The history of the invention of telephony reads like a captivating detective novel, but even more intriguing are the events that contributed to the worldwide adoption of this technology. In this series of columns on IQ.HSE, Anton Basov, HSE Faculty of Computer Science editor, discusses how telephones have become an integral part of our everyday life. The second episode in the series recounts the story of Alexander Graham Bell, who along with his wife and partners embarked on the journey of creating their 'start-up', seeking investments, promoting the telephone in Europe, and grappling with the absence of patent laws.
Assisted by his father-in-law, the eminent financier Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Alexander Bell started promoting the telephone he had invented. Bell rented a telegraph line between New York and Boston for half an hour and proceeded to sing the song ‘Yankee Doodle’ into the telephone in the presence of the British physicist Sir William Thomson (the future Lord Kelvin). The telegraph operator in New York reported that he heard the song despite the 400-kilometre distance between the cities.
On February 12, 1877, Bell delivered a talk about the telephone in Salem—the same city where the infamous witch trials had once taken place. During the demonstration of his invention, Bell once again communicated with Boston, which was 30 kilometres away, and after the presentation, a stringer for the Boston Globe used the telephone to transmit the news story to the newspaper's editorial office for the first time in history.
On April 4, 1877, the first telephone line was installed, connecting Charles Williams Jr.'s home and workshop in Boston (prior to this, existing telegraph lines had been used). In May, Williams began manufacturing phones, which Bell then leased to individuals for $20 a year and to businesses for $40 a year.
By July 31, Bell had leased 778 telephones, and by the end of 1877, the number of telephones in use had grown to 5,491. Notably, one of these telephones was installed at the White House on May 10, 1877, for communication with the Treasury Department. On June 28, 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes used the telephone for the first time to speak with Alexander Bell, who was 20 kilometres away.
On July 9, 1877, Bell, along with Hubbard and another one of Bell's financial backers, Thomas Sanders, founded the Bell Telephone Company. The company's shares were distributed among Bell, Hubbard, Hubbard's wife, daughter, and brother, as well as Sanders and Watson, the inventor's assistant. On July 11, Alexander Bell married Mabel Hubbard, and the newlyweds embarked on their honeymoon.
The young company was in desperate need of money, and while the Bells were travelling, Hubbard actively sought funding. He approached William Orton, president of the Western Union telegraph company, offering him all the rights to the telephone for $100,000. It was a difficult decision for Hubbard, who regarded Western Union as a monopoly and had even advocated, albeit unsuccessfully, for its nationalisation. However, Orton rejected the opportunity, dismissing the phone as merely an 'electrical toy.'
Meanwhile, Bell and his wife arrived in England—with several phones in their luggage, of course. In September 1877, Bell presented the telephone to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Initially, the invention was met with a combination of disbelief and ridicule. Newspapers made jokes about it. 'The telephone is little better than a toy', wrote one paper. 'It is only an electrical speaking-tube', echoed another.
Disheartened, Bell travelled to France, where he befriended Louis-François-Clement and Antoine Breguet, renowned manufacturers of telegraph equipment, clocks and watches (still famous throughout the world), and other precision mechanisms . The Breguet family purchased a license from Bell and commenced telephone production in 1878. Interestingly, Breguet's workshop was located in the same building where the production of Chappe's semaphore telegraph began in 1792, and where the first French electric telegraph apparatus were manufactured in 1842. Thus, the building has witnessed three eras in the history of communications.
In October 1877, two telephones came into the possession of the German Postmaster General, Heinrich von Stephan. Bell was unable to patent the telephone in Germany, since patent law was only introduced there the same year. Stephan immediately began testing the telephone and even arranged a communication session between Berlin and Otto von Bismarck's estate in the town of Varzin. In November, Siemens promptly started manufacturing the first European telephones.
In 1903, Scientific American published an item featuring the recollections of a man called Fernando Jones. In 1877, Jones was living in Florence and was friends with the American sculptor Preston Powers. One day, Powers received the latest issue of Scientific American , which featured a description of Bell’s telephone. The following week, Powers demonstrated a phone line between his studio and apartment, having built the telephones himself. And that is how the telephone ended up in Europe before Bell himself had even visited.
Cover of the Scientific American in which an article about Bell's telephone was published
At the end of the year, the Bells returned to England with the intention of subsequently traveling back to the USA. The British were still not interested in the commercial use of the phone; however, just as during the Centennial Exhibition, help came from the monarch, Queen Victoria. On January 14, 1878, Bell demonstrated the telephone to the Queen, who was very amused, although she considered the sound to be too quiet.
Evidently, the demonstration of the telephone to Queen Victoria significantly contributed to its increasing popularity in England. Knowledge of the telephone spread so wide that it was included in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera HMS Pinafore , which premiered on May 25, 1878:
He'll hear no tone
Of the maiden he loves so well!
Communicates with his cell!