"But why would we ever want a telephone at Downton, my lord?"
That’s Mr. Carson, the butler from the television show Downton Abbey, talking to Lord Grantham about a new piece of technology being installed in their home.
Recently, I’ve been re-watching old episodes of Downton Abbey and episode seven from season one is one of my favorites because of the telephone subplot. It’s the summer of 1914, and while the telephone had apparently made its way to London, the inhabitants of Downton Abbey are both confused and afraid of the invention.
"Oh my Lord, listen to that! It’s like the cry of the banshee!," Mrs. Patmore exclaims when she first hears the telephone ringing. "I wouldn’t touch that thing with a ten foot pole!"
This is funny to us 100 years later because not only has the telephone become ubiquitous in modern life, I don’t think many of us even think about it as a piece of technology at all anymore. The telephone? Isn’t that the app that no one likes to use on their smartphones?
One reason why I like the show’s depiction of the telephone is that it’s not portrayed as some piece of magic that everyone is in awe of. Instead, they’re downright skeptical of the thing. And they can’t imagine a use case.
Lord Grantham gets flustered trying to answer Mr. Carson as to what the telephone will be good for before finally admitting they’re installing it mainly because his daughters got used to it in London. In other words, it’s viewed as a sort of toy.
I wonder what current bit of new technology many people find odd or useless now but will be commonplace in 100 years? Surely there’s something. But we may not be able to see it. It may be disguised, as so many bits of technology have in the past, as a toy.
By the way, the telephone still doesn’t get a lot of love by season two of Downton Abbey. “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?,” Granny (the Dowager Countess) wonders, frustrated while trying to make a call. Of course, this is the same woman who believes that installing electricity in her home will end her ability to sleep at night.