Live Blogging a New Phone, in 1877

The 19th-century equivalent of the modern Apple event

Three fictional tech bloggers of the 1870s react to the latest model of the telephone, a scene imagined with the help of several actual archival news clippings describing telephone demonstrations of the era.

Walter: Hey everybody! We’re here with live developments from the telephone event. This could be huge. Revolutionary, even. You probably already know the idea: this new tube-like speaking instrument makes it so people can speak freely over the distance of many miles—hearing one another as if they’re in the same room.

Samuel: Still waiting for Alexander Graham Bell at this point.

Mary: The instrument is already on-stage though. We’re just getting a first glimpse here, and—yep, just as early chatter indicated, we’re seeing the three main parts to this device you’d expect: a transmitting instrument, a wire, and a receiver.

Walter: Which means it appears to work by means of electric wire, which isn’t a surprise. What a lot of people in tech circles have been wondering is how this model will be different from what we’ve seen before.

Samuel: And, wow, it is different.

Mary: Totally. Johann Philipp Reis, the German inventor, was transmitting melodies—converted to electrical impulses—across wires a decade ago. But this new model barely resembles what Reis came up with.

Walter: The message is clear: this is a 20th-century telephone, really something from the future. Design-wise, it’s clearly superior to some of the devices we’re seen out of Europe—I’m thinking Cromwell Varley’s drumhead telephone, for example.

Woman with telephone, 1902 (Library of Congress)

Samuel: What was that?

Mary: A strange sound just emanated from the telephone. It’s not clear what we just heard.

Walter: Nothing unusual. The only time there’s been a perfectly clear demonstration was that time the Suburban Telegraph Company put on a telephone show that turned out to be somebody playing a music box hidden in the so-called telephone.

Samuel: You know, for as much as telephones have advanced, I’ve still never seen a demonstration without a spontaneous, inexplicable sound. At least they don’t click continuously like they used to.

Mary: It all comes down to the quality of what you hear, right? Edison makes a great looking telephone but the sound is not exactly harmonious. I’ve heard voices transmitted over Edison phones, and they don’t sound human.

Samuel: Maybe Edison tapped into the spirit world.

Walter: I’m not sure I buy the whole telephones-can-be-used-to-commune-with-the-dead thing.

Mary: One thing that’s immediately clear with the telephone we see here: It is so small! The size and shape of an ordinary doorknob. The bell seems maybe bigger, though?

Samuel: I’m really digging the mahogany.

Walter: The metallic disk from earlier models was much sleeker, but this has a really finished look. Remember: the receiving instrument on the first-generation model was just a 10-inch bar of soft iron, enveloped by a coil of wire. Any time the electric current was broken, it sparked.

Samuel: I think the question a lot of people are going to ask now is: Are these new models safer?

Mary: I don’t think that’s a question we can fully answer yet. But one thing about Bell’s design is that there’s no making and breaking of electric circuit necessary—it relies instead on magnets connected by a battery. One of these magnets controls the vibrations in the receiver—and those vibrations are what form the words and sounds you hear.

Walter: Oh, and here’s Bell now. Seems he’s grown a beard since the last keynote.

Samuel: What a hipster.

Walter: Maybe 150 years from now that facial hair will actually be trendy again.

Library of Congress

Samuel: Bell’s getting pretty deep into the technical aspects of this new model. Typical. Crowd seems a little zoned out.

Mary: You know, looking at this new device, I notice he’s definitely gotten away from the Morse-tapper aesthetic. Distinguishing the telephone from telegraphy is as much a message to people about the promise of this new instrument as it is a functional choice.

Samuel: That ear trumpet’s pretty bad-ass, too.

Walter: Kind of clunky though.

Mary: Apparently these new electro-magnets are of a higher resistance than the second-generation models. That means a significant boost in power.

Walter: These aren’t ordinary telegraph magnets, either. And this is why people love Bell: he puts design first, using a compact and powerful magnet to make the telephone more user friendly.

Mary: It’s beautiful. And it’s powerful enough that it works—over many miles. Remember: A full harmony of church bells was played in Boston and heard clearly, 25 miles away, in Salem. Still astonishing.

Samuel: Right, right, but let’s get serious for a minute. It’s not like this technology is ever going to displace telegraphy. There’s no way a telephone can work over a span of more than a couple hundred miles across land.

