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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Telephone Era

"Mr. Watson, come here; I want you."

Surprisingly, inventors stumbled upon telephone technology only when trying to improve the telegraph. At first, the ability to transmit voice over the wire was not considered to be of much importance, considering innovations that allowed multiple messaging and overseas telegraphy.

Reproduction of Bell's original equipment used to transmit the sound of the voice through a telegraph receiver.So too, was it with Scotland’s Alexander Graham Bell, one of the telephone’s first inventors. Bell moved to Brantford, Ontario, and later to Boston, where along with his young electrical assistant Thomas Watson, they worked on developing what Bell called a "harmonic telegraph" (also known as the "musical telegraph"). Its creation would allow for the transmission of tones rather than clicks to relay messages.

Bell believed tonal transmission would allow for multiple messaging, in that a skilled operator could receive several messages at once and pick out which tone was transmitting what individual message. He was so confident in this new technology that, in 1874, he told Gardiner Greene Hubbard—a Boston-based attorney and Bell’s future father-in-law—that he was on the cusp of developing a multiple messaging system.

At that time, Western Union had a near-absolute monopoly on telegraphy in the area, a level of market control many professionals had come to resent. Hubbard was no exception, and gladly threw his financial weight behind Bell’s experimentation.

Inventor: Alexander Graham BellThe inventor had more up his sleeve than multiple messaging, however; in 1875, he pitched to officials from the Smithsonian Institution his idea for a telegraph that could transmit speech. Through his successful experiment in transmitting a note from one room to another by striking a reed, Bell realized that different tones translated into different kinds of electrical signals. He was certain it was only a matter of time before he could use this knowledge to fulfill his dream.

On 10 March 1876, at William’s Electrical Workshop in Boston (where Watson was working as an electrician and where most of his work for Bell took place), Bell and Watson were experimenting as usual. Up till this time, they had been tweaking with their instruments, trying out one idea after another, but they had been unable to find the perfect combination of wires, springs, and electricity.

That night, closer than ever to achieving Bell’s dream, they set up a wire between two rooms inBoy on Telephone. Part of school tour; Crestwood Montessori School. the house. It ran between Watson, in the attic, to Bell, who was two flights below. This was the first ever telephone line. It was over this line that Bell allegedly transmitted the first sentence ever spoken over the telephone. Having just spilled battery acid over his shirt, Bell used his invention to call for Watson’s assistance: "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you." Later, in his personal recollections, Watson wrote, "Perhaps if Mr. Bell had realized that he was about to make a bit of history, he would have been prepared with a more sounding and interesting sentence."

Far from being an instant hit following its invention, however, the telephone was—at best—a point of contention between several men who each claimed paternity over its discovery.

Early Butter Stamp telephoneOhio-born Elisha Gray had been working independently on his version of the telephone out of Chicago, Illinois. Both Gray and Bell had managed to create a system that allowed for the audible, albeit unintelligible, transfer of human voice over a copper wire. On March 7, 1876, both men came into the New York patent office to lay claim over the invention of the telephone. Bell however, arrived a mere two hours earlier. He also filed for an actual patent, whereas Gray’s application was for a caveat – a statement of his intention to file a patent within three months, as his invention had yet to be perfected. On this basis, and the basis that Bell’s application was filed first, the telephone went down in history as the invention of Bell – patent no. 17, 465. Three days later, the famous exchange between Bell and Watson took place.

While Bell worked on expanding his invention to the public with the creation of the Bell Telephone Company, Gray was hired by rival company Western Union, who hoped to win the telephone race with the use of Gray’s skills. With all the rivalry surrounding its name, the telephone was off to a shaky start. The public, too, was fearful of this new and expensive technology. Indeed, the early telephone had a sordid history that hinted nothing of its modern success.


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