150 Years Of The Atlantic September 2006

Technology & Innovation

This is the eighth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent of The Atlantic.
A Telephonic Conversation
June 1880
By Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s family was one of the first in Hartford to install a telephone (which had been patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876) in its home. In 1880, Twain, bemused by this new device that permitted eavesdroppers to hear only one side of a conversation, wrote an amusing description of overhearing his wife talk on the telephone.

I consider that a conversation by telephone—when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation—is one of the solemnest curiosities of this modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley’s, down town. I have observed, in many cities, that the [gentle] sex always shrink from calling up the central office themselves. I don’t know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:

Central Office. [Gruffly.] Hello!

I. Is it the Central Office?

C. O. Of course it is. What do you want?

I. Will you switch me on to the Bagleys, please?

C. O. All right. Just keep your ear to the telephone.

Then I heard, k-look, k-look, k’look? klook-klook-klook-look-look! then a horrible “gritting” of teeth, and finally a piping female voice: “Y-e-s? [Rising inflection.] Did you wish to speak to me?”

Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world,—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.

Volume 45, No. 272, pp. 841–843

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