CHAPTER IX. THE FUTURE OF THE TELEPHONE
Thus it happened that when Bell invented the telephone, he surprised the world with a new idea. He had to make the thought as well as the thing. No Jules Verne or H. G. Wells had foreseen it. The author of the Arabian Nights fantasies had conceived of a flying carpet, but neither he nor any one else had conceived of flying conversation. In all the literature of ancient days, there is not a line that will apply to the telephone, except possibly that expressive phrase in the Bible, "And there came a voice." In these more privileged days, the telephone has come to be regarded as a commonplace fact of everyday life; and we are apt to forget that the wonder of it has become greater and not less; and that there are still honor and profit, plenty of both, to be won by the inventor and the scientist.
The flood of electrical patents was never higher than now. There are literally more in a single month than the total number issued by the Patent Office up to 1859. The Bell System has three hundred experts who are paid to do nothing else but try out all new ideas and inventions; and before these words can pass into the printed book, new uses and new methods will have been discovered. There is therefore no immediate danger that the art of telephony will be less fascinating in the future than it has been in the past. It will still be the most alluring and elusive sprite that ever led the way through a Dark Continent of mysterious phenomena.
There still remains for some future scientist the task of showing us in detail exactly what the telephone current does. Such a man will study vibrations as Darwin studied the differentiation of species. He will investigate how a child's voice, speaking from Boston to Omaha, can vibrate more than a million pounds of copper wire; and he will invent a finer system of time to fit the telephone, which can do as many different things in a second as a man can do in a day, transmitting with every tick of the clock from twenty- five to eighty thousand vibrations. He will deal with the various vibrations of nerves and wires and wireless air, that are necessary in conveying thought between two separated minds. He will make clear how a thought, originating in the brain, passes along the nerve-wires to the vocal chords, and then in wireless vibration of air to the disc of the transmitter. At the other end of the line the second disc re-creates these vibrations, which impinge upon the nerve-wires of an ear, and are thus carried to the consciousness of another brain.
And so, notwithstanding all that has been done since Bell opened up the way, the telephone remains the acme of electrical marvels. No other thing does so much with so little energy. No other thing is more enswathed in the unknown. Not even the gray-haired pioneers who have lived with the telephone since its birth, can understand their protege. As to the why and the how, there is as yet no answer. It is as true of telephony to-day as it was in 1876, that a child can use what the wisest sages cannot comprehend.
Here is a tiny disc of sheet-iron. I speak - it shudders. It has a different shudder for every sound. It has thousands of millions of different shudders. There is a second disc many miles away, perhaps twenty-five hundred miles away. Between the two discs runs a copper wire. As I speak, a thrill of electricity flits along the wire. This thrill is moulded by the shudder of the disc. It makes the second disc shudder. And the shudder of the second disc reproduces my voice. That is what happens. But how - not all the scientists of the world can tell.
The telephone current is a phenomenon of the ether, say the theorists. But what is ether? No one knows. Sir Oliver Lodge has guessed that it is "perhaps the only substantial thing in the material universe"; but no one knows. There is nothing to guide us in that unknown country except a sign-post that points upwards and bears the one word - "Perhaps." The ether of space! Here is an Eldorado for the scientists of the future, and whoever can first map it out will go far toward discovering the secret of telephony.
Some day - who knows? - there may come the poetry and grand opera of the telephone. Artists may come who will portray the marvel of the wires that quiver with electrified words, and the romance of the switchboards that trem- ble with the secrets of a great city. Already Puvis de Chavannes, by one of his superb panels in the Boston Library, has admitted the telephone and the telegraph to the world of art. He has embodied them as two flying figures, poised above the electric wires, and with the following inscription underneath: "By the wondrous agency of electricity, speech dashes through space and swift as lightning bears tidings of good and evil."