This guy rings our doorbell and offers me $100 for one of the insulators that sit like glass bells on the top sills of our front windows. He wants the blue one, what I would call a Chagall blue, with “No. 19” embossed on its skirt along with the name of its maker—the Hemingray Company. The same company also made the other ones, and our assortment caught his collector’s eye as he passed by on the street.
A couple of them are clear glass; two more in shades of blue, and another one is amber. They seem to be made of poured glass, and their acorn shape is ringed by ridges and grooves designed to separate and hold the different transmission lines that once pulled across their glass surfaces. I don’t remember how we came by them; most likely they were found objects in this old house we have restored. They still conduct energy, but of a different sort, a refracted light that ornaments the front room to ignite the eye and signal the senses.
As a boy I spied insulators like these on the cross arms of utility poles that stood sentry along the route of visits to relatives in Kansas. From the back seat of my grandfather’s Buick, they appeared to be currants or raisins my grandmother had forgotten to put into the breakfast muffins, for they had become black against the prairie sky. Their different colors could not be appreciated from the ground. Sometimes a crow or a few meadowlarks would land to perch between them and make their dressed file irregular and perhaps lend a different pulse to the humming lines.
Their different colors described the kind of lines that they suspended above and across the country, whether power lines or telephone cables, and I would guess these colors were coded to tell linemen what sort of voltages they repaired and carefully lifted into place. Some carried electricity, and others carried the homely language of family history. “Mother died this morning. Come home.”
But that wasn’t always the case. Originally these different hues of blue and amber, the clear glass, were irrelevant to their use. The same companies that made the glass jars that mid-19th-century homemakers used to put up fruit and vegetables for winter meals were enlisted to make insulators for Mr. Morse’s crackling telegraph lines. Initially these wires were buried underground, but their messages became short-circuited and diminished by leakage, so it was decided to lift them overhead and onto poles. But as any of us who went to Scarritt School could have told them, the wooden poles would draw the messages into the ground with the same corruption. So some kind of object had to be found that would come between the wood and the current carried on the wire. At first ceramic doorknobs were used, but they were impractical because the wires would easily slip off their smooth roundness and short out. Then someone invented this glass acorn with ridges that held the wires in place, and a whole industry was created—out of scrap.
The glass left over from the primary product—canning jars—was remelted and poured into the molds, so they could be of any color. If the Hemingray Company made their famous Globe jars in azure in the morning, then azure insulators would be turned out that afternoon. If clear glass was used for fruit jars, then the insulators produced next would be clear. And so on. It was one of those fortuitous happenstances of human endeavor that no longer seems possible. Today the waste of our ingenuity must be buried out of sight, almost guiltily, and useless.
The colors of the different insulators became relevant when electrical lines joined those that carried telegraph messages and later the human voice, and it became important to tell one line from another on the poles that began to staple the countryside. The insulators themselves became more sophisticated. A hollow space about the size of a broomstick is cast within each and threaded so the unit can be screwed down over a corresponding thread in the wooden peg fixed on the pole’s cross arm. The first insulators had no such design and were merely fitted down over a smooth peg, but experience showed that a storm could blow them off their perch to interrupt the transmission. The Hemingray Company also added its own innovation, duly patented, of a serrated edge around the bottom of the insulators, and these little points were meant to drain rainwater quickly and therefore minimize the interference caused by a natural phenomenon—always a threat to human invention.
I knew of such challenges first hand because of my Saturday afternoons spent at the Chief Theater, where Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien would regularly meet disasters with heroic insouciance. They were fast-talking linemen vying for the gentle goodness of a Wendy Barrie, but then the lines go down. “It’s the tower on Brown’s Ridge,” O’Brien shouts through the onslaught. Water runs in rivulets from the hood of his lineman’s slicker.
“I’ll hook it up,” Cagney says, with that lopsided grin that lets you know that he knows he will die in the process. Kindly Dr. Christian, remarkably au courant with the latest info from the Mayo brothers, was about to save the little Cranshaw girl, when the lights went out. But Jimmy lifts the right cable back onto the No.19 blue insulator made by the Hemingray Company—someday to be collected and worth $100—and the lights go back on. At the same time, a pip, like the flare of a match, occurs at the top of the tower on Brown’s Ridge.
Such melodramas are quaint and amusing today when put beside the internal storms of personality that absorb us; the mannered cruelties between children and parents, the psychic wounds we have been educated to look for as we dress for the day. All of it energy gone awry. Moreover, the new communication, handheld and wireless, requires no insulators from the Hemingray Company, which in fact stopped making them in 1967. So what is to protect us standing on the ground from this promiscuous energy and raw immediacy? No longer confined to cables, our humdrum pollutes waiting rooms and restaurants and even innocent street corners. We are swamped by our own accessibility and even threatened on the highway by this wanton facility, as some state legislatures have recently determined. “I don’t want to know all this,” my grandmother often complained in response to some report in the Kansas City Star of an overnight brutality. What she meant was, did she need to know this information to keep house for my grandfather, pack my school lunch, change the bed linen, and bread the fish for supper? But the item became an inert particle within her soft sensibility, and today the continual fallout of the commonplace buries us—our bins overflow. Plains storms no longer threaten the hookup, because the current onslaught is self-generated trivia, and nothing can insulate us from the force of its insignificance. It is an irony, foreign to those old movies, that the genius of our invention has only exposed how really boring and paltry we are.
Maybe we have reached that stage in our history on earth when we have nothing more to say that is interesting, that after five million years or so, it’s all been talked out. The limitations on travel to other worlds have become discouragingly obvious, and perhaps we are similarly bound to subject matter. The trajectory of our chatter follows the earth’s curvature; our words do not fly up so much as they go round and round faster.
In the horror of the last century, the risks of intelligence have so shocked us that we reach for the banal, not just with a cell phone but in our politics, our literature—our quotidian. Jimmy Cagney is dead, and no one seems willing to handle fresh ideas. A residual meditation plays in the depth of this azure glass on my windowsill, and I have learned its value. No meaning is conveyed beyond its pleasing shape and its color, and there is nothing more to be said.