Mark Twain’s reputation for spotting trends in technology is not great. His most famous foray ended poorly, after the great man of letters fancied himself a man of letterpress as well, and invested heavily in the Paige Compositor, a typesetting machine that bankrupted him.
But what if Twain was, in fact, a prescient scout for new innovations? The Times Literary Supplement’s always amusing NB column—which also unearthed this image of Proust playing air guitar on a tennis racket—has been searching for literary firsts, such as the earliest mention of a telephone. TLS readers came up with Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, which premiered in May 1878. But Mark Lasswell of The Weekly Standard came up with an even earlier reference: Twain’s “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” a short story that The Atlantic published in its March 1878 issue. As Lasswell notes, that makes it just 24 months after Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first patent for a telephone.
The story is weird enough to deserve more than a mere footnote for early phone adoption. Alonzo, the first titular character, is what readers today would identify as an exemplar of stereotypical Millennial dissolution: He is lazy, slovenly, entitled, romantically uninvolved, and living with his mother in Maine. He is dissuaded from leaving the house by poor weather. “No going out to-day. Well, I am content. But what to do for company? Mother is well enough, Aunt Susan is well enough; but these, like the poor, I have with me always,” he tells himself, no doubt thinking it droll. Eventually, he turns to technology. Naturally, it fails him. His clock is wrong. When he pushes buttons to summon a servant and then his mother, they, likely exasperated by his indolence, don’t answer, though Alonzo blames it on dead batteries. (Been there.)