The Development of the Telephone
Joseph Henry Lays the Groundwork for the Telephone
Though Joseph Henry earned his fame as the first director of the Smithsonian Institute, he was in many ways the telephone's first and best advocate. Alexander Graham Bell himself said as much when he declared, on the great scientist's death, "But for Henry, I never would have gone ahead with the telephone."
Born in 1797 in Albany, New York, Henry seemed destined for a life on the stage at first. He started his own theatrical company, for which wrote, directed, acted, and created stage effects — all before he had turned 16. Then one day, while he was bedridden with an illness, a book by George Gregory converted him to science. He enrolled in the Albany Academy, and did so well that soon he was teaching mathematics there.
In 1828 Henry began investigating electromagnetism, which led him in 1831 to the invention of the electrical generator — only a few weeks before Michael Faraday announced the same achievement in London. Henry failed to publish his findings immediately, however, and so the honors went to Faraday. In 1836 Henry made much the same mistake when he neglected to announce that he had caused a bell to ring from a distance without the use of wires — the first evidence of radio waves.
Henry's career as an inventor did not get better with time. Twice he assisted Samuel F.B. Morse in the construction of his telegraph. Morse repaid the favor by claiming that Henry had not helped him at all.
Fate came to the rescue in 1846, when Henry was offered a position as director of the newly formed Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Worn out by the competitive stresses of applied science, he gladly accepted. Just before assuming his new post, however, he heard about a mechanical talking machine on exhibit in Philadelphia and decided to pay a visit to its inventor, Joseph Faber.
A native German with failing eyesight and a dour demeanor, Faber dutifully demonstrated his Euphonia to Henry. It was staggering — a machine that created a hoarse whispered speech in any language with the use of a bellows, a keyboard, a series of levers and springs, and an artificial head complete with moving jaw and tongue.
In a letter to a friend, Henry described the Euphonia favorably (the machine spoke English better than the inventor did!) and put forward a few provisional ideas about its use. Perhaps, he thought, a larger version could be installed on the roof of a firehouse, where it could bellow out the location of fires. Even better, why not attach telegraph wires between two identical machines and, by converting the action from one machine into an electrical signal, cause the second machine to speak? Though he didn't use the term himself, Henry was in effect describing an extremely complicated telephone.
At the Smithsonian, Henry became engrossed in pure science, and as the years went by, he presided over its organization with an increasingly conservative hand. Thus, in 1875, when Faber's son-in-law came to Henry asking for a loan to promote the Euphonia, the scientist briskly turned him away. The device, once the object of Henry's fascination, ended up instead on display in a small theater in Paris, where it was largely forgotten.
What would have happened, one wonders, if Henry had looked upon the Euphonia with his original fondness? Would a generation of Americans have struggled to tap out messages on this intricate machine, dreaming in vain of a simpler way? As it is, we will never know, because Alexander Graham Bell visited Henry in that same year, and history followed a different course.
The aging scientist listened sagely as Bell talked nervously. Of course, Henry — as a pioneer in telegraphy, electricity, and talking machines — knew something about the subject. Rather than making strident claims like most of the people who came knocking on his door, Bell actually expressed doubts about his project. Henry was willing to hear more.
When Bell described what he achieved so far, Henry's icy composure fell away, and he promised to publish the findings. Bell shyly confessed that he had little knowledge of electricity. To which Henry replied, "Get it!"
Henry's involvement did not stop at that first meeting. When Bell and Thomas A. Watson exhibited their telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Henry saw to it that the invention received the Certificate of Merit. Even at the edge of death in 1878, he remained a fan: he had a telephone installed by his bed, where among the last sounds he heard were the voices of friends coming through the receiver.
As for the Euphonia, Faber's son-in-law completed the circle several years later by approaching *Bell* for a loan. The inventor of the telephone, perhaps remembering Henry's generosity at a critical moment, gave the man $500 and sent him on his way.
