Watching old iron from afar in digital age


Due to infirmities, I have missed several steam shows this season and will most likely miss some more, as the season is quite young yet.

But during my time away from the shows, I’ve had the opportunity to think about early communication channels in this country. Here’s why: I have a daughter serving with the Army in the Near East, close to where some hostilities have occurred. One of the things I have been impressed with is the ease of communicating with her some thousands of miles and seven hours away. Other than the time differential, she might be next door when she rings my telephone, the quality is so clear.

How different things were in earlier war times, and peace times, too, for that matter. I had some distant cousins and a great grandfather in the Civil War and a few handwritten letters survive. I am quite sure that was about it for news coming back from the front lines.

The electric telegraph was developed in the 1840s and was in operation for the military, but not likely for the common foot soldier. Samuel F.B Morse sent the first long distance message between Washington and Baltimore in May of 1844 and set up the Morse code, which bears his name yet today.

Several others who worked with electricity contributed to these developments, including Thomas Edison.

I expect the snail mail, as we call it now, was slower than we can imagine. I contacted one of my Civil War historian friends and he told me most of the surviving letters he has inherited have 3-cent stamps on them.

The wars of the 20th century had much-improved systems of communications, but nothing to compare with today’s air waves. Modern electronics have eliminated the need for wires and most signals are carried by radio waves. (This also has the disadvantage that the signals can be intercepted with the right tuners and so secrecy or security gets a bit more difficult.)

Steaming around

You may be wondering what all this has to do with steam shows. I spend several hours, many days, watching steam shows on my computer, both foreign and domestic.

My favorites are the ones where the camera man takes time to focus on name plates and details. American and Canadian engines have enough odd features to be identifiable, but British engines much less. A few videos have titles superimposed on pictures. I have no idea how tough this, is but it is a very nice feature.

I have become quite impressed with so many 2017 shows appearing on the internet so quickly, some before the show is finished. I’m sure some who post material have some pretty sophisticated equipment and know how to set up to post quite promptly. No time needed to develop film and print pictures and all that rot.

Electronic recording and replay have become instant with a lot of miniaturized equipment. Cell phones now take pictures and videos and they are open for instant replay.

Today’s communication

Most successful groups today use a newsletter to keep members informed about club activities. Most publish their newsletters online, too, or host a web page with dates and schedules and often with recent pictures. This allows for interested folks like me to follow goings on from quite a distance.

I am some five hours by road from Steam-Era at Milton, Ontario, but since I like their show quite well, I read their newsletter rather thoroughly each month.

British shows are even further away, both by travel and time, and their posting of road runs and parades showing off all the polished brass trim on their engines is very nice to watch.

Many shows have multiple years posted and various road runs and activities.

For shows I have attended, the videos are familiar, including the background scenery. This is especially true of National Threshers at Wauseon, Ohio, as well as Steam Era.

Of course, all this rapid communication is controlled by numbers hence the name “digital age.”

When I was young, a long distance phone call usually involved an operator and was as little as a distance of 20 miles, sometimes less and a toll charge. Now with 10 digits, we can direct dial anywhere on the North American continent with no extra charge. A couple more numbers will connect us most anywhere in the world. Sometimes an extra fee is involved, depending on the circumstances.

I’m sure most of our grandparents would be amazed. But such is this modern world.


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