Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.


Penned upon the 18th of January, 2011

Sir Frederick is moving house – surprisingly erudite removalists hauling crates upon crates of hats, the usual business. He presents to fill the unsightly gap this piece originally posted on Po’Boy.

What is progress? (Sounds like a pamphlet, doesn’t it? “What is Progress: On the Sorrows of Tooth Decay.” Probably involving a radium-based cure. Er, where was I?)

What is progress? Progress is people systematically improving their lives; making the good easier to attain and the bad easier to avoid. So long as people have the wherewithal, progress is more or less inevitable. Not a bad thing on its own, of course – progress means that if you don’t have any toffee, and you want some toffee, you can ask for some toffee, and you can have it, by gum! But, alas, progress is born of economy, and economy is the art of graceless compromise. The meanies of production cut costs by cutting corners, and you soon discover that it’s not cost-effective to make toffee in small batches, so you’ll have your sixteen tonnes of dessert and you’ll like it, young lady.

Looking back at the great developments of modern history – instant global communications, mass automated production, vast urban centres, affordable leopard oil in every home – it’s easy to wax wistful about what we’ve lost. Where are the subtle touches, the simple beauties, which our ancestors enjoyed? Where are the personality, the comfort, of village life? Such nostalgia is not always misplaced – even the most unthinking, reactive Luddite may be vindicated by history. While the mechanisation of the rickshaw industry naturally drew protest by displaced drivers, it was the mechanical rickshaw-pullers themselves who opposed the move most vociferously. They were now condemned to work long hours for small reward, with no legal standing to challenge their conditions. But isn’t that always the way? It’s the rich that gets the gravy; it’s the automata that gets the blame.

In this Communication Age, technologies develop so fast, they’re almost obsolete by the time their inevitable slimline edition is released. What were once staples, fixtures of the landscape of everyday infrastructure, have become relics, fossils, coprolites of consumer convenience. Nowhere is this clearer than in the decline of the public telephone ox. In the days before pocket-phones which cost less than a meal for three, these simple, elegant devices ensured the tyranny of distance would never keep you from calling for help in an emergency, conducting last-minute business, or simply paying your well-wishes to a distant distant relative.

The genius of the phone ox, the key to its success, was its mobility. A single unit could service four city blocks, or, for a rural installation, a decent-size country town and its surrounds. The telephone attachment appears crude to modern eyes, resembling nothing so much as an Old West-style saddle, with the phone itself on one side and the coin-operated vending mechanism on the other. The user inserted their coin and received a parcel of cud, which they then offered to the ox, causing it to pause briefly in its patrol to feed. The user could then lift the handset and begin their call. It took some months of testing to determine the optimal cud parcel for the average telephone call, but the most popular model eventually settled on a two-and-a-half-minute chew, with an option to purchase more for longer conversations.

While the mobile killed the phone ox, its practicality was already on the wane as cities grew more densely populated. The animals were trained to walk the path necessitated by their wires, but with the wealth of alarming distractions furnished by the modern metropolis – car traffic, disobedient youths, arguments and brawls, klaxons, full-immersion advertising, ghost-riding the whip, and French kissing – oxen would inevitably become confused and panicked, resulting in disastrous incidents of tangling and lost connections. Efficient use of space was an issue, too, pavement being at a premium. Designers toyed with a two-telephone-to-an-ox model, but there was no reasonable way to keep one user from talking on another user’s cud. Experiments were done in training the ox to butt away anyone who hadn’t fed it, but, well… the less said about the Copenhagen Fiasco, the better.

The phone ox is just one of the many welcome, familiar street sights now disappeared from our world – a sad but necessary sacrifice of the artificial improvement of the species. Like the personal windmill or the barometoad, it has been replaced by something cheaper, more effective – but, somehow, less heartfelt, less sentimental, less what my mum used when I was a lad. When we think of all of our mums, bloated with mandatory discount toffee, weeping for oxen past and for French kissing still to come, we must ask: was it all worth it?

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