A mysterious sphere appears and strange things start happening in "The Cosmic Man" (1959), another earnest sci-fi in which patronizing aliens come to earth to mess with human heads. With an archetypal soundtrack and John Carradine as the alien, this film is the perfect occasion to pop the corn and gather the family for some good old Fifties interstellar paranoia.
In the film, passing reference is made to a character's party line telephone as the means by which she learned of the top-secret UFO the alien left parked in a canyon outside of town. Common in the early Twentieth century, party-line phones were when two or more households shared a single phone line, similar to the way many homes today have multiple phone units on the same line within the house. While multiparty telephony made telephone access possible for many communities, privacy was not a given. If a neighbor was using the phone when you picked up your receiver, you could listen in on their conversation—and vice versa.
To reduce confusion when an incoming call caused all the phones on a line to ring, the bell on one's phone would ring in a pattern distinctive for that household, so people would know whether the call was for them or one of their neighbors. Eventually, the phone companies developed the ability to signal only the appropriate household's phone to ring when a call came through, but people sharing a line would still often pick up the phone to discover it was already in use. During the same year "The Cosmic Man" hit theaters, the Doris Day/Rock Hudson film "Pillow Talk" (1959) famously used the party line telephone system as a central plot device.
Today, most people have private land lines, individual mobile devices and Internet-based technologies (such as Skype video conferencing). Yet questions of access and privacy in our technology-aided communication have only multiplied as we increasingly rely on the physical infrastructure that connects our wonderful machines.
Steve CorbatoSteve Corbato, Director of Cyber Infrastructure at the University of Utah, discusses "The Cosmic Man" and 21st century technology.
More Science to go with the Show
Find More UEN SciFi Friday