'Devilish' Instruments

The Beaver was both fascinated and frustrated by new technologies.

Written by Dave Baxter

Posted September 22, 2020

Today’s wireless mobile devices and social media apps take up so much of our time that it can feel like technology is both a blessing and a curse. But even a century ago readers of The Beaver were facing the same technological fears and frustrations over another gadget — the telephone.

In an October 1920 column, The Beaver raved about the modern telephone’s potential to revolutionize the retail business.

“All stores require to pay special attention to telephone calls,” the column said.

“In no other part of the store’s activities does courtesy pay so well and in no other activity is the lack of it so easily noticed.”

Just two years later, however, the magazine was singing a different tune about this “devilish” technology.

An October 1922 column titled “The Curse of the Phone” described how an HBC executive was awakened by a call late one evening from a customer who’d ordered boots — from a rival company.

The caller demanded that the HBC executive use his “influence” to get the boots delivered more quickly and added, for good measure, “I’ve been a customer of HBC since 1895!”

The Beaver’s fascination with technological innovation was in evidence throughout its first few decades of publication.

In the June 1928 edition, the magazine noted a major HBC communications milestone — the successful transmission of a telegraph message from London, England, to Vancouver that was “the longest electric link up of its time ever attempted.”

The magazine reported breathlessly on advancements in transportation technology that allowed the HBC to operate more efficiently in the North.

In August 1923, the magazine described the “arduous” process of delivering mail by dogsled; but just over a decade later a story in the March 1936 issue described how the HBC was logging hundreds of flying hours travelling into the North by airplane.

“In the great pursuit of time, men in the Hudson’s Bay Company are probably well in the lead. If flying can help in the saving of travel time we must have a fairly good grip on the forelock,” the column noted.

Other articles throughout the years touched on such grand new devices as the camera, the automobile, and the air conditioner.

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