Bell Invents The Telephone
The story of the telephone, it could be said, is really a story about theater — or, better, about the comedy of humans trying to communicate through machines. Certainly, Alexander Graham Bell knew as much about drama as he did about electricity.
As a child, Bell was deeply immersed in both the mystery of the human voice and the intricacies of mechanical objects. He got his first glimpse of how these two interests might go together when his father, Melville Bell, took him to meet the British physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone. Some years earlier, Melville had seen a mechanical talking machine, invented and operated by Joseph Faber, at the Egyptian Hall in London. Knowing that Wheatstone had designed a similar machine, Melville now asked Wheatstone to tell them about it.
Young Alec was clearly inspired by this visit. On returning home, he and his brother built their own talking machine, with a crude tongue, jaws, and a wig. By opening and closing the lips, they eventually got the machine to say "mama" -- and their mother came running to see what was wrong.
As he grew older, Alec became more serious but no less interested in dramatic possibilities. For a time he even considered becoming a playwright. Later, when he settled on a job teaching the deaf in Boston, he kept his theatrical skills in shape by acting out a set of written symbols called Visible Speech (devised by his father) until his students learned how to speak back. Meanwhile, his scientific experiments had him trying to incorporate Visible Speech into a telegraphic code. From there, he progressed to musical telegraphy, in the hopes that musical tones could send several messages over a telegraph wire at the same time.
Ironically, the actual invention of the telephone was anything but flashy. Contrary to a story often told today, Bell probably did not spill acid on himself when he uttered the words "Watson — come here — I want you." He had simply heard an unusual sound coming over the telegraph wire and called his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, to ask what he had done. Nevertheless, the telephone, which the two men proceeded to invent over the next few months, was worthy of the legend, and better ones as well.
Bell patented his telephone on February 14, 1876 — a mere two hours before a rival, Elisha Gray, submitted an almost identical application, and just in time to present a working version at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro and the British scientist William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) sat stunned as the words of Hamlet came through the receiver. Also present for the occasion was Elisha Gray, who at the appropriate moment turned to the crowd and said, "Ay there's the rub." (Gray and Bell eventually settled out of court, and Bell's patent prevailed.)
The Centennial was just the beginning. In the spring of 1877, having achieved their first two-way conversations, Bell and Watson began exhibiting the telephone in lecture halls throughout the Northeast. The halls were invariably packed as Watson, some miles away, screamed out weather reports and popular airs. (In this early stage of development, it was still necessary to shout into the receiver in order to be heard.) Afterwards, audiences were usually invited onstage -- though no invitations were necessary -- to try out the telephone firsthand. Mistaking the purpose of the device, at least one audience member asked, "Who will be the next President?"
Like an actual theater show, the telephone demonstrations became more elaborate as time went on — eventually even brass bands made appearances — and more intense as they approached New York, where the toughest crowds were expected. And indeed, the editors of the Scientific American were disappointed. Bell and Watson spoke between New York and New Brunswick, a distance of 32 miles, but, it was said, "the sound produced was not generally audible throughout the hall."
Thinking quickly, Bell saved the day with a second demonstration that used multiple speakers, and the pans turned to raves. "It is a most bewildering sensation," read the June 9 issue of Scientific American, "to hear a song faintly emitted first from a box on the stage, then from another suspended overhead, and finally from a third across the room, as the operator switches the current from one telephone to another."
The rest was icing on the cake. On July 11, 1877, after a few more demonstrations in New England, Bell called it quits and married Mabel Hubbard, leaving the business world to come to terms with his invention.
Inspired by Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, Bell started Volta Laboratories, which later became Bell Labs, but he took no administrative position at the burgeoning Bell Telephone. In fact, after dabbling with an automatic telephone switchboard in the 1890s, he joined forces with the company he had created only one more time — to take part in the one episode of the telephone story that had *not* been dramatized.
