1876: Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call in his Boston laboratory, summoning his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, from the next room.
The Scottish-born Bell had a lifelong interest in the nature of sound. He was born into a family of speech instructors, and his mother and his wife both had hearing impairments. While ostensibly working in 1875 on a device to send multiple telegraph signals over the same wire by using harmonics, he heard a twang.
That led him to investigate whether his electrical apparatus could be used to transmit the sound of a human voice. Bell’s journal, now at the Library of Congress, contains the following entry for March 10, 1876:
I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: “Mr. Watson, come here — I want to see you.” To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.
I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said ‘Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.’” We then changed places and I listened at S [the speaker] while Mr. Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouthpiece M. It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from S. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled.
Watson’s journal, however, says the famous quote was: “Mr. Watson come here I want you.”
That disagreement, though, is trifling compared to the long controversy over whether Bell truly invented the telephone. Another inventor, Elisha Gray, was working on a similar device, and recent books claim that Bell not only stole Gray’s ideas, but may even have bribed a patent inspector to let him sneak a look at Gray’s filing.
After years of litigation, Bell’s patents eventually withstood challenges from Gray and others — perhaps by right, perhaps by virtue of bigger backers and better barristers. In that respect, the controversy recalls the patent battle over the telegraph and foreshadows later squabbles over the automobile, the airplane, the spreadsheet, online shopping carts, web-auction software, and the look and feel of operating systems.
One thing we know for sure: Mr. Watson was at work that day in Bell’s lab. The telephone call did not interrupt his dinner with a special offer for home repairs or timeshare vacations in Florida.
Photo: Alexander Graham Bell demonstrates speaking into the telephone using a model prototype in 1876. (Early Office Museum)
This article first appeared on Wired.com March 10, 2008.See Also:
- Aug. 15, 1877: ‘Hello. Can You Hear Me Now?’
- Aug. 4, 1922: For Whom the Bell Tolls Not
- Clive Thompson on the Death of the Phone Call
- Man Attempts Worlds Longest Telephone Conversation
- Phone Company Is Arm of Government, Feds Admit in Spy Suit
- Complete Wired.com coverage of cellphones
- June 25, 1876: Was Custer Outgunned at Little Bighorn?
- July 18, 1876: Royal Commissioners Wrinkle Their Noses
- Aug. 8, 1876: Edison Patents Mimeograph
- March 10: Jefferson the Paleontologist, Lincoln the Inventor
- March 10, 2000: Pop Goes the Nasdaq!
Few are as geeked about communications as I am. Its a little known fact that I worked for AT&T for a couple of years because I loved their product. Of course, that was before deregulation. Thanks to wired.com, I'm reminded that today is the anniversary of the day the telephone was invented, or so legend has it. There's a lot of backstory to the invention of the telephone, and just about every other communication device since then, but we will probably always mark today and Alexander Graham Bell as the day that led to all the wonders of electronic communication. Again, thanks to www.wired.com for sharing.