When the Telephone Was Dangerous

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
New York Tribune / Library of Congress

The telephone—ubiquitous now, but in a different way than before—is a pretty good proxy for how people react to the introduction of any major new technology.

In the 139 years since Alexander Graham Bell patented the device in 1876, the same themes have emerged again and again: Awe, skepticism, fear, and contempt are all pitstops on the way to mass adoption and normalization.

When I was writing this story, about how telephone etiquette has changed over the years, I dug through various old newspapers and magazines to get a sense of how attitudes toward the phone have evolved. There is so much good stuff in the archives. Here are some gems I found in my reporting that I didn’t include in my story:

  • In 1917, W.E. Hill sketched different kinds of telephone users for The New York Tribune. They included, for example, this dude who is “going to make the girl he calls up guess who it is:”
    New York Tribune / Library of Congress

    And this woman, “who has just spent 15 minutes looking up a number [only to discover] she has forgotten it.”

New York Tribune / Library of Congress
  • In 1933, the New Yorker recalled what it was like when telephones were first for sale: "People admitted that telephones were ingenious contraptions and wondered just how they worked, but they no more thought of getting one of their own than the average man now thinks of getting an airplane. As a matter of fact, for a long time they were of little use in a home. Since almost nobody had them but brokers, there was no one to talk to.”
  • Also from the New Yorker in 1933, people thought telephones were dangerous: “They weren’t human, they popped or exploded... [People] were afraid that if they stood near one in a thunderstorm they might get hit by lightning. Even if there wasn’t any storm, the electric wiring might give them a shock. When they saw a telephone in some hotel or office, they stood away from it or picked it up gingerly.”
  • On the 100th anniversary of the telephone, in 1976, AT&T hosted a celebration in Cambridge, Massachusetts, selected because it was one of few American cities that could claim it had more telephones than people (109,000 and 102,000, respectively, at the time).

  • Also in 1976, The New York Times reported a series of predictions about the future of the telephone. One idea was that telephones would eventually be incorporated into “home communications computer(s),” that would be “handed down from one generation to the next—as was once the case with a good watch.”
  • In 1925, the New Yorker explored the successes and failures of the telephone in an attempt to extrapolate its lasting power: “When we are inclined to blame the telephone because we cannot get out number, let us remember the automobile. Let us remember the radio. Let us remember that we are gentlemen. Anyway, let us take a deep breath and county to fifty.” The author, Corey Ford, concluded the telephone would last: “Although the telephone industry is still in its infancy, I am one who has faith. The reader may laugh at me now; but some day he will laugh up the other sleeve.”