The Condenser Phenomenon

In Opening Black’s Box: Rethinking Feedback’s Myth of Origin, Dr David Mindel, Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at MIT, says:

“Feedback is indeed a fundamental concept in twentieth century technology, and the Bell Labs feedback theorists did lay critical foundations for it. But the origin myth effaces its sources. It skips over the inventors themselves and the ways in which their backgrounds and prior experience influenced their work. It reveals little about the concrete problems these men worked on when they produced their solutions. The story also removes feedback theory from its engineering culture, that of the telephone network between the world wars.”

In his historical overview he notes:

“From the turn of the century until the 1930s, AT&T expressed its technical milestones in geographical terms:….the Morristown trial simulated the entire country and represented the negative feedback amplifier. “People assimilated telephony into their minds as if into their bodies,” writes telephone historian John Brooks, “as if it were the result of a new step in human evolution that increased the range of their voices to the limits of the national map…

…John J. Carty, chief engineer of the Bell System in 1907, had a clear vision of the social role of the telephone network as “society’s nervous system.”

….Electricity in the wires became merely a carrier of messages, not a source of power, and hence opened the door to new ways of thinking about communications…

…(Hendrik W.) Bode’s expertise was not in feedback, nor even in amplifiers or vacuum tubes, but in the useful but esoteric network theory. The theory of electrical networks dealt not with the telephone network itself but with abstractions of the numerous small networks of resistance, capacitance, and inductance that determined its behaviour.”.

In electronics, there is no difference between a capacitor and a condenser; condenser is the old term for a capacitor (an arrangement of conductors used to store an electric charge).

Wikipedia describes the condenser telephone:

“Telegraph lines in rural areas typically used one wire earth return circuits, this is a system whereby one conductor is installed on insulators mounted on telegraph poles. The circuit return current travels back via the earth to the origin battery. One wire on a pole was very economical to build and one wire circuits expanded rapidly to remote rural communities. Telephone circuits as distinct from telegraph circuits ideally use two wires to provide a noise free line. Once telephone communications became more commonplace in big cities there became more interest in voice telephone lines for long distance communications to smaller centers remote from the cities. Voice messages improved the correctness of the information and could allow more messages to be sent including direct person to person communications. Telegraphs typically operated between two telegraph offices and the messages written on a telegraph note and hand delivered to the recipient.

In the 1890s and 1900s the Telegraph authorities were faced with the dilemma of modernising the old telegraph systems, then in use for 40 or more years, to new voice telephone systems. The cost to convert the hundreds of kilometers of overhead ‘one wire’ systems to ‘two wire’ for telephone would have been enormous. Extra wire, crossarms, and transposition of wires to reduce crosstalk all added to the conversion cost. Where conversion could be justified by high traffic levels, meaning high income from those busy lines, they were quickly converted to two wire telephone circuits, but in many cases the cost could not be justified. A method was invented whereby a telephone circuit could be established using the one wire and earth return method similar to the telegraph circuit method. The telegraph could be retained as this was still accepted as the basic method for transferring simple data somewhat similar to SMS text messages versus voice calls today.

One wire circuits were typically called earth return circuits, or sometimes ‘non metallic’ and two wire were also referred to as ‘metallic circuits’. Metallic referring to a total metal (copper or steel) circuit for both legs of the circuit.

This basic telephone circuit was known as a Buzzer, or more commonly, a Condenser Telephone Circuit.”

And so to the Condenser Phenomenon formulated by SH Foulkes, the German-British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, as part of his group-analytic theory. He says:

“It almost seems that the collective unconscious operates as a condenser which first stores in secret the strong emotional charges generated by the group, then discharges them in the form of typical shared group events.” (1957)

Foulkes’s third wife, and widow, Elizabeth, wrote:

“In 1917, at the age of 18, he joined the telephone and telegraph section of the German army and served in France throughout the rest of the war. While contemplating what he wanted to do should he survive the war, he was attracted to the idea of working in the theatre, as a director.”

(Foulkes was discharged from the army in 1919.)

“On the train to Heidelberg, the nearest and almost automatic choice, he met an old school friend, also on the way to begin his studies, who had decided for medicine. SH decided to do the same.”

Mindel: “The message was no longer the medium, now it was a signal that could be understood and manipulated on its own terms…”.

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