"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.
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.
The 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
That night, closer than ever to achieving Bell’s dream, they set
up a wire between two rooms in 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
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.
Ohio-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.
Copyright © 2004
Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved