Friday, November 29, 2013


by Sheila Connolly
My great-great-grandfather, Silas Barton, was one of the founders of the General Electric Company.  At least indirectly:  he was responsible for rescuing the floundering Thomson-Houston Electric Company, persuading them to move to Lynn, Massachusetts and getting them the contract to electrify a new building being erected there by the Grand Army of the Republic, of which he was a member. He went to work for Thomson-Houston, and even managed their Chicago office for a couple of years. I still have a pair of light bulbs they made before 1900. In 1893, Thomson-Houston merged with Thomas Edison’s New Jersey-based company and General Electric was born (they still have a plant in Lynn).  Silas worked for GE the Boston office for a few years. He didn’t follow them when they moved to Schenectady, New York, but his brother Daniel did, and worked for them for the rest of his life.

By interesting coincidence, Thomson-Houston won the contract to introduce electricity to the town where I now live, at the time that Silas was working for them. So there’s a direct (family) line from the 1890s to the current that’s flowing through my laptop as I type now.

Those of us of a “certain age” share memories of a lot of evolving technologies.  When I first used a telephone (you know, those clunky black things with a rotary dial), there was a live operator, and you had to give her the phone number you wanted.  Now I have an iPhone.

When I was in high school my computer science class (the first offered by the school—we had to borrow computer time from a local college, and the computer was larger than my refrigerator and lived in a chilled room), we toured the local New Jersey Bell Labs offices, which we were told was cutting edge at the time.  Now my aforementioned cell-phone does most of what we witnessed there.

My father was the custodian of the family’s cabinet-model “record player,” a piece of furniture encased in mahogany, with storage for some records as well as a radio built in.  My sister and I were not allowed to touch it.  He and my mother were partial to Broadway musicals, and I can still sing along with most of them, because they used it regularly.  Now (you guessed it) my cell-phone can handle the same music instantly, with better sound quality.

And now there are digital books. I come from a family of readers.  We lived in a series of rented houses, mainly built in the 1920s, and most of them had “libraries” with a lot of built-in bookcases, so storage was never a problem. Now I can download books onto my (yes) iPhone or iPad or Nook—more books than any of those houses could have held.

We had an Encyclopedia Britannica for homework.  Now we have Google.

And we handle all of this in our overtaxed brains.  Yes, I can still remember my grandmother’s phone number from the 1950s.

Funny—if there are any links among all of these technological advances, it is that the delivery systems have consistently become smaller and faster.  Does that mean we are a mobile and impatient society?
By the way, my ebook Relatively Dead (May 2013) includes descriptions based on the house where Silas Barton lived in Waltham, as well as the cemetery where he is buried.



1 comment:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Yes, indeed, Sheila, it indeed means we have become a mobile and impatient society! Great nutshell description. :) I have a cousin whose first job was at Bell Labs in Red Bank, NJ. I went to college at Brandeis in Waltham, MA. And I remember some phone numbers from the Fifties, though not my grandmother's. I suppose she had a phone, because she knew when we were coming to visit, but I have no memory of talking to her on the phone, though she had her own apartment until the late 1960s. BTW, I always enjoy the glimpses you give us into your family's history. You may be the only person I know who's not from a relatively recent immigrant family.