No. 93:
Telephone Use

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 created them.

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 today.

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, important.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Fischer, C. S., and Carroll, G. R., Telephone and Automobile Diffusion in the United States, 1902-1937. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 93, No. 5, March 1988, pp. 1153-1178.

This episode has been revised as Episode 1487.