The Supreme Court's Tough Call

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

It’s easy to take for granted just how much the invention of the telephone changed cultural norms. For instance, take the art of eavesdropping. As Mark Twain wrote in our June 1880 issue, “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.”

Twenty-five years later, The Atlantic published a piece by Frederick W. Coburn on the development of the phone. “Once a community, like a family, has acquired the telephone habit, its members are never satisfied to revert to primitive conditions,” he observed. Here’s Coburn on how the telephone was changing long distance relationships:

Love, too, finds, naturally enough, a telephone way. Engagements, and even marriages, have been brought about over the wire by persons acquainted with each other only vocally. Indeed, a California writer has lately complained that in the progressive and telephone-saturated communities of the Coast the old-fashioned love letter has become quite out of date. There is no longer any occasion for amatory correspondence. An engaged girl whose lover lives in a town distant a score of miles confides that during the two years of their courtship not a solitary letter has passed between them. “We just call each other up a dozen times a day and say all our nice things that way.”

But part of Coburn’s piece elicited a great deal of controversy. He argued that independent phone companies should basically back off of Bell’s territory:

In every place where a second telephone company has entered into competition with the Bell organization there has been waste, — installation of apparatus beyond the community's need, duplication of services, protracted irritation on the part of citizens, lowering of rates to the extent of interfering with efficiency of work. [...] That the independent telephone companies have no proper reason for existence has been made abundantly clear by the frequency—one might almost say the regularity—with which they go into bankruptcy.

The backlash from Coburn’s piece prompted the magazine to publish a counterargument in the February 1906 issue, and it led with this editor’s note:

The article on “Telephone Development in the United States,” published in The Atlantic for November, 1905, has called forth numerous letters from readers of the magazine, particularly in the Middle and Western States. Most of these correspondents felt that the article in question urged too strongly the advantages of a centralized control of the telephone business of the country. The Atlantic has never found it practicable to establish a department in which letters from its readers could be printed. Otherwise we should have been glad to publish some of the replies to the position taken in Mr. Coburn's article. In view, however, of the interest taken in this question by many of our correspondents, we have asked one of them to put the case for the Independent Telephone companies more fully than would be possible in a letter.

(We’ve come a long way from never publishing reader letters.) The counterpoint to Coburn’s piece was written by Jesse W. Weik, who detailed a curious controversy over Bell’s patent:

On [February 14, 1876], strange to relate, two petitions asking for a patent on the telephone, describing it as an invention for “transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically,” were filed with the commissioner. One was a formal application by Alexander Graham Bell, of Salem, Massachusetts; the other, a caveat on the part of Elisha Gray of Chicago, Illinois. It was a strange coincidence and probably without a parallel in the history of the Patent Office. [...] On March 7, before a month had elapsed, the patent issued to Bell, and immediately thereafter the Bell Telephone Company was organized and incorporated in the state of Massachusetts.

When other phone companies began to pop up, “the Bell Company brought infringement suits against all persons or concerns manufacturing or using telephones, save those operating under proper licenses from itself,” Weik wrote. What were called “the telephone cases” eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Bell:

By the slender majority of one in the vote of the judges the claims of Alexander Bell had now secured the indorsement of the highest judicial tribunal in the land. From that decree there could be no appeal. By virtue of it every rival or competitor of the Bell Company was driven from the field, and that corporation rested, serenely content, in the undisputed ownership of one of the greatest benefactions that ever came to bless mankind.

Bell Telephone Company eventually became a part of AT&T.