As can be gleaned by a cursory listen to any of the episodes of our podcast: I am a huge fan of science fiction. What may not come through quite as clearly in our podcast, is that I consider myself quite skeptical when it comes to supernatural occurrences.
So what does this exactly have to do with Charlie Chaplin you ask? Well check out this video from one of the guys over at YellowFeverProductions in the UK. They claim to have spotted a person with a mystery object in one of the supplements on a past release of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. I came across this clip after our friends at Geeks Of Doom and Rope Of Silicon reposted the clip, which Roger Ebert had posted on his own blog.
Now, what is the woman(?) holding in her hand, up to her head? Is it a cell phone? If it is a cell phone, many are jumping to the conclusion that clearly there is no other explanation other than she is most likely a time traveler. This is a most ridiculous leap in logic, that needs to stop.
Let’s look briefly at the history of mobile telephony, starting with a patent from 1908 for a mobile phone:
The early years of the 20th century saw the first attempts at wireless and mobile telephony. In 1908, U.S. Patent 887,357 for a wireless telephone was issued to Nathan B. Stubblefield of Murray, Kentucky. He applied this patent to “cave radio” telephones and not directly to cellular telephony as the term is currently understood. Two years later Lars Magnus Ericsson installed a telephone in his car, although this was not a radio telephone. While travelling across the country, he would stop at a place where telephone lines were accessible and using a pair of long electric wires he could connect to the national telephone network.
In Europe, radio telephony was first used on the first-class passenger trains between Berlin and Hamburg in 1926. At the same time, radio telephony was introduced on passenger airplanes for air traffic security. Later radio telephony was introduced on a large scale in German tanks during the Second World War. After the war German police in the British zone of occupation first used disused tank telephony equipment to run the first radio patrol cars. In all of these cases the service was confined to specialists that were trained to use the equipment. In the early 1950s ships on the Rhine were among the first to use radio telephony with an untrained end customer as a user.
So the idea of a mobile communications device was out there, even if it hadn’t materialized into something close to what we now know as a cell phone. Could it be a walkie-talkie? Probably not, as those weren’t developed until a few years later in the mid to late thirties, as World War II ramped up.
Just because the device hadn’t been invented, doesn’t mean that people weren’t thinking about it in popular culture. Think about how many tablet devices were seen in science fiction years before the iPad was released into the wild? 2001: A Space Odyssey anyone?
Would it be really cool if this was a time traveler, hiding in broad daylight, communicating with other members of their time traveling team? Sure, that would be amazing, but it is the least likely explanation.
What do I think? I think a simple explanation would be that this was just a prank pulled by the crew, because they knew where the camera was going to be shooting, and maybe someone would get a kick out of it. I highly doubt that we’ll get a definitive answer to this anytime soon, unless someone on the set that day is still around and knows about it.
The Circus is one of the titles that Janus Films is distributing theatrically around the country, and will likely get a luxurious Criterion release sometime in the next year or so. Maybe our friends at Janus have access to more of the supplemental materials that went into this clip?
Also, can I just say that I really hope that once Criterion has released all of the Chaplin films they have acquired the rights to, they release a box set similar to the one the fellow holds up in the video. As far as I can tell it’s out of print in the UK, and a little too pricey for me right now. Plus I’d love to get a Blu-ray set of all of Chaplins works.
If you want a look at another early mobile phone, check out this clip from Bye Bye Birdie, around the 1:46 mark. ;)