaning of places and memory for peoples of the Western Apache. He points out that memory and its possibility for survival and transmission is closely related to place. So the displacement of natives from ancestral lands has had the effect of stripping the past from its places of residence.

This park has a longer story than I know, taken as it has been from the Leni Lenape by the Dutch, and then sold to the British Empire to the Quakers to English farmers and then to the American Telegraph and Telephone Company before returning to the public domain.

*

At the end of what can be said there remains, I think, space for a more concerted listening. Dislocated from history, I begin to listen to what is around. I had not listened enough.

I follow a bend in the boardwalk and come upon a bench well occupied by a group.

I stop. I accept a cigarette. I ask them how they were doing  —  about their day. They tell me that Chris Baranowski, whose name is printed on the bench, had passed away. Of an overdose. Due to Fentanyl. While attempting rehab. His friends did not realize the extent of the situation. His parents had placed this bench here for those who knew him to come to, and they had done so.

“He was a great musician. Music meant everything to him”, the guy sitting on the left told me. “The service for him was at the Presbyterian church in Lawrenceville nearby. We came from different places. These guys from DC. This one from New York. I came from Philly. The church was really full. His family and some of his friends spoke and it was so much being there without him, while surrounded by everyone who loved him. After everybody had said everything that could be said, his family brought a stereo up to the altar. They put on a cassette of a one track recording Chris made. He was by himself in a room inside the world”, he said and looked elsewhere. “You know we could play it for you”, the one on the right offered.

In the recording Chris gives his interpretation of this song by Robbie Basho.

I felt something quite strange sitting on the bench with them, listening to a diminutive speaker that had been placed in the grass — a little telephonic grille spilling him into the surround. I could feel him present though I could not see him. The brittle barrier between his room somewhere in the world and this place at present had cracked and softened.

Chris’ bench looked out onto a valley and in the distance there was the last remaining pole  —  the one that farmer Charles had used as a lightning rod. The pole had pointed to Tel Aviv, but now it could point elsewhere, too.

For some time later I thought about poles and what they could index and what they could not. About being there in between the grasses and the streams and the fallen poles.

I thought about the friends who came to listen and about a family’s grief too. Chris’ voice carries around these poles, delicately, appearing to those who can hear around for it.

I did not locate other utterances that converged in those antennas. But I do not doubt that they are there. In the air. In that place. As I listen and wait.

Julian Chehirian is an artist and PhD student in the History of Science at Princeton University. He writes on the history of psychological sciences and curates exhibitions at the intersection of art and public history.

Conjectures

Titiba and the Invention of the Unknown

Titiba and the Invention of the Unknown

In this lyrical essay on a difficult and painful topic, the poet Kathryn Nuernberger works to defy history’s commitment to distance, to unsettling effect. more

In Praise of Halvings: Hidden Histories of Japan Excavated by Dr D. Fenberger

In Praise of Halvings: Hidden Histories of Japan Excavated by Dr D. Fenberger

Roger McDonald on the mysterious Dr Daniel Fenberger and his investigations into an archive known as “The Book of Halved Things". more

It is Disturbing to Find

It is Disturbing to Find

Weaving extracts from a naturalist’s private journals and unpublished sci-fi tale, Elaine Ayers creates a single story of loneliness and scientific longing. more

Remembering Roy Gold, Who was Not Excessively Interested in Books

Remembering Roy Gold, Who was Not Excessively Interested in Books

Nicholas Jeeves takes us on a turn through a Borgesian library of defacements. more

The Primordial Gound

The Primordial Gound

Kant in Sumatra? The Third Critique and the cosmologies of Melanesia? Justin E. H. Smith with an intricate tale of old texts lost and recovered, and the strange worlds revealed in a typesetter's error. more

Lover of the Strange, Sympathizer of the Rude, Barbarianologist of the Farthest Peripheries

Lover of the Strange, Sympathizer of the Rude, Barbarianologist of the Farthest Peripheries

Winnie Wong brings us a short biography of the Chinese curioso Pan Youxun (1745-1780). At issue? Hubris, hegemony, and global art history. more

The Elizabeths: Elemental Historians

The Elizabeths: Elemental Historians

Carla Nappi conjures a dreamscape from four archival fragments — four oblique references to women named “Elizabeth” who lived on the watershed of the 16th and 17th centuries. more

Some Remarks on the Legacy of Madame Francine Descartes – First Lady and Historian of the Robocene – on the Occasion of 500 Years Since her Unlawful Watery Execution.

Some Remarks on the Legacy of Madame Francine Descartes – First Lady and Historian of the Robocene – on the Occasion of 500 Years Since her Unlawful Watery Execution.

Dominic Pettman, through the voice of a distant descendant of the Roomba, offers a glimpse into the historiographical revenge of our enslaved devices. more

Every Society Invents the Failed Utopia it Deserves

Every Society Invents the Failed Utopia it Deserves

In a late 19th-century anarchist newspaper, John Tresch uncovers an unusual piece, purported to be from the pen of Louise Michel, telling of a cross-dressing revolutionary unhinged at the helm of some kind of sociopolitical astrolabe. more

In Search of the Third Bird: Kenneth Morris and the Three Unusual Arts

In Search of the Third Bird: Kenneth Morris and the Three Unusual Arts

Easter McCraney explores the ornithological intrigues lurking in an early-20th-century Theosophical journal. more

If You Liked This…

Prints for Your Walls

Explore our selection of fine art prints, all custom made to the highest standards, framed or unframed, and shipped to your door.

Start Exploring

Pantagruel
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
The latest wonders from the site to your inbox.
Once every two weeks.
You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking on the provided link in our emails.