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Telephonically Speaking

By Scott E. Roeben

Imagine the world without telephones. Go on. You don't use your imagination all that often. Admit it, you probably haven't used it since you last pretended Michael Jackson is actually a black man.

Just try to imagine how your life would be different without phones. There was a time when people didn't have them, you know, but now we take them for granted. Much like turkey dogs. Except that your telephone does not contain sodium erythorbate.

Our world, and our lives, would be dramatically different without telephones. For example, if there were no phones, this article would not exist. Maybe "dramatically" isn't exactly the right word. But I am sure that other things would be different, too. We owe a lot to the telephone.

The etymology of the word "telephone" is that it is a combination of the Greek "tele" ("distant") and "phone" ("sound"). The etymology of the word "etymology" is that it is a combination of the Latin "ety" ("no idea") and "mology" ("how to pronounce this word").

It is held by many people—as is Madonna, come to think of it—that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Misguided souls. Mr. Bell did not invent the telephone. Another example of our education dollars being well spent. Thankfully, our education dollars earmarked for English programs are spended much gooder. Alexander Graham Bell did make vast improvements in the telephone, making the device practical for the first time, but it was Johann Reis, a German physicist, who constructed the first telephone. His ingenious prototype was fashioned using, among other things, a beer barrel cork and a sausage skin (used as a diaphragm). You might also say that Mr. Reis was responsible for the first joke that actually wrote itself.

Why is Reis often overlooked when the genesis of the telephone is discussed? It seems Reis's problem was that he did not follow through with his idea. It has also been suggested Reis became distracted from the further development of this invention when he got caught up in the race to become the inventor of the dial tone. He never accomplished that task, but did eventually master the skill of humming in a monotone uninterrupted for nearly ten minutes at a time. Small consolation. Germans still view Reis as the inventor of the telephone, even though the sound of a human voice, when transmitted by his original telephone, ended up sounding something like a hornet in a plastic garbage bag.

Alexander Graham Bell, the father of the modern telephone, was married to the mother of the modern anti-trust statutes, Ma Bell. He lived from 1847-1922, which I am fairly sure represents years, because if those numbers represent military time, Mr. Bell lived only thirty-five minutes, hardly enough time to master the complicated concepts needed to spawn a new technology. Alexander Graham Bell was an educator of the deaf, for whom the telephone ended up being of absolutely no use. Bell received his patent for the telephone in 1876, a mere two hours before another inventor, Elisha Gray, filed for a patent for the same mechanism. As you can imagine, this devastating turn of events upset Elisha Gray nearly as much as having been pummeled and taunted all his life for having a girl's name. Ironically, Gray's device was closer to our modern telephone, in that it must have been shaped like a shoe, football or Disney character.

But it is Alexander Graham Bell who lives on in song and story. The story they tell about Bell is that he was in his laboratory when he spilled a caustic material. He then spoke the first words over a telephone line. "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you." Depending on your interpretation, one might also credit Bell for creating the precursor to our modern day obscene phone call. Regardless of their intent, Bell's words are sure to resound throughout the decades, nearly as famous as those uttered by that famous astronaut person who said: "This is one small step for a man, and...hey, what are you doing? Come on, open the door. (Nervous laugh.) Hey, I mean it. Quit it! This isn't funny, you jerk. Come on. Houston, do something! Let me in!"

An interesting fact about the early days of the telephone is that it has not always been customary to answer the phone with "hello" as we do today. When the industry was in its infancy—you could tell it was in its infancy because it drooled a good deal more—you were supposed to say "ahoy, ahoy." This cheery practice, however, began to wane at about the same time as the advent of the rude directory assistance operator.

It is difficult now to envision the world without telecommunications. But what if phones had never come about? Presumably, humankind would have made do. There have been other alternatives along the way, after all:

Smoke signals. This system was developed by Native Americans as a means of alerting each other to the immense profitability of gambling casinos, and takes great skill to use effectively. If smoke signals were our main form of long distance communication today, we would be forced to carry around pieces of flint and a cord of wood at all times. A simple call to 911 would take the better part of a week to complete. Further complicating the usefulness of this medium is its vulnerability to the elements. A simple Santa Ana wind, for example, could change a message from "How are you?" to "Stop that harmonica, Buford!"

Two cans connected by a string. Once referred to as the "lovers' telegraph," this timeless apparatus was the idea which sparked people to invent the telephone in the first place. Effective to upwards of 25 inches, this mode of social intercourse might still be viable today were it not for the fact that it looks so stupid to use.

Signal flags. Popular with the navy—as is Madonna, come to think of it—this visual signaling system is also called "semaphore." The practice is thought to have begun with the Greeks and Romans. Mainly because everything is thought to have begun with the Greeks and Romans. This pattern would, to me, imply that wearing dresses tends to make you smarter. Speaking for the men of our nation, let's just forget we brought the whole topic up, shall we?

