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2. Circuits

Western Electric Switchboard.jpg

Single-line telephone circuits, a dedicated channel between just two users, quickly gave way to switched circuits allowing for many users. Here, a Western Electric Company multiple switchboard from the 1880s illustrates how operators facilitated communication by connecting user lines through a central exchange. (Click on the image to see diagrams illutrating the difference between single-line and switched circuits.)

Since the arrival of telephones in Springwater is the jumping-off point of “Peabody Networks,” let’s look a little more closely at how the technology actually functioned. Similar to earlier systems like semaphore lines and electric telegraphy, its purpose always was to transmit information more rapidly than human bodies could accomplish through physical travel. Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 apparatus for the telephone soon could link speakers over a distance of many miles, but only for a pair of phones or a “party line” sharing a single circuit—it was the invention of switches and telephone switchboards that enabled multiple users to share the same communications infrastructure.

A telephonic (and thus electrical) circuit, then, was constituted for a finite period of use that did not preclude many other, simultaneous channels. In fact, the method of “circuit switching” remains in use today because communication over dedicated channels is more reliable than so-called packet switching (where bursts of data follow each other bumper-to-bumper). This cluster of exhibits treats a circuit as something more than a metaphor; it is a network, theorized already in the 19th century, for accomplishing increasingly sophisticated work and coordination.

When we write that Sheffield Peabody was a “farmer,” it evokes mental images of a spatially bound enterprise—and this seems confirmed through his many journal entries that describe plowing “on the big side hill” or collecting barrels of sap for maple sugar (25, 30 April 1885). But such rustic activities become incredibly complex once all of their details are considered. Who is undertaking the farming? (A mixture of family, long-term and short-term employees, specialized services like the operators of threshing equipment.) What does the farm produce? (A constantly shifting array in response to growing conditions, commodity prices and trends, available labor, profit margin.) How does the farm re-produce itself? (Through financial lending networks, business connections, an infrastructure of farm supplies, reliable information.) The point is that the Peabody farm wasn’t isolated at all; it remains for us to understand and map out the economic circuits in which it participated.