The house smelled of old age and senility.
Each room was crammed full of tables and chiffonier, sideboards and china cabinets; chairs, ottomans, and sofas of all sorts. No surface was bare, no cabinet empty, no nook unoccupied. In an earlier time, the resident would risk being labeled a hoarder. The house was a warren of antiquities, a few so old their original use long forgotten.
Despite its haphazard appearance, the decor was laid out with purpose, in museum-worthy displays. A staff of five worked relentlessly while the house was open to the public to whisk away any dust, or debris carried in by visitors.
No admission was asked. Docents accompanied guests among and around the home, reciting the history of major pieces and answering the many questions regarding strange contraptions scattered throughout. The guides were also there to discourage guests from pilfering any of the treasures. Some items were small enough to conceal in a closed hand or jacket pocket.
Silk ribbons were draped around the arms of delicate Windsor chairs to keep visiting bottoms from spoiling the finish or crack the fragile legs. Velvet ropes created plush boundaries, letting visitors know where they were not welcome.
As the tour group entered the final room, a curious leather valise sat on a pedestal table. Inside was a tray of black and white bars. On top of those, was a box with an ornate design cut into the front. Several small, black buttons were lined up along the top, front edge of the box. A strap was attached to two sides of the box, long enough to be used as a means to carry it.
Crowding around the object, several of the group began leafing through the tour brochure looking for an explanation. The docent waited a decorous moment while the group discussed amongst themselves. Just as she cleared her throat to reveal the box’s secret, Hugo Germaine, the homeowner entered the room.
“I see you have discovered our newest acquisition,” Germaine said with a sardonic smile. A curt nod to the docent and Germaine took over the tour narrative.
A ruddy-faced, beer-bellied American stepped forward, “what is that thing?”
Germaine turned with a contemptuous expression.
“It is an item of momentous historic significance,” Germaine said. “It may even be something a few of you have never heard of before.”
The American looked around at the other tourists, crossing his arms over his ample stomach, resting them there like a shelf. “Try me.”
“It was a machine of great power,” Germaine said. “Only the most elite could afford to have one in their home, and afford the level of education need to operate one.”
The American kept his arms tight across his chest, and bobbed his head in a dismissive way, his lips purse into a florid rosebud.
“Today, there is no need of such a machine, because every human and automaton on earth are able to perform these functions internally,” Germaine said, gratified at the expectation he was creating, baiting the rude Yank. “Of course, I may be mistaken about you, dear sir.”
Running his finger across the row of black and white bars, Germaine demonstrated that the bars moved. He stood in front of the machine and with both hands tapped out an intricate pattern.
“What I’m doing now,” Germaine said, continuing to tap out the ordered sequence. “is entering code. If the machine were operational, a ribbon of paper with the solution to my inquiry would print out. Today, we are able to do all the things this computer did, using the microchip that is embedded at birth.”
“What are all those fancy cut outs,” the American asked, pointing to the filigree decorations.
“Computers were fan cooled, those are vents that allow for better air circulation,” Germaine said.
“You want us to believe that is a computer?” The American said. “In all the history docs I’ve accessed, computers filled whole rooms.”
“That is correct, the most ancient of them were very large, but around the late 19th century, home computers were made possible,” Germaine said, picking up the leather band and lifting the box out of its case. “They became convenient enough that they could be carried from place to place. Hence, the strap.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the American said, finally relaxing his arms and his attitude.
Germaine faced the docent, bowed and with a flip of his hand, turned the tour group back over to her.
Once the group had exited the room, Germaine stepped around the velvet rope and behind the table. Picking up a tag that hung on the back of the case, he read the label.
1942, Bogini piano accordion, musical instrument
“Tourists,” Germaine snorted. “They are so rude and gullible. What should I tell this next group? I know, it’s a communication device…. what were they called? Ah yes, a telephone.”