Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1487:
TELEPHONE USE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1487.

Today, would you buy the first telephone? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My father grew up in the little Swiss-American community of Nauvoo, Illinois. He told me about coming home from school one day in the late 1890s to find his mother shouting into a strange box mounted on the wall. It was the first time he'd seen a telephone. I've often wondered why she'd bought it. What'd she seen in that strange new gadget? Not long before that, President Rutherford B. Hayes first used a telephone and then said, "That's an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one ...?"

Alexander Graham Bell received his telephone patent in 1876. By 1880, one American in a thousand had a phone, and when my father came home that day, the number was still only about one in seventy. In its first quarter-century telephones did not by any means sweep the country. Historian Claude Fischer recently went back through old telephone advertisements to see what'd been involved in turning this novelty into what it's finally become.

The telephone seemed at first to be a mere improvement on the telegraph. Advertisers pointed out that telephones were better for transmitting news, ordering groceries, and sending urgent messages. And so they were. But a telegraph message, with its dots and dashes of Morse code, took a long time to deliver. Brevity had been awfully important in using it.

If the telephone was no more than a sort of juiced-up version of the telegraph, then telegraph conventions would seem to apply. So gossip and chit-chat were discouraged. Telephone companies complained about frivolous use of telephones and told their users to be businesslike. Their machines were, after all, important.

Not until the 1920s did the phone companies catch on to what people really wanted from this wonderful new machine. They wanted to be drawn into a kind of living tether with one another. The Bell Company started telling long-distance customers, "Your voice is you!" In the '30s, AT&T first told us to "Reach out and touch someone." Today, even in business, that's how we use telephones. Telephones unite our scattered families and keep friendships alive.

Oddly enough, Alexander Graham Bell himself predicted the social use of the telephone, but early makers and users didn't catch on. It bothered me that my father never did learn to relax and chat with me on a long-distance phone call. It took the next generation to see that the inherent use of the telephone was social.

Our machines teach us. But they take their time evolving a role in our lives. Commercial software has been changing us year after year ever since it burst on the scene around 1980, and we're still being changed by it. We can't begin to see where the Internet is taking us. So it's small wonder that the telephone took fifty years to show us how it would alter the very fabric of everyday life.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Fischer, C. S., and Carroll, G. R., Telephone and Automobile Diffusion in the United States, 1902-1937. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 93, No. 5, March 1988, pp. 1153-1178.

This is a revised version of Episode 93.



Schematic diagram of an early telephone
from the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.