The Birth and Babyhood of the Telephone
Dr. Watson’s Address to the
London Centre of the Institution of Post Office Electrical Engineers
This address was given by Dr. T. A. Watson to the London Centre of the Institution of Post Office Electrical Engineers on 13 November 1928, and tells the enthralling story of the early history and struggles to develop the telephone system, throughout which Dr. Watson acted as Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant. The address is reprinted from Volume 21 of the
IPOEE Journal to mark the centenary of the first intelligible transmission by telephone on 10 March 1876.
“If I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity, precisely as the air varies in density during the production of a sound,
I should he able to transmit speech telegraphically.” (Alexander Graham Bell, Spring 1875)
I am to speak to you of the birth and babyhood of the telephone, and something of the events which preceded that important
occasion. These are matters that must seem to you ancient history; in fact, they seem so to me, although the events all happened in the years
1874 - 1880.
The occurrences of which I shall speak, lie in my mind as a splendid drama, in which it was my great privilege to play a part. I shall try to put myself back into that wonderful play, and tell you its story from the same attitude of mind I had then
- the point of view of a mere boy, just out of his apprenticeship as an electro-mechanician, intensely interested in his work, and full of boyish hope and enthusiasm. Therefore, as it must be largely a personal narrative, I shall ask you to excuse my many “I’s” and “my’s”
and to be indulgent if I show how proud and glad I am that I was chosen by the fates to he the associate of Alexander Graham Bell, to work side by side with him day and night through all these wonderful happenings that have meant so much to the world.
THE WILLIAMS’ ELECTRICAL WORKSHOP
I realize now what a lucky boy I was, when at 13 years of age
I had to leave school and go to work for my living, although I didn’t think so at
that time. I am not advising my young
friends to leave school at this age, for they may not have the
opportunity to enter college as I did at 40. There's a "tide
in the affairs of men" you know, and that was the beginning of its, flood in my life, for after trying several
clerking, book-keeping, carpentering, etc.- and finding them all
unattractive. I at last found just the job that suited me in the electrical workshop of Charles Williams, at
109 Court Street, Boston, USA - one of the best men I have ever known. Better luck couldn’t befall a boy than to he brought so early in life under the influence of such a high-minded gentleman as Charles Williams.
I want to say a few words about my work there, not only to give you a picture of such a shop in the early 1870s, but also because in this shop the telephone had its birth and a good deal of its early development.
I was first set to work on a hand lathe turning binding posts for 5 dollars a week. The mechanics of today, with their automatic screw machines, hardly know what it is to turn little rough castings with a hand tool.
How the hot chips used to fly into our eyes! One day I had a fine idea; I bought a pair of 25 cent goggles, thinking the others would hail me as a benefactor of mankind and adopt my plan. But they laughed at me for being such a cissy boy and public opinion forced
me back to the old time-honoured plan of winking when I saw a chip coming.
It was not an efficient plan, for the chip usually got there first. There was a liberal education in
it for me in manual dexterity. There was no specializing in these shops at that time.
Each workman built everything there was in the shop to build, and an apprentice also had a great variety of jobs, which kept him interested all the time, for his tools were poor and simple and it required lots of thought to get a job done right.
There were few books on electricity published at that time. Williams had copies of most of them in his show case, which we boys used to read noons, hut the book that interested me most was Davis’ Manual of Magnetism, published in 1847, a copy of which I made mine for 25 cents.
If you want to get a good idea of the state of the electrical art at that time, you should read that book. I
found it very stimulating and that same old copy in all the dignity of its dilapidation has a place of honour on my bookshelves today.
My promotion to higher work was rapid. Before 2 years had passed, I had tried my skill on about all the regular work
of the establishment: call bells, annunciators, galvanometers, telegraph keys, sounders, relays, registers and printing telegraph instruments.
Individual initiative was the rule in Williams’ shop - we all did about as we pleased.
Once, I built a small steam engine for myself during working hours, when business was slack.
No one objected. That steam engine, by the way, was the embryo of the biggest shipbuilding plant in the United States today, which I
established some 10 years later with telephone profits, and which now employs more than 4000 men.
Such was the electrical shop of that day. Crude and small as they were, they were the forerunners of the great electrical works of today.
In them were being trained the men who were among the leaders in the wonderful development of applied electricity which began soon after the time of which I am to speak.
Williams, although he never had at that time more than 30 or 40 men working for him, had one of the largest and best fitted shops in the country.
I think the Western Electric shop at Chicago was the only larger one.
That was also undoubtedly better organised and did better work than Williams’.
When a piece of machinery built by the Western Electric came into our shop for repairs, we boys always used to admire the superlative excellence of the workmanship.
EXPERIENCE WITH INVENTORS
Besides the regular work at Williams’, there was a constant stream of wild-eyed inventors, with big ideas in their heads and little money in their pockets, coming to the shop to have their ideas tried out in brass and iron. Most of them had an “angel”, whom they had hypnotized into
paying the hills. My enthusiasm, and perhaps my sympathetic nature, made me a favourite workman with those men of visions, and in 1873
- 1874 my work had become largely making experimental apparatus for such men.
Few of their ideas ever amounted to anything, but I liked to do the work, as it kept me roaming in fresh
fields and pastures new all the time. Had it not been, however, for my youthful enthusiasm
- always one of my chief asset - I fear this experience would have made me so sceptical and cynical as to the value of’ electrical inventions that my future
prospects might have been injured.
I remember one limber-tongued patriarch who had induced some men to subscribe
l00 dollars to build what he claimed
to be an entirely new electric engine. I made much of it for him.
There was nothing new in the engine, but he intended to
generate his electric current in a series of’ iron tanks the size of trunks, to
be filled with nitric acid with the usual line plates suspended therein. When the engine was finished
and the acid poured into the tanks for the first time, no one waited to see the engine run, for inventor, “angel’’,
and workmen, all tried to see who could get out of the shop quickest. I won the race as I had the best start.
I suppose there is just such a crowd of crude minds still besieging the workshops, men who seem incapable of finding out what has been already done, and so keep on year after year, threshing old straw.
THE HARMONIC TELEGRAPH
All the men I worked for at that time were not of that type. There were a very few different. Among them, dear old
Moses G. Farmer, perhaps the leading practical electrician of
that day. He was full of good ideas, which he was constantly bringing to Williams to have worked out.
I did much of his work and learned from him more about electricity than ever
before or since. He was an electrician at that time for the United
States Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island, and in the
early winter of 1874, I was making for him some experimental torpedo exploding apparatus. That
apparatus will always be
connected in my mind with the telephone, for one day when I
was hard at work on it, a tall, slender, quick-motioned man with pale face, black side whiskers, and drooping moustache, big nose and high sloping forehead crowned with bushy,
jet black hair, came rushing out of the office and over to my work bench. It was Alexander Graham Bell, whom I
saw then for the first time. He was bringing to me