The telephone was born 106 years ago this week when Alexander Graham Bell successfully transmitted the first words to his assistant: ''Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.''
Although Bell was ecstatic that the invention worked, there was one major problem. There was no demand for the telephone on March 10, 1876.
In fact, Bell's life prior to 1876 was directed to other purposes. Born in Scotland on March 3, 1847, Bell came from a long line of speech teachers and therapists. Deafness and stuttering were unheralded but significant handicaps in the 19th century, and Bell's grandfather and father pioneered in the field of vocal physiology. Bell followed in their footsteps, amazing his elders by constructing at age 16 a speaking machine, made in part from the larynx of a lamb.
When the family moved to Canada in 1870, Bell assumed much of his father's work at schools for the deaf in New England. In 1873 he became a professor at Boston University, where he continued his research. Even after the invention of the telephone, the pursuit of teaching the deaf to speak highlighted his life, as exemplified by his founding and generous support of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. Much of this concern was evidenced in Washington, D.C., where Bell became an American citizen and winter resident beginning in 1882.
As for the telephone, it appeared to be the medium to provide Bell with fame and fortune, the economic wherewithal to continue his more significant work. Besides, Bell liked a good race, and there were several inventors hot on the trail of the telephone in the 1870s. ut the invention emerged into a murky environment. For one thing, it was at first primarily a transmitter or receiver, but not both. Thus the first telephones were used much in the fashion of radio in the 20th century: to provide news and music. Bell gave lectures demonstrating the device, but no avalanche of orders developed.
Even when refinements provided the telephone with transmitting and receiving capabilities, there was the problem of educating potential consumer about its use. Read one Bell circular in 1877: "Conversation can be easily carried on after slight practice and with occasional repetition of a word or sentence."
Businessmen took note of the telephone, however, and it soon revolutionized some industries: hotels (the Waldorf-Astoria by 1904 had more phones than any other single establishment); the building industry (conversations between ground foremen and skyscraper workers were now possible); and drug stores (telephones and the corner shops became synonymous). Most importantly, the telephone freed businesses from the necessity to locate their establishments near buying and selling centers.
As for Bell, he continued research in vocal physiology and other areas after the telephone became an economic success in the early 20th century. But in his study in Washington and Nova Scotia there was a conspicuous absence.
No telephones. Bell, you see, didn't like interruptions.