Communications

Thirty-five short years, and presto! the newborn art of telephony is fullgrown. Three million telephones are now scattered abroad in foreign countries, and seven millions are massed here, in the land of its birth.

In that somewhat distant year 1875, when the telegraph and the Atlantic cable were the most wonderful things in the world, a tall young professor of elocution was desperately busy in a noisy machine-shop that stood in one of the narrow streets of Boston, not far from Scollay Square. It was a very hot afternoon in June, but the young professor had forgotten the heat and the grime of the workshop. He was wholly absorbed in the making of a nondescript machine, a sort of crude harmonica with a clock-spring reed, a magnet, and a wire. It was a most absurd toy in appearance.

After the telephone had been born in Boston, baptized in the Patent Office, and given a royal reception at the Philadelphia Centennial, it might be supposed that its life thenceforth would be one of peace and pleasantness. But as this is history, and not fancy, there must be set down the very surprising fact that the young newcomer received no welcome and no notice from the great business world. "It is a scientific toy," said the men of trade and commerce. "It is an interesting instrument, of course, for professors of electricity and acoustics; but it can never be a practical necessity.

For seventeen months no one disputed Bell's claim to be the original inventor of the telephone. All the honor, such as it was, had been given to him freely, and no one came forward to say that it was not rightfully his. No one, so far as we know, had any strong desire to do so. No one conceived that the telephone would ever be any more than a whimsical oddity of science. It was so new, so unexpected, that from Lord Kelvin down to the messenger boys in the telegraph offices, it was an incomprehensible surprise.

Four wire-using businesses were already in the field when the telephone was born: the fire-alarm, burglar-alarm, telegraph, and messenger- boy service; and at first, as might have been expected, the humble little telephone was huddled in with these businesses as a sort of poor relation. To the general public, it was a mere scientific toy; but there were a few men, not many, in these wire-stringing trades, who saw a glimmering chance of creating a telephone business. They put telephones on the wires that were then in use. As these became popular, they added others.

The telephone business did not really begin to grow big and overspread the earth until 1896, but the keynote of expansion was first sounded by Theodore Vail in the earliest days, when as yet the telephone was a babe in arms. In 1879 Vail said, in a letter written to one of his captains:

"Tell our agents that we have a proposition on foot to connect the different cities for the purpose of personal communication, and in other ways to organize a GRAND TELEPHONIC SYSTEM."

What we might call the telephonization of city life, for lack of a simpler word, has remarkably altered our manner of living from what it was in the days of Abraham Lincoln. It has enabled us to be more social and cooperative. It has literally abolished the isolation of separate families, and has made us members of one great family. It has become so truly an organ of the social body that by telephone we now enter into contracts, give evidence, try lawsuits, make speeches, propose marriage, confer degrees, appeal to voters, and do almost everything else that is a matter of speech.

The larger significance of the telephone is that it completes the work of eliminating the hermit and gypsy elements of civilization. In an almost ideal way, it has made intercommunication possible without travel. It has enabled a man to settle permanently in one place, and yet keep in personal touch with his fellows.

The telephone was nearly a year old before Europe was aware of its existence. It received no public notice of any kind whatever until March 3, 1877, when the London Athenaeum mentioned it in a few careful sentences. It was not welcomed, except by those who wished an evening's entertainment. And to the entire commercial world it was for four or five years a sort of scientific Billiken, that never could be of any service to serious people.

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