The Telephone Goes National
In 1915, when Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson were asked to re-enact their famous first phone conversation, they became part of a wider effort to demonstrate the emergence of a single telephone system spanning the entire United States. This system was the dream of AT&T president Theodore Vail. It was also a dream that was a long time in coming.
When the telephone first came into use, the signal quickly became distorted as the distance between points increased. A practical long-distance line, it was understood, would put an end to this problem, and in the process, open up immense financial vistas. As a measure of long-distance telephony's importance, AT&T was organized in 1885 as the parent company of Bell Telephone, rather than the other way around.
The search for a solution was already well underway by then. Following the theoretical groundwork laid by Oliver Heaviside in 1887, George Ashley Campbell, an AT&T employee, began developing the loading coils that would keep the signal clear as it traveled. Campbell succeeded in the last months of the 19th century. Unfortunately for him, so had another inventor, Michael Pupin. Hoping to avoid exorbitant fees of a legal battle, AT&T paid Pupin $435,000 for his patents and stopped the dispute in its tracks.
Long-distance telephony required more than loading coils, however, and the necessary innovations simply did not exist until Lee De Forest came along. A professed admirer of Bell, De Forest invented the three-element vacuum tube in 1907. In 1912, he went one further and invented a version of the regenerative circuit, which greatly amplified the volume of radio — or, if one preferred — telephone signals.
By this time, Theodore Vail had already announced his intention of creating a transcontinental telephone system, but nothing could be done without De Forest's patents, so John J. Carty, AT&T's chief engineer, arranged to buy them through an anonymous intermediary. De Forest was understandably bitter about this transaction. Then again, he was also facing stock fraud charges at the time, and so was perhaps not the ideal spokesman for the planned demonstration with Watson and Bell.
The necessary technology now in hand, AT&T leaped into action. In 1913 Carty dispatched teams of workers — through blizzards, lightning, and untold rough terrain — to string a continuous line of telephone wires between the coasts. The lines were joined at last on June 17, 1914, in Wendover, Utah. The longest link stretched 3,505 miles, with loading coils placed every eight miles along the way.
Vail, meanwhile, had been maneuvering through the business landscape just as deftly. He had offered the many independent telephone companies across the nation access to his long-distance lines in exchange for merging their local service into Bell Systems. These terms were too lucrative for most independent companies to resist. It being the age of trustbusting, Vail also courted the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels with a complex web of patent licenses to the Navy.
Come January 25, 1915, everything was ready, and Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson were summoned to re-enact their first telephone conversation. The old partners had been given a script, perhaps in case of a technical mishap, but they paid no attention to it. At 4:30 p.m., Bell picked up a telephone in New York and spoke to Watson at the Pan-American Exposition in San Francisco.
After a brief exchange, they hung up, spliced in replicas of their original 1875 telephone onto the line, and continued their lighthearted banter for another 23 minutes, much as they had 38 years earlier. Finally, after recounting the historic events of 1876, Bell uttered the famous phrase: "Watson, come here, I want you." To which Watson replied, "I would be glad to come, Mr. Bell, but it would take more than a week."
Several other famous speakers then took their turn, among them President Woodrow Wilson. The newspapers wrote glowing accounts, some printing the conversations verbatim. The Ziegfeld Follies capitalized on the excitement of the moment with "Hello, Frisco," the hit of the season on Broadway. Long-distance service became available immediately.
A moment of charm, to be sure. Yet life had changed a great deal since the invention of the telephone. Even as Bell and Watson celebrated their peak moment, the lone tinkerers who had followed them —Michael Pupin, Lee de Forest — were being overshadowed by a corporate-sponsored spectacle.
The transformation seemed nearly complete by September 1915, when Vail spoke into a telephone in New York and his voice traveled by telephone line to a wireless transmitter (built by AT&T) at a naval station in Arlington, Virginia, where it was then relayed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii -- some 4,600 miles distant.
Ma Bell was flexing her muscles, and a new era in American culture was on its way.