Scientific Breakthroughs in Sandwich Fixin’s

          To promote its experimental color television system CBS sold tickets to a closed-circuit broadcast of pieces of Swiss cheese and bologna.

 Lush Life, David Hajdu

Enrico Caruso

As the fateful day on which we would attempt to broadcast sounds over invisible “radio waves” approached, we all grew more nervous.  Mr. de Forest was beside himself, which made our cramped headquarters even more crowded.

“What if the world isn’t ready to receive transmissions from the Invisible Empire of the Air?” he groaned as he paced the floor, barking orders at our little crew of visionaries.

“The first broadcast is critical,” someone said.  “It is essential that we capture the imagination of New Yorkers, or we are doomed to failure.”

“Well, man–what would you suggest?” he snapped with a sharp tone that revealed his exhaustion–and exasperation.

“I think we should aim high,” one of the academics on the “skunk works” staff, a physics professor, said.  “A program of opera.  Get some big names; Riccardo Martin, Emmy Destinn–Caruso!”

de Forest seemed taken by the idea.  “I think you’re on to something,” he said, staring off into the middle distance as if hypnotized.  “It will be another forty years before greaser Italian singing groups will sing dreck like ‘Who put the bomp in the bomp-a bomp-a bomp.’”

I didn’t like the direction in which we were heading.  I had to head things off at the pass, otherwise the chance of a lifetime to take the tide of technology at the flood would be lost.

“I disagree–strongly,” I said, through gritted teeth.

de Forest turned around and took me in, all 5′ 10″ inches of me.  I’d kept to myself throughout the research and development phase of the project–he’d never acknowledged my existence beyond a slight nod of the head each morning.

“Well, young man,” he said with an upraised eyebrow and an ironic grin creeping across his face.  “What would you suggest?”

I swallowed audibly. This was my big chance to make a name for myself in the burgeoning field.

“I don’t know about anybody else,” I said affecting false modesty.  “But if it were me, I’d put on an egg salad sandwich on whole wheat, with maybe a slice of lettuce.”



I’d been working so hard that I’d lost all track of time, and when I looked up at the clock at Bolt, Beranek & Newman I saw it was–8:45!  Not again, I groaned.  For the third time in a month I’d be late for a date with my long-suffering girlfriend Ellen.  She said she understood the critical nature of the mission we had embarked on–a race against time to invent the internet before Al Gore–but a woman can only stand so much, she’d told me the last time I had called to cancel on her, a double date for the midnight show of The Day of the Triffids at the MIT Science Fiction Movie Club.

Still, I had to bite the bullet.  I had about a half-mile of code to write to meet the deadline for tomorrow morning’s beta test.  I gingerly picked up the phone, dialed KEndall 6-1527 and waited for her slightly adenoidal voice–we were all mouth-breathers back then!–to come on the line.

“Hello?” she said dully.  Probably expecting my call.

“Hi–it’s me,” I said in as pleasant a voice as I could muster.

“Not again,” she said more in disappointment than in anger.  What a gal–I had to marry her someday and produce carriers of my genetic makeup!

“We are so close,” I said.  “In fact, if you turn on your computer right now, I might be able to send you the first electronic mail-o-gram in human history!”

That snapped her out of her torpor.  “Really?  That’s exciting.  Okay–I’m going to hang up.  Shoot me an ‘e-mail’!”

“Will do!” I said with excitement and hung up.  I raced to my computer and was about to begin typing when suddenly it struck me; this was a moment which would live in infamy if I sent her a message that was inane, jejune–fatuous.  I had to make it meaningful.  I didn’t want to say I loved her–what if the Russians intercepted the message?  I wanted the first communique over the nascent technology to be momentous: A recognition of our place in history? Homage to the team members who had worked with me?  A paean to man’s questing nature that had brought us to this technological precipice?

And then it struck me.   It should be something . . . basic.  Something so intrinsic to man’s nature that future generations would see their own fundamental desires reflected in the first halting words transmitted over the Arpanet.  And so I began to type:

“I’ll be over about 10:15.  Could you make me a B-L-T, white toast, light mayo?”


Boston’s Bowdoin Square was covered in snow, and Alexander Graham Bell shivered in our unheated quarters. He had used up nearly all of the money he had raised from friends and family to construct his “phonautograph,” a machine that would someday enable suburban mothers to maintain constant contact with each other while they drove “automobiles,” if Henry Ford would ever get off his duff and mass produce the oversize SUVs that an impatient nation yearned for. At the moment, however, he faced almost certain business and personal failure, and I withdrew from his laboratory, pained as I was by the site of the man in his sore distress.

Blow man, blow!

When I reached the adjoining room, however, I heard the culmination of all of our hard work, as clear as a bell. “Mr. Watson,” I heard Dr. Bell say. “Come here — I want to see you.”

“Yes, Dr. Bell! I’ll be right there!” I could hardly contain my sense of relief and happiness as I closed my eyes, clasped my hands in prayer and gave thanks to the merciful god–whoever it might be–of telephony.

As I stood up I heard the great inventor’s voice again.

“One more thing,” he said.

“Yes?” I replied with great anticipation.

“When you come, could you bring me a tuna salad on rye, no pickle?”


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