Today, let's ask whether you'd buy a telephone if
you'd never seen one before. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
My father was raised in the
little Swiss-American community of Nauvoo,
Illinois. He told me about coming home from school
one day in the late 1890s to find his mother
shouting into a strange box mounted on the wall. It
was the first time he'd seen a telephone. I've
often wondered why she'd bought it -- what she'd
seen in this new gadget.
Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in
1876. By 1880 one American in a thousand had a
phone, and when my father came home that day, the
number was still only about one in 70. In its first
quarter-century telephones did not by any means
sweep the country.
Historian Claude Fischer recently went back through
old telephone advertisements to see what'd been
involved in making this novelty into what it is
The telephone was first seen as a replacement for
the telegraph. Advertisers pointed out that
telephones were better for transmitting news,
ordering groceries, and sending urgent messages.
Brevity had been awfully important in using the
telegraph, and that attitude carried over to the
telephone. Gossip and chit-chat were discouraged.
Telephone companies complained about frivolous use
of telephones and told their users to be
businesslike. Their machines were, after all,
Not until the 1920s did the telephone companies
catch on to what people really wanted from this
wonderful machine. They wanted to be drawn into a
kind of living tether with one another. The Bell
Company started telling long-distance customers,
"Your voice is you!" In the 30s, AT&T first
suggested that we "Reach out and touch someone."
And today, even in business, that's how we use
telephones. Telephones unite our scattered families
and keep friendships alive.
Oddly enough, Alexander Graham Bell himself
predicted the social use of the telephone, but its
early makers and users didn't see it that way. It
used to bother me that, up to the day he died, my
father never could relax and chat with me on a
long-distance telephone call. It took the next
generation to see that the inherent use of the
telephone was social.
Our tools teach us. They drive our minds and evolve
their own roles in our lives. Some do it more
quickly than others. It took a long time for the
telephone to explain itself to us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds