Time and Distance Overcome

Eula Biss, ‘Time and Distance Overcome’
in Notes From No Man’s Land
(Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2018)
First published: 2009

Telephone poles, newspaper editorials complained, were an urban blight. The poles carried a wire for each telephone—sometimes hundreds of wires. And in some places there were also telegraph wires, power lines, and trolley cables. The sky was filled with wires.

The War on Telephone Poles was fueled, in part, by that terribly American concern for private property and a reluctance to surrender it to a shared utility. And then there was a fierce sense of aesthetics, an obsession with purity, a dislike for the way the poles and wires marred a landscape that those other new inventions, skyscrapers and barbed wire, were just beginning to complicate. And then perhaps there was also a fear that distance, as it had always been known and measured, was collapsing.

The city council in Sioux Falls, South Dakota ordered policemen to cut down all the telephone poles in town. And the Mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin ordered the police chief and the fire department to chop down the telephone poles there […].

Despite the War on Telephone Poles, it would take only four years after Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of over 10,000 people to be wired, although many towns were wired only to themselves. And by the turn of the century, there were more telephones than bathtubs in America.

‘Time and dist. overcome,’ read an early advertisement for the telephone. Rutherford B. Hayes pronounced the installation of a telephone in the White House ‘one of the greatest events since creation.’ The telephone, Thomas Edison declared, ‘annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.’


In 1898, in Lake Comorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brook Haven, Mississippi […].

Affordances and biases aren’t simply decanted into objects by designers—artifacts also absorb the politics of the places, laws, and people around them. Writing about telephone technology in this essay, Eula Biss describes what she finds—plainly stated on the pages of the New York Times—in a keyword search for ‘telephone poles’ c. 1900. She discovers mostly unintended consequences of telephone infrastructure: resistance to modernisation; ‘space’ that fills with wood and wire rather than evanescing; industrialised communication as an unlikely route to being ‘in touch’; and new platforms for old American anti-blackness and racial violence.

by Mara Mills (with thanks to Juliet Kelso)