“I want to see you Mr. Watson. Please come here.” Allegedly the first words transmitted over the telephone. Speaking, was its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson. The date was the 10th of March, 1876, some 100 years before I’d be lying on my back, chatting to a friend I’d seen only hours earlier at school, connected by the curly gummy cord I’d wrapped around my limbs. I wonder where I’d be today without endless hours spent chatting, or without the countless operator-assisted collect calls I'd made to tell my parents I’d arrived at my destination.
"Haru? No we don't know such a person." Click. We had code back then, too, in a time when telephone calls were costly.
Even back then, the telephone was connection, however ephemeral. I’m not alone in my gratitude felt for the inventor of the telephone – 13 million telephones went quiet as sixty thousand operators stood by in silence on the day the namesake of the measurement of sound magnitude, decibel, passed away in 1922.
By then we knew that the inventor of the telephone had more to offer the world than the telphone. Amongst them was the photophone that used light to transmit conversation. Patented in 1880, Bell was impeded only by the lack of fibre-optic technology to develop a functional cellphone that would rock the world a century and a half later. Like telephones, now we can’t imagine a life without our mobile devices.
Bell could, though, in part because he was surrounded by loved ones who didn’t have the physical ability that he had – the ability to hear. Bell’s mother had lost her hearing to a childhood disease and so had his wife. Influenced by his father and grandfather who were distinguished speech therapists, Bell became a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University, where he met his wife, Mabel Hubbard. He said himself that it was because he lived amongst the hearing impaired that he could imagine the unimaginable – the transmission of human sound waves over wires and even without them.
This weekend, we can celebrate Alexander Graham Bell’s acoustic imagination by enjoying a phone conversation, old school. Because for my generation, the telephone was an apparatus that did more than convert acoustic vibration to electrical signals. The telephone was another means to do what humans do best – turning noise into sound, sound into language and language into understanding. No one does conversation, in-person, over an acoustic phone or in digital video, quite the way we humans do. Enjoy!