TRIVIA FROM THE HISTORY OF THE TELEPHONE

Alexander Graham Bell was by nature an inventor, but professionally he was a Professor of Elocution at Boston University. Elocution is the forerunner of today’s speech therapy.

Bell enjoyed fiddling with the telegraph and tried to build a contraption that would be called the “harmonic telegraph.” Such an instrument would boost the value of the telegraph by enabling it to send several messages simultaneously on one wire. As he tinkered with such devices, he gained considerable knowledge of electricity. It was his ability to combine elocution and electricity that enabled him to invent the telephone. Like many inventions of his time, it was actually a happy accident.

At the time, most people thought the telephone would be a toy. What novel fun it would be to talk with someone across the street or across town. Some people thought it might be useful for transmitting music or news. Some people thought it was evil. Most people believed the telegraph was all that would ever be needed for communication over distances. Very few people envisioned the value a simple phone would bring to businesses and people today. No one envisioned the role communications capabilities such as NEC Business Phones would play in the 21st Century.

Eventually, some titans of industry (such as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan) found the business telephone useful because they could talk secretly with their associates without being overheard and without creating a written message that would later come back to haunt them. In short, it would give them a competitive edge at a time when free enterprise was at its most ruthless in America.

The telephone finally showed its value when a terrible train disaster created a need for doctors to treat people who were severely injured. A man who lived not far from the accident site happened to have a telephone and was able to call doctors to the scene, saving many lives.

Initially, several phone companies would spring up in metropolitan areas. This meant you had to have four or five company’s phones on your desk. In order to talk to someone, you had to have the service from the same company they had. All these phone companies were stringing their own wires from customer to customer. All these wires nearly blocked the sun in business districts. This was one of the reasons federal regulators saw the need for a regulated monopoly, so that the telephone business would operate a manner similar to other public utilities. The result was AT&T, affectionately known as “Ma Bell,” which dominated (some say controlled) telephone service in the United States from 1880 to 1984.

AT&T also owned Bell Labs, where many of the technologies that led to today’s communications cornucopia and social media were invented. Unfortunately, AT&T had no incentive to bring them to the marketplace. It was when AT&T was broken up in 1984 that free market competition opened the door to the explosion of devices and services for both personal and business communications available today.

And the best is yet to come.