1879: Making The Call

In the process of worldbuilding for 1879, we’ve adopted some rules and guidelines. Excerpting a couple of the immediately relevant ones from our Writer’s Bible, we have the following in regard to technology.

  • The Five Year Rule: Any technological development in our world can occur in the game world up to five years earlier without the need for explanation. Technological advance in the game world moves at a faster pace than in ours; this is well established.
  • Any technology that was explored in our world, but not brought to market, popularised, or otherwise made available, can be used. A brief explanation of why the technology was adopted must be provided. If the adoption of the technology has far ranging effects, those must be considered and again explained.
  • Technological developments can happen earlier than five years in advance, but must be explained. For example, antibiotics become common knowledge in the mid 1880s due to Earther contact with the Saurids, who already have the technology, their low-tech tribal lifestyle being a deliberate choice rather than a lack of advancement.

Keeping these in mind, let’s talk about telephones.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, the same in the game world as in ours. Within months, the Bell Telephone Company is chartered, and imitators begin to spring up (keeping in mind the accelerated rate of advancement). in January of 1878, Bell demonstrates the telephone to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. A few days later, a writ goes out from the Queen to the military, asking for research into the ramifications and uses of the device. It’s signed by Victoria but it’s in Albert’s handwriting.

In 1879, commercial telephone service begins in London. Buckingham Palace installs its first switchboard. Queen Victoria allows a telephone in her office, but refuses to allow the device into her living quarters. Military telephone connections are built in the Gruv, notably from Fort Alice to Camp Burlington and Fort Wellington. Large businesses and wealthy homes throughout England put in telephones, but the common people are satisfied with Post Office telegraphy, and the telephone stays an instrument of the rich and powerful because of lack of popular interest for several years.

By 1880, telephone exchanges are operating in most major cities around the globe. The device remains expensive, as does the subscription service necessary to use it. Lines are still being run, and your neighborhood isn’t well off enough to provide multiple subscribers, it may be years before an exchange connects to it.

So how do you make a telephone call? Mobile phones are a hundred years in the future. There are no pay phones on the street, doesn’t matter where you go. To make a phone call, your options are:

  1. Use your own, in your home or place of business, for which you pay a monthly fee.
  2. Convince someone else to let you use theirs. This may involve a Favor or money. Favors require Interaction Tests and GM Attitude and all that fun social mechanics stuff. Paying for the call is a straight-up transaction. If your character is part of an organization, you may be able to use that as leverage to get access to a phone. For example, if your Dodger is part of a corrupt political party, and your ward boss has told you to check in with her at each milestone in your effort to rig the current primary election, you could use the phone at any party office by identifying yourself and telling the ward heeler who you need to call. If your Scientist works for Bayer AG, you could probably use the phone at any company facility, and if you’re someone noteworthy, you could even put through a call to Berlin if you needed to. Police and the military, within their jurisdiction, can use their generally recognized authority to demand use of a phone, with the tacit assumption that force can be brought to bear if access is denied. 
  3. Find a Gray phone, one of the automatic collection pay telephones invented by Robert Gray. These are in upscale establishments, where the company doesn’t have to worry about someone breaking open the cash box and stealing the day’s take before the collection route person can come around and pick it up. For a local call, you drop in fifteen cents, which opens the circuit and gives you a dial tone. Dial the number. When it connects, the money goes into the cash box. If you hang up before it connects, the money comes out the return slot. For a long distance call, pay fifteen cents and talk to the operator. They’ll quote you the connection fee. If you pay it, and the phone will send a signal to the operator telling them how much money you’ve dropped in, the operator will connect you. Long distance calls are expensive, anywhere from a dollar to three dollars for five minutes within a country, and a lot more to cross a border, if it’s even possible. Not all exchanges have access to all the cross border lines.

Telegrams are much more readily available, but if the content isn’t encrypted, you have to accept that several people along the way are going to be able to read it. As well, the telephone is much more immediate, and gives you two-way communication by voice. The question remains, though, do both you and the person you need to communicate with have access to such cutting-edge technology? Can you get the call through?

And is the line tapped? Who might be listening?

We’ll deal with all of this, and provide mechanics, in future publications. Until then,

Tally Ho!