Alexander Graham Bell opens a new phone line, 1892 (NYPL)

Mary: The vocals and instruments they’re using for this demonstration are really something—I believe we’re hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra here.

Walter: To Samuel’s point, I can already foresee some other problems, too. I mean, one of the major uses for this instrument is to be able to hear live opera music from the comfort of your own front parlor, right? But it will be a luxury for those who live within a certain distance of the opera house.

Samuel: Bell’s father has said that eventually telephone sound will be transmitted over a beam of light. My guess is that won’t be a feature for at least a few years.

Mary: Same goes for Trans-Atlantic telephony. I’d really like to think it will be possible some day, but who knows.

Walter: For now, this is definitely a device that appeals to musicians and the musically inclined first. (Though some musicians hate the idea of the thing; just the way automation has riled the laboring classes.) But I could see wider adoption, potentially.

Mary: Huge applause for that last cornet solo. You can really hear the quality improvement on this new telephone.

Walter: We’re hearing a lot of shouts of “encore” for that cornet.

Mary: Pretty clever move to invite people to pass by the stage so they could really hear it.

Samuel: Bell has said outright that the musical aspect of telephony is just to drum up curiosity about the technology. He has much bigger ideas for what’s possible.

Telegraph machine, 1862 (Library of Congress)

Walter: Most hotels will probably have telephonic rooms by end of the decade. So when you’re traveling, but you don’t want to miss a Sunday church service, all you have to do is go to telephonic room at the appropriate time and listen in.

Mary: Which means, eventually, we’ll have live symphonies and ministers in every home. There really won’t be a need for concert halls or churches.

Samuel: We shouldn’t just focus on the good. Some people still think these things will be a threat in the wrong hands. It’s hard for me to believe there will be a telephone in every home, but if there is: Imagine a Wagner overture played at full blast. Your standard telephone would explode at the crash of the bass drums. Telephones could be weaponized this way.

Mary: It’s not so far-fetched. Militaries all over the world are beginning to incorporate the telephone into their operations. Commanders are able to talk to soldiers in the barracks without leaving their station.

Walter: Telephones are still pretty delicate for any sort of field use.

Mary: I’m more worried about vast surveillance networks than exploding receivers—telephone wires rigged up to lamp posts so citizens have no privacy. Remember, these aren’t just devices for speaking across great distance; they’re instruments for listening.

Samuel: The New York Times recently laid this out pretty clearly: “Absolute silence will be our only safety. Conversation will be carried on exclusively in writing, and courtship will be conducted by the use of a system of genius symbols.”

Mary: Yeah, the Times was making the point that the telephone ought to be “severely denounced,” but I can sort of see the appeal of communicating in a series of small illustrations or icons: you know, a smiley face, a heart, a thumbs up, clapping hands, that kind of thing.

Telephone, 1915 (Library of Congress)

Walter: You know, there’s still the case to be made that the telephone is a much more secure form of communication than we’ve ever had—other than whispering directly into a person’s ear. With a telegraph, there’s always a third party listening in.

Samuel: Okay, but you still have to speak loudly and enunciate like crazy with the telephone. I can’t imagine these things will ever pick up a whisper, for example. Written correspondence isn’t going anywhere.

Mary: Or maybe the telephone will replace it entirely, and people will completely forget the art of letter writing—most agree that the telegraph is already to blame for its significant deterioration.

Walter: Either way, my guess is that plenty of people will be willing to accept that our concept of privacy, as we know it, will be totally dismantled before we see the year 1900. It’s the price we pay for marvelous technology.

Samuel: The actual price is something like $30 a year now—absurd when you think how recently people were paying $10 annually.

Walter: It should probably be noted this technology has life-saving potential, too. Some had speculated underwater capabilities with this model—it doesn’t look like we’re going to see that for at least a few years. But underwater telephony is sure to be a game-changer for rescue divers.

Samuel: It’s pretty remarkable to see how far we’ve come. Not that long ago, the telephone was ridiculed as a toy.

Mary: Ah, looks like we’re wrapping up here.

Samuel: Bell looks relieved.

Walter: Well, that does it for us. Thanks, everybody!

Read some of the real-world inspiration for this piece: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.