The use of signal flags has diminished over the years. Without the phone, they might have remained our most useful tool, although today you can be assured that there would be a thriving industry based on a large number of lawsuits claiming "semaphore elbow."

Drums. Drums have varied uses. In many primitive cultures, such as those so sensitively portrayed in Tarzan movies, drums were used to transmit messages over great distances. Drums are also used in music. In a sense, it can still be said that drums are used to communicate messages. The difference between primitive cultures and ours is that in their time messages concerned important military or political information, whereas in our society most of the messages involve "doin' the nasty" or "showin’ me your thong."

Pony Express. It is interesting to note that the life of the Pony Express lasted only nineteen months, and the venture lost over $200,000 in its short run. In retrospect, it was perhaps the most effective tax shelter of its time. Also intriguing is that the Pony Express didn't use ponies. Full-sized horses were used.

The Pony Express was kind of like Federal Express, but with manure. The Pony Express route ran from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. This might to serve to explain the foul odor that still emanates from that scenic west coast city.

Morse code. This method of communication was developed by Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Aside from creating the system named after him, Morse made great refinements in the electric telegraph, mainly to distract from the fact that he had more than the legally allowable number of names.

Morse code would have been a good substitute if the telephone had not come about, except that learning and using Morse code is somewhat complicated. It is unlikely that the general populous would be able to master this intricate series of alternating short and long signals, for the simple reason that the vast majority of the general populous believes that Croatia is a tropical drink.

Knots. That's right. Knots. In ancient times, the practice of recording events and information in the form of knots on cords of varying lengths was common. In time, the practice abated, mainly after runners—often servants—would travel great distances carrying their knotted cords, arriving at their destination only to discover that they had gone all that way merely to deliver a macramé plant hanger.

As you might have ascertained already, the telephone is irreplaceable. It has become as much as part of our daily life as lunch, or Congressional probes. Complex rituals have sprung up surrounding this ubiquitous instrument. There is even an elaborate telephone etiquette that has become an important aspect of modern life. You remember etiquette. It's something people used to do instead of having sex.

From answering machines to modems to cellular phones to beepers, we love our telephones and their accoutrements. (Admittedly, the popularity of beepers may have less to do with our passion for telephones than it does with a technological wonder known as the "vibrate" setting.)

Here are some little-known facts concerning telephones, almost if you had asked.

• Most people put the phone to their left ear, though most people hear better with their right.

• The average person spends two whole years on the phone in his/her lifetime. Studies show that a good portion of that time is spent explaining that, no, Eduardo does not live here.

• The ringing of a telephone is symmetrical and precise—four seconds of silence alternating with two seconds of ringing. Many European countries favor double rings. The French, however, prefer just to be rude bastards.

• The first pay telephone was installed in Hartford, Connecticut in 1889. The charge for a call was 10 cents. The first "Out of Order" pay phone came into existence about nine minutes later.

• The average employee of AT&T remains with the company for 32 years. That works out to be about one-and-a-half years of coffee breaks. Do the math.

• The first transcontinental telephone line in the U.S. was opened between New York and San Francisco on January 25, 1915, spanning 3,400 miles and supported by 130,000 poles. And boy, were their arms tired.

• The Pentagon is equipped with 25,000 phones. And with the customary efficiency of the U.S. military, only 14 work at any given time. The following is a dramatic transcript of a typical conversation originating on one of those phones:

General: Zebra, Charlie, tango.
Private: (In a silo, Omaha) Hello?
General: I repeat. Zebra, Charlie, tango. Do you acknowledge these firing codes, Omaha?
Private: Mom, is that you? (Static.) I'm fine.
General: Begin nuclear missile arming sequence. Zebra, Charlie...
Private: What? Banana bread, Mom. (Buzzing and popping sounds.) You know it's my favorite. (Dial tone.)

• The New York City Police Department's 911 emergency number gets an average of 18,000 calls per day. Most of these calls are to report crimes committed by people who once got a bad haircut as children and are therefore not responsible for their actions.

These are astonishing facts about an even more astonishing miracle of science—the telephone.

So the next time you make that call home to your folks, or order thermal underwear at the touch of a button or two, remember not to take the telephone for granted. It has become a fundamental part of our civilization, along with game shows and motocross, and it is a technology to be revered and respected. The full impact of Alexander Graham Bell's machine (or whomever's) still cannot be fully known. It is sure to reach into the distant future of humanity, and if things progress as they have since the inception of the telephone, it is foreseeable that someday the telephone will have been in the hands of every human being on Earth—as will Madonna, come to think of it.


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© Scott Roeben, 2000. All rights reserved.