Entering content area for The Web of Language

showing results for: March, 2009

blog posts

  • March 10: The telephone is 133 years old today. Call me.

    Alexander Graham "Ma" Bell, demonstrates the proper way to use his invention
    Alexander Graham "Ma" Bell, demonstrates the proper way to use his invention

    133 years ago, on March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated that the human voice could be transmitted electrically across wires by shouting the famous words, "Mr. Watson--Come here--I want to see you," into the telephone that he had constructed. As Bell wrote in his lab notebook, "To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said." To prove it, Watson repeated Bell's words verbatim.

    Excerpt from Bell's notebook

    Bell had to shout into the receiver because the electrical signal lost strength as it traveled from one room to the next. The sound quality was poor as well. When the two men changed places and Watson spoke into the device, Bell couldn't understand the passage that Watson read from a book:

    I could not make out the sense, but an occasional word here and there was quite distinct. I made out "to" and "out" and "further", and finally the sentence "Mr. Bell Do you understand what I say? DO-YOU-un-der-stand-what-I-say" came quite clearly and intelligibly. 

    Excerpt from Bell's notebook

    Excerpts from Bell's notebook dated March 10, 1876, describing the first electrical voice transmission  [Library of Congress]

    Bell described the telephone in his patent application in the technical language of "electrical undulations" and "sinusoidal curves." But he promoted it to the public as idiot-proof: "The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus consists in the fact that it requires no skill to operate the instrument." 

    Sketch of Bell's phone, from the notebooks

    Sketch of the idiot-proof telephone, from Bell's notebook [Library of Congress]

    Telephone users did have to learn how to conduct a conversation which lacked the important cues of face-to-face encounters – eye contact and body language. And because of the poor sound quality, they had to adjust the volume of their voice and speak more precisely than they did for f2f.

    Early adopters also had to learn how to begin and end a phone call. Since the first phones had no ringers, Bell announced his calls by shouting "Hoy" into the receiver. (Hoy remains a common attention-getter in informal British speech, and ahoy appears in naval contexts.) Other callers preferred "Hello," a rare word that was used to evince surprise (as in, "Hello, what have we here?"), or to attract the attention of someone who was some distance off, for example hailing a boat from another or from the shore (it was never appropriate to say "Hello, sailor" unless you were on one boat and the sailor was on another). Thanks to the telephone, hello quickly became part of our non-phone greeting vocabulary as well, a fine example of technology interfacing with language.

    Callers in Bell's day also had to learn to carry on their conversations in public. Privacy wasn't an option, as the first phones were placed in centralized, high-traffic areas in offices and homes, and the phone's imperfect sound reproduction made whispering impractical. In addition, telephone operators, known in the slang of the day as hello-girls, were required to listen in from time to time to make sure no one was misusing Ma Bell's equipment (subscribers were not supposed to let guests make calls; and there was no swearing or impertinence allowed) and to see whether the circuit was still in use, since those first phones didn't automatically disconnect when callers hung up.

    Comfortable as we've gotten after all these years of phoning, today's mobile telephony requires adjustments to our behavior just as the first wired phones did, and while cell technology seems to move communication forward, in some ways it also brings us back.

    For example, now that we finally figured out how to be discreet on land lines, mobile phone users, who raise their voices even though the technology doesn't require it, have regressed to the early days of PDC, public displays of conversation. Acting as if they were completely alone, mobile callers chatter away loudly on the street, in the train, or while dining someplace cozy and upscale, in conversations which seem impenetrable or inane or just annoying to bystanders who can't get out of earshot. Callers draw even more attention if they're on a Borg-like Bluetooth, hands gesticulating wildly, eyes riveting perfect strangers while the animated speaker addresses someone miles away. Of course, if everyone else is also on the phone, then no one's left to eavesdrop. But for those who are not calling or being called, resistance seems futile.

    All new technologies have their critics. In 1849 Henry David Thoreau criticized Samuel Morse's popular telegraph because, although it connected people from Maine to Texas, they still had nothing to say to one another. Morse, in turn, saw no potential in Bell's telephone because it didn't create a written record of what was said.          

    The phone's obvious usefulness trumped any objections from the critics, and despite the complaints lodged against it, the cell phone is even more popular than Bell's phones were. Yet mobile phones return us to the days of yesteryear in one more way: callers are shifting in droves from talk to text. They're not doing it to be polite (except in Japan), or because they require a written record of the conversation. And we already know that cell phone users don't seem overly finicky about privacy. Rather, they insist that text is less intrusive than calling, and that they're just more comfortable texting than talking. At least that's what they texted to me when I asked.

    So, even though 133 years isn't a centennial, bicentennial, or jubilee, on the anniversary of Bell's invention, give me a shout, call me, or better yet, send me a text, even though you and I may have nothing important to communicate. 

    UPDATE: Bell's not the only inventor credited with building the first telephone. Elisha Gray filed a patent for a telephone two hours after Bell, and after a variety of legal challenges, the U.S. courts awarded the honor to Bell. The Hungarian Tivadar Puskas is another name associated with the first phone, as is the German, Philipp Reis, and the Italian, Antonio Meucci, along with five or six others. In any case, Bell's name is the one indelibly associated with the phone in the U.S. With apologies to supporters of the other claimants, since the point of this post is not really the anniversary, but the impact of the instrument, determining the "real" inventor isn't a big concern for me. I mean, even Wikipedia isn't sure who the first telephonist was, and as we know, Wikipedia is never wrong.

    UPDATE for the telephone's 136th anniversary: In the past few years, with the increasing popularity of smart phones, mobile phones have become more and more like computers. But now so powerful is the pull of the mobile phone that computers are starting to become more phone-like. Rumor has it that Apple's next computer operating system will incorporate many features of its popular iPhone and iPad iOS, and other industry giants may follow suit. Our machines are converging toward a single, all-purpose device, and the day of the Star Trek Universal Communicator may not be far off

    .Capt. Kirk and his Star Trek communicator

    Capt. James T. Kirk uses the Star Trek Communicator


liciac@live.it Mar 10, 2009 4:47 am

It's interesting how a supposedly "neutral" invention might highlight cultural differences: every Italian kid learns that the inventor of the telephone was Antonio Meucci but he was deceived by Americans and Bell in particular! Embarassed



imelis5956@charter.net Mar 10, 2009 7:06 pm

It certainly is an interesting cultural phenomenon, but as a Hungarian, I can add that in MY school books, the inventor of the telephone was Tivadar Puskas--a Hungarian. I can't remember having learned any conspiracy theories about how Bell ended up with the credit for the invention, but in our nationalist folklore, it was always taken for granted that everything important in the world was invented by Hungarians, but it was always someone from an empire or superpower who got the credit for it, or who could afford to file the patent. (It is also true that patent offices did not exist in many of those countries until much later than in the US).

More seriously, I was wondering if, indeed, it is true that the origin of the word "hallo" would go back to the first person singular Hungarian word "hallom," which means "I can hear you," and is attributed to have been announced by Puskas. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tivadar_Puskás


Ildiko Melis

Bay Mills Community College, Brimley, MI

seamstress@web.de Mar 29, 2009 4:00 pm

What about Johann Philipp Reis then? You guessed it, I am German.


Wikipedia has it as follows:

Credit for inventing the electric telephone remains in dispute. Charles Bourseul, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, amongst others, have all been credited with the invention. The early history of the telephone is a confusing morass of claim and counterclaim, which was not clarified by the huge mass of lawsuits which hoped to resolve the patent claims of individuals. The Bell and Edison patents, however were forensically victorious and commercially decisive.

additional blog information