The Magical, Revolutionary Telephone

Tech journalists of the 19th century hailed the newfangled device "and the gratification it will afford to all lovers of the marvelous."


On this day in 1876, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Alexander Graham Bell a patent for his "improvement in telegraphy," or, as we now know it, the telephone (above). This anniversary seems like as good a day as any -- well, perhaps even a bit better than the other 365 days this year (leap year!) -- to dip into the media frenzy that surrounded its arrival, a 19th century tech event evocative of today's Apple circus. Just kidding. It was nothing like that at all -- the telephone, and the reaction to it, rolled out over the course of years, not minutes.

A peek back into the tech writing of yore always serves as a good reminder that concerns about how technology is changing our world -- distracting us, destroying established industries -- are nothing new. But it is also more than that: it is an invitation to imagine a time when our quotidian habits (e.g. talking on the phone) were quasi-magical. And, if nothing else, these little snippets contain some damn good writing. Here are a few, collected from the archives of The New York Times and The Atlantic.

On July 10, 1874, the Times published one of the first accounts of the forthcoming telephone. The Times' story, "Music by Telegraph," concerns Elisha Gray, whose claim as inventor of the telephone remains in question. The Times explained the new invention:

About two months ago Mr. Elisha Gray, of Chicago, a gentleman well known in the electric telegraph world as a maker and inventor of some of the most valuable instruments now in use, conceived an idea which would be an extraordinary development of telegraphic science if he could only succeed in practically demonstrating it. ... Mr. Chandler says that he regards it as the first step toward doing away with the manipulating instruments altogether, and that he believes that in time the operators will transmit the sound of their own voice over the wires, and talk with one another instead of telegraphing. The writer has seen this novel instrument at work, and has heard music played on a small melodeon, or piano key-board, transmitted through an unbroken circuit of 2,400 miles, and reproduced on a violin attached at the receiving end o the wire. ... What this will all lead to, or where it will all end, is one of the most extraordinary problems of the day.

Aside from the intense interest which this discovery will naturally excite in the scientific world -- as to the causes which produce this extraordinary electro-physiological phenomenon, and the gratification it will afford to all lovers of the marvelous -- it is evident that, although the practical used to which it may be put cannot as yet be recited, quite enough has been demonstrated to show that, from its basis, a new system of telegraphy, both for aerial and submarine lines, of a simple, rapid, and economical character, can be introduced. ...

On March 22, 1876 the Times considered another telephonic invention, this one by a German professor, Johann Philip Reis, whom the Times mistakenly calls Reuss in its article. Reis's invention did not have the audio clarity of Bell's and never caught on commercially. Nevertheless, the Times' account is wonderful reading.

Prof. Reuss, a distinguished German performer on telegraphic insturments, has recently made an invention which cannot fail to prove of great interest to musicians, and, indeed, to the general public. The telephone -- for that is the name of the new instrument -- is intended to convey sounds from one place to another over the ordinary telegraph-wires, and it can bused to transmit either the uproar of a Wagnerian orchestra or the gentle cooing of a female lecturer. ... When Mme. Titiens is singing, or Mr. Thomas' orchestra is playing, or a champion orator is apostrophizing the American eagle, a telephone, placed in the building where such sounds are in the process of production, will convey them over the telegraph-wires to the remotest corners of the earth. By means of this remarkable instrument, a man can have the Italian opera, the Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher laid on in his own house. ...

The universal use of the telephone will, of of course, be viewed with disapprobation by the sound-producing part of the community, just as the introduction of labor-saving machines was met by the hostility of the laboring classes. No man who can sit in his own study with his telephone by his side, and thus listen to the performance of an opera at the Academy, will care to go to Fourteenth street and to spend the vening in a hot and crowded building. In like manner, many persons will prefer to hear lectures and sermons in the comfort and privacy of their own rooms, rather than to go to the church or the lecture-room. ... Thus the telephone, by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert-halls and the churches, and the time may come when a future Von Bülow playing a solitary piano in his private room, and a future Talmage preaching in his private gymnasium, may be heard in every well-furnished house on the American continent.

It is an unpleasant task to point out a possibly sinister purpose on the part of an inventor of conceded genius and ostensibly benevolent intentions. Nevertheless, a patriotic regard for the success of our approaching Centennial celebration renders it necessary to warn the managers of the Philadelphia Exhibition that the telephone may really be a device of the enemies of the Republic. Wagner is to write an overture for the exhibition, and it is assumed that thousands of people will go to Philadelphia to hear it. Somebody is to make an oration, and somebody else is to deliver a poem after the roar of the overture has died away, and it is believed, that there are persons who wish to listen to both. Moreover, the Declaration of Independence is to be read in connection with the opening of the Exhibition, and those who have never seen a copy of that document will, of course, be anxious to hear it read. But what if Prof. Reuss, with deliberate malice, and at the instigation of the European despots, should distribute telephones to all the cities of America, and thus enable their citizens to listen to overture, oration, poem, and Declaration, without the trouble and expense of going to Philadelphia? What possible success would in such case attend an exhibition to which nobody but Philadelphians with free passes would come? There is so far nothing to indicate that this is Prof. Reuss' dark design, but as all foreign despots, from the Queen, in the Tower of London, to the Prince of Monaco, in the backroom of his gambling palace, are notoriously and constantly tearing their hair as they hear of Belknap and Pendleton, and note the progress and prosperity of our nation, it is not impossible that they have the infamous scheme of attacking the Centennial Celebration with telephones. However, there is one comfort. If the Wagner overture is written in the author's characteristic style, no telephone made of weaker materials than sixteen-inch steel plates can successfully report it. With the first grand crash of Wagner's brass and bass-drums every telephone will fly into pieces and an awful silence will settle over the land, except within a distance of say fifty miles from the center of musical disturbance.

Nearly a year later, on February 3, 1877, the Times described "a practical demonstration of the most recent developments of an invention, in accordance with its name, has already sounded far and wide the fame of the telephone":

The experiments yesterday were as follows: Telephones having been connected with the private telegraphic line of the Boston Rubber Shoe Company, and the operators at either end having taken up their station, conversation was at once commenced. Stationed at the Boston end of the wire, Prof. Bell requested Mr. Watson to speak in loud tones, with a view of enabling the entire company at once to distinguish the sounds.

This was so successful that a smile of mingled pleasure and surprise played on the features of those present. ...

Three years later, in the June 1880 issue of The Atlantic, Mark Twain described an unnerving effect of this new invention: the "queerest of all the queer things in this world, -- a conversation with only one end to it." Twain humorously recounts such a conversation, which he overheard while writing "a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject." He had noticed, he says, "that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by." He recorded it thus:

It's forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-fourth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.


Perhaps so; I generally use a hair-pin.


What did you say ? [Aside] Children, do be quiet!


Oh! B flat! Dear me, I thought you said it was the cat!

Image: Wikimedia Commons.