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THE VOICE HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
"My God, it talks!” said the Emperor of Brazil. So the new invention did—but not until Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant had solved some brain racking problems
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
During this period, when Bell was beginning to win great acclaim but still languished in financial distress, Gardiner Hubbard decided to execute a coup. He approached the Western Union Company and offered to sell them all the Bell patents for a lump sum of $100,000. He added that Bell would be willing to put on a private demonstration for officers of the company. The president of Western Union spurned the offer of a demonstration and refused the patents, explaining that they “could not make use of an electrical toy.” Commenting wryly on this rude rejection, Watson, who was now devoting his full time to the telephone in return for an interest in the Bell patents, observed: “It was an especially hard blow to me, for . . . I had had visions of a sumptuous office in the Western Union Building in New York, which I was expecting to occupy as Superintendent of the Telephone Department of the great telegraph company. However, we recovered even from that. … Two years later the Western Union would gladly have bought those patents for $25,000,000.”
Undismayed, Bell and Watson continued with their experiments. They made telephones with every modification and combination of components that they could imagine. They tested all kinds of materials, all kinds of diaphragms, and all kinds of magnets. In the end, after hundreds of experiments, they dispensed with the membrane diaphragm in favor of a thin iron one. They found too that telephones with permanent magnets working without any battery gave better results at a distance than telephones containing electromagnets operated by a battery current. Thus two outstanding characteristics of the later telephone—permanent magnets and metallic diaphragms—had already been added in that early day.
In July, 1877, Bell married Mabel Hubbard and shortly thereafter sailed with his bride to England to introduce the telephone there. He delivered many lectures and gave many demonstrations, most notably one for Queen Victoria at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. But Bell’s trip was most memorable for an amazingly prophetic document which he composed on the night of March 15, 1878, at his rented house in Kensington. It was in the form of a prospectus designed to awaken the interest of English investors in the Electric Telephone Company. In view of the fact that the telephone was still in its infancy, the vision embodied in these paragraphs discloses a depth and scope of imagination that matched Bell’s inventive genius.
At the present time we have a perfect network of gas-pipes and water-pipes throughout our larger cities. We have main pipes laid under the streets communicating by side pipes with the various dwellings, enabling the members to draw their supplies of gas and water from a common source.
In a similar manner, it is conceivable that cables of Telephone wires could be laid underground or suspended overhead communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, counting houses, ships, manufactories, etc., etc., uniting them through the main cable with a central office where the wires could be connected as desired, establishing direct communication between any two places in the city. Such a plan as this, though impracticable at the present moment, will, I firmly believe, be the outcome of the introduction of the Telephone to the public. Not only so, but I believe that in the future wires will unite the head offices of the Telephone Company in different cities and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place.
Thus in the spring of 1878 Bell foresaw clearly how his invention would alter the whole tapestry of human existence. He knew exactly what he had brought into being, and he entertained not the slightest doubt that before very long every home and place of business would possess a telephone, and that through its sorcery the human voice, transcending all barriers of time and distance, would be heard around the world. It is noteworthy too that Bell’s prospectus of 1878 introduced some terminology that has remained a basic and permanent part of the lexicon of the telephone. From his concept of a “central office” came the salutation “Hello, Central,” which, until the advent of the dial system, was uttered by more people every hour of every day than any other phrase in the English tongue.