The nuts-and-bolts history when studying the nuts-and-bolts OF history

This last weekend, we took the aide-de-camp to World War II Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg.  As one might expect for a boy his age, the attraction was the soldier stuff on display. And a number of the displays were “hands on.”  At one of those tents, we stopped to examine some World War II era signal equipment operated by some living historians.


In front of the young man is a telephone switchboard.  For the demonstration, the crew had a couple of field telephones wired up.  They demonstrated the process involving hand-cranked phones, bells, flags, and patch cords. And this is rightfully defined as a process.  The operator had specific functions to perform in a sequence, lest the call be broken or otherwise disrupted.

Very early in my Army days, I trained on and operated similar switchboards (with marginally better “insides”).  So I was acquainted with the process.  One point the living historians placed emphasis on was the call termination.  When the conversation was over, they didn’t just hang up the phone.  Instead, the caller had to ring the switchboard again to let the operator know to close the connection… basically pull the patch cord out and return it to the stored position.

It was that point that the aide-de-camp looked confused.  In his experience, when you hang up the phone, the call is terminated.  Done.

But field telephones of World War II (and even many of the Army’s phones of the 1980s) didn’t “just hang up.”  The technology to “just hang up” required some development and refinement.  That said, few are the readers who will recall having to ask the operator to terminate a call at the switchboard (heck, few will actually recall having to reach a real, live operator to make a call!)   I had to pause and explain all this to the Aide.  He was very intrigued and noted the complication involved with making a simple phone call (paraphrasing here, of course).

So other than a quaint demonstration at some nostalgic event, what would that matter?   Well, to me this was another example of how the nuts-and-bolts fit into our greater understanding of history.  Technology has a way of abstracting people from our primitive past.  Consider….

There may be a future where these food replicators are all over the place.  And when that day comes, how far will the people be abstracted from the primitive?  Will they know and understand the supporting activities needed to put catfish on the plate?   Will they relate to the frustration of “the fish are not biting today” given that the nearest fishing hole is hundreds of light years away? Will they gladly accept the “clean the fish” chore as a necessity to obtaining the meal?  Will they have their own personal recipes for catfish?  I prefer mine breaded and fried with a side of hush puppies, please, Mr. Replicator.   And how would I know that as a favored preparation, verses the baked version that the computer spit out?  Answers depend upon how far the people have allowed the technology to remove them from the primitive.

And will the people of those times look back and wonder how any food shortages could have existed? Will they understand the great deal of effort required, in our time and even more so in “primitive” times of old, required just to obtain nourishment?  In essence, will they cast presumptions upon our times and our decisions because they don’t know first hand just how hard it is to catch, clean, and fry a catfish?

Likewise, do we, as we look at history, understand the effort required just to make a phone call on those primitive devices of 1944?  The idiosyncrasies of placing a call on the battlefield of 1944 has some value to the historian studying the time period.  One must understand the nature of that experience, at the nuts-and-bolts level in order to put in context the interactions made between participants of the events.

More to the point, we must understand the process… or protocol… of using a courier to send orders on the battlefield of 1863.  Battles and campaigns, and ultimately the course of a war, turned on how those couriers were used to convey information.  Ask Robert E. Lee or William Rosecrans about that.  It’s not enough to simply say “things were misunderstood.”  And beyond just battlefield activities, we might consider how public opinion was shaped in a time without Cable News Network and the immediacy of a 24-hour news cycle… you know when one had to wait until the morning paper… the LOCAL morning paper, that is, which might be carrying news from three day’s earlier.

We’ve got to work with the nuts-and-bolts of the process to understand the particulars as to why things occurred as they did.  That’s the nuts-and-bolts of history.


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