He invented the telephone, but would Bell have hang-ups now?

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone did he have any idea how it would evolve, so asks Trevor Laffan in his weekly column
He invented the telephone, but would Bell have hang-ups now?

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating his invention, the telephone, in New York in 1892. They have changed radically since!

I SAW a video some time ago where two young lads were given an old telephone. The black type we all had at one time, with the receiver on top and the circular dial on the front.

They were told to make a call, but they hadn’t an absolute clue how to operate it.

They tried dialling with the handset still in place, then tried speaking into the handset without doing anything else, and then examined it as if it was an alien. It was hilarious.

It’s only a short time since these were in use in every home, but telecommunication has changed so much, and so quickly, that they’ve become unrecognisable to a new generation.

We all depended on house phones once upon a time, but not anymore. They’re old hat now.

We’ve given up using ours because the only people calling it were scammers looking for our money, but these pests don’t have it all their own way either, because getting someone to answer a land-line is difficult these days.

I wonder, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, if he had any idea of how it would evolve? I doubt it, because his first words over his new invention were “Mr Watson, come here - I want to see you.”

He wasn’t surprised when Watson answered his call immediately and he probably assumed it would always be like that. Little did he know.

If he were alive today, Mr Bell would notice some changes. For a start, he would find it difficult to contact Mr Watson’s office.

After dialling the number, he would have to listen to his options, select the one most suitable to him, make several more selections, before being advised that Mr Watson’s office was experiencing a large volume of calls and waiting time would be estimated in hours.

I experienced this recently, when I was trying to get my Covid Booster Certificate amended. It had the incorrect date of the vaccination printed on it, and I couldn’t alter it online, so I had to use the phone number listed on the website.

I dialled the number, made the necessary selections, and then waited 93 minutes before speaking to a human. A human who did nothing for me in the end, but that’s another story.

It’s at times like that when I think we might have been better off if Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t bothered.

They say he refused to have a phone in his own study because he said it would only distract him from his work. That was at a time when I imagine getting a phone call was a rare event, so he must have had an inkling of how invasive his machine would eventually become. He couldn’t possibly have predicted the extent though.

When I was a child, our telephone sat on a table in the hall. We picked it up when it rang or when we wanted to make a call and that was it. The rest of the time it just sat there and minded its own business, and I don’t ever remember anyone sitting in front of it just staring at it, because that would have been pointless.

These days, we look at our phones about 85 times a day on average. We check the time, the weather, our emails, texts, Whatsapp messages, news updates on Twitter and whatever.

That’s outside the time we spend talking on it.

I am one of the afflicted. I can’t leave home without it. In fact, I can’t move from one room to the other without tapping my pocket to make sure it’s there.

My children didn’t get that much care and attention, and that’s because Mr Bell couldn’t just spend his days climbing trees and kicking a football like the other kids.

He was too inquisitive for that. He said: “The inventor looks upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees and wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses him, seeking materialisation.”

Bell, who was born in Edinburgh in 1847, was certainly a determined character and made his invention work. It was worth his while too.

In 1876, Bell offered to sell the patent for his telephone to Western Union for $100,000. Western Union ran America’s telegraph wires at the time, but its top people believed the telephone was just a fad. They couldn’t see it being profitable, so they turned it down.

Two years later, in 1878, Western Union’s opinion had altered dramatically. They knew if they could get the patent for $25 million, they would have a bargain.

Unfortunately for Western Union, the Bell Telephone Company had been launched by then. They missed the boat.

According to history.com, Bell’s interest in sound technology was deep-rooted and personal, as both his wife and mother were deaf. His father was a professor of speech elocution at the University of Edinburgh and his mother, despite being deaf, was an accomplished pianist.

Bell didn’t excel academically, but he was a problem-solver from an early age. At 16, he began studying the mechanics of speech and also learned Greek and Latin.

While living in America, he learned the Mohawk language and put it in writing for the first time. The Mohawk people made him an Honorary Chief.

When Bell was 25, he opened a school in Boston, where he taught deaf people to speak, and it was while teaching there that he met Mabel Hubbard, a deaf student. They married in 1877 and went on to have four children, including two sons who died as infants.

Bell died almost 100 years ago, in August, 1922, at the age of 75 in Nova Scotia, Canada, and during his funeral, every phone in North America was silenced to pay tribute to the inventor. And they haven’t been quiet since.

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