Friday, December 6, 2013

"The Unseen Ear"

"I wondered if that infernal ear, with its electric-charged wires leading to some man in another part of the building, could hear my heart beat."
It might make you feel better to know that electronic eavesdropping isn't a new concern; our ancestors from a hundred years ago were a bit excited about it, too. Excerpts from a magazine article:
THE PRACTICAL POSSIBILITIES of the dictograph have become pretty well known since William J. Burns used it in his detective work. It is positively unsafe for anybody to say anything anywhere now unless he is perfectly willing to have a stenographer take it down.
No dictograph evidence has yet appeared in suits for damages for broken hearts, but it may be well for proposing swains to first have a look around to see if the little tell-tale machine is under the sofa.
Your conversation with your banker or your lawyer, your dicker for a horse or a cow with your neighbor—all must be couched in diplomatic language, for an unseen interviewer may be taking down your every word. — "Scientific Eavesdropping," THE LITERARY DIGEST (June 15, 1912)
Thanks to "the ear," there was a small revolution in detective work:
"In walls, under sofa and chair, in chandelier, behind a desk, beside a window, it has hidden—the unseen listener to secret conversations.
"The secrets of prison cells have been tapped, hotel rooms and offices have given up incriminating conversation.
"To representatives of the law it has proclaimed loudly the whispered words of cunning malefactors. It has figured sensationally in the undoing of dynamiters, legislative bribetakers, grafters high and crooks low, across the continent." — "Scientific Eavesdropping", op. cit.
William Burns was a well-known real-life detective in his day:
"Let us dwell momentarily now upon the 'detective dictograph.' Last year, William J. Burns was regarded as the flesh-and-blood unification of Sherlock Holmes and M. Lecoq, with an Arsene Lupin daredeviltry. That was before it became known that he used the dictograph.
"This with all respect to Burns's acumen as a detective, for he knew enough to make use of the latest that science had devised for catching criminals. Burns was the first American to see the immense possibilties of the instrument in detective work.
"He is so enamored with it that he always carries one in his pocket. Fictional detectives carry automatics and handcuffs. Burns carries a dictograph." — "Scientific Eavesdropping", op. cit.
Even crooked politicians couldn't hide from "the ear":
"Last summer the ear overheard the legislative grafters at Columbus, Ohio. The incident disgusted these higher crooks exceedingly. Not so the honest population of the city. They held a dictograph celebration. To-day, you can buy dictograph cocktails at Columbus. What better proof of its popularity could be given?" — "Scientific Eavesdropping", op. cit.
Technology is morally neutral; it's how it is used—or abused—that should matter.

Category: Detective fiction

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