December 22nd – The Annual Testing of the Formande Street Exchange

The history of Buentoille is, in some ways, a history of experimentation and invention. Whilst many inventions that City dwellers think of as essentially Buentoilliçan are actually imports from other Cities and provinces (at least in idea rather than manufacture), the proportion of household gizmos invented in Buentoille (such as the washing machine, the electric kettle and the television) is startlingly high. Yet as any scientist will tell you, experiments are not always successful, and there are inevitably a number of inventions that fall by the wayside. Today, on Formande street in Jutêgarde Parish, an annual occurrence takes place, one which is intimately involved with one such failed experiment.

If it had been in the house above, the Formade Street Exchange would no doubt have been removed by now, the space used for something more useful, but thankfully for the legacy of Terrade Orr, it was installed in the basement. The other factor that’s ensured its survival is the fact that it really doesn’t take up a lot of space; the actual ‘exchange’ is little more than a table with a few wires and sockets. It sits in the corner of the basement, where it has resided now for over a hundred and fifty years. Today a path will be cleared to it thorough the other keepsakes and detritus that has piled up around it, most of it similarly forgotten, and the white dust-sheet will be pulled back in a small, sneezy cloud. Other than a patina on the wood and copper components, as well as a little water damage around the legs where it was affected by a flood, it is pretty much pristine, on account of having been used less than two hundred times.

When Orr invented the telephonic exchange, it was originally in an attempt not to send a radio signal down a wire, as most people now understand her frankly arcane work. Instead, Orr was attempting to find out what was going wrong with her experiments attempting to send ‘electrical semaphore’ signals by turning on and off an electrical current along a long wire. When scaled down to a few metres, these signals sent across the wire perfectly, but when the wire was longer than about eleven metres they became progressively garbled, the timings between each signal growing and shortening in seemingly random intervals. The longer the line, the worse these effects seemed. Like a doctor trying to diagnose a patient with a stethoscope, Orr decided that she had to ‘listen’ to the line to understand the cause of this interference, which is when she designed and built the Exchange, which modulated a constant signal’s voltage from positive to negative at a high enough frequency that it could, when attached to a speaker, approximate the human voice.

With her previous electrical semaphore experiments, Orr had only used a single wire, strung between her house and another down the street, and was concerned that the issue may be to do with the physical location of the wire, so with her telephonic exchange she managed to convince several of her neighbours to have wires suspended across the streets and fed into their windows. Each of these wires was laboriously insulated with cotton and wax, and suspended along the existing washing lines. Originally there were sixteen wires, heading out spider-like in all directions from Orr’s basement and out her living room window, all feeding back to the Exchange itself, where each had its own two sockets, into which Orr could plug her receiving and transmitting devices. None of these lines still exist; they were scrapped long ago.

As you might expect by the fact that every Buentoilliant does not have a telephonic exchange of their own in their homes, Orr’s experiment did no go exactly as planned. As before, when tested on a small scale, Orr managed to transmit her voice to a receiver on the other side of the room, but when she tried to transmit or receive any sounds to the other people in her street, all that could be heard down the line was another sound, something like a voice but not quite: ‘It was a horrid sound, and at first I thought that they were playing tricks on me,’ wrote Orr in her research notes. ‘It was as if someone’s voice were made out of the sound of two sheets being pulled across each other, but there was this other sound below, almost too deep to hear, like a drain gurgling. It sent shivers down my spine and I couldn’t stand it for long before I had to switch it off. The others heard it too, and they all say they want it out of their homes. I’ve persuaded all but Marney (silly woman – she believes it to be the voice of a ghost but remember this is the woman who said she could hear the grass grow!) to keep them for a few days whilst I calibrate and check the lines for breaks or points of interference.

The experiment has been replicated many times at other locations around the City, but each has had the same results. Nobody is entirely sure what causes it, but currently there is some ongoing research as to whether it is connected to the phenomenon of radiodance, given that both of them seem to involve interference in the electromagnetic spectrum. The study is expected to publish its results in 2021, at which point it will have collected fifty years worth of data. The event at Formande Street today forms an element of this study, although it is a small, informal element, mostly run as a way for Orr’s descendants to keep her memory alive. A new wire is stretched across the street to a house down the road, with different types of insulation used each year, to see whether or not this effects the results in any way. So far the conclusion is that only length of wire seems to have any affect on the noise, that ghostly voice that still haunts the remnants of Orr’s legacy.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Broad Brush Strokes
  • The Tangential, Virile Festival
  • Trocchao Swannidge’s Day