CHAPTER IV. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ART

By 1884, gathered around Gilliland in Boston and the Western Electric in Chicago, there came to be a group of mechanics and high-school graduates, very young men, mostly, who had no reputations to lose; and who, partly for a living and mainly for a lark, plunged into the difficulties of this new business that had at that time little history and less prestige. These young adventurers, most of whom are still alive, became the makers of industrial history. They were unquestionably the founders of the present science of telephone engineering.

The problem that they dashed at so lightheartedly was much larger than any of them imagined. It was a Gibraltar of impossibilities. It was on the face of it a fantastic nightmare of a task - to weave such a web of wires, with in- terlocking centres, as would put any one telephone in touch with every other. There was no help for them in books or colleges. Watson, who had acquired a little knowledge, had become a shipbuilder. Electrical engineering, as a profession, was unborn. And as for their telegraphic experience, while it certainly helped them for a time, it started them in the wrong direction and led them to do many things which had afterwards to be undone.

The peculiar electric current that these young pathfinders had to deal with is perhaps the quickest, feeblest, and most elusive force in the world. It is so amazing a thing that any description of it seems irrational. It is as gentle as a touch of a baby sunbeam, and as swift as the lightning flash. It is so small that the electric current of a single incandescent lamp is greater 500,000,000 times. Cool a spoonful of hot water just one degree, and the energy set free by the cooling will operate a telephone for ten thousand years. Catch the falling tear-drop of a child, and there will be sufficient water-power to carry a spoken message from one city to another.

Such is the tiny Genie of the Wire that had to be protected and trained into obedience. It was the most defenceless of all electric sprites, and it had so many enemies. Enemies! The world was populous with its enemies. There was the lightning, its elder brother, striking at it with murderous blows. There were the telegraphic and light-and-power currents, its strong and malicious cousins, chasing and assaulting it whenever it ventured too near. There were rain and sleet and snow and every sort of moisture, lying in wait to abduct it. There were rivers and trees and flecks of dust. It seemed as if all the known and unknown agencies of nature were in conspiracy to thwart or annihilate this gentle little messenger who had been conjured into life by the wizardry of Alexander Graham Bell.

All that these young men had received from Bell and Watson was that part of the telephone that we call the receiver. This was practically the sum total of Bell's invention, and remains to-day as he made it. It was then, and is yet, the most sensitive instrument that has ever been put to general use in any country. It opened up a new world of sound. It would echo the tramp of a fly that walked across a table, or repeat in New Orleans the prattle of a child in New York. This was what the young men received, and this was all. There were no switchboards of any account, no cables of any value, no wires that were in any sense adequate, no theory of tests or signals, no exchanges, NO TELEPHONE SYSTEM OF ANY SORT WHATEVER.

As for Bell's first telephone lines, they were as simple as clothes-lines. Each short little wire stood by itself, with one instrument at each end. There were no operators, switchboards, or exchanges. But there had now come a time when more than two persons wanted to be in the same conversational group. This was a larger use of the telephone; and while Bell himself had foreseen it, he had not worked out a plan whereby it could be carried out. Here was the new problem, and a most stupendous one - how to link together three telephones, or three hundred, or three thousand, or three million, so that any two of them could be joined at a moment's notice.

And that was not all. These young men had not only to battle against mystery and "the powers of the air"; they had not only to protect their tiny electric messenger, and to create a system of wire highways along which he could run up and down safely; they had to do more. They had to make this system so simple and fool-proof that every one - every one except the deaf and dumb - could use it without any previous experience. They had to educate Bell's Genie of the Wire so that he would not only obey his masters, but anybody - anybody who could speak to him in any language.

No doubt, if the young men had stopped to consider their life-work as a whole, some of them might have turned back. But they had no time to philosophize. They were like the boy who learns how to swim by being pushed into deep water. Once the telephone business was started, it had to be kept going; and as it grew, there came one after another a series of congestions. Two courses were open; either the business had to be kept down to suit the apparatus, or the apparatus had to be developed to keep pace with the business. The telephone men, most of them, at least, chose development; and the brilliant inventions that afterwards made some of them famous were compelled by sheer necessity and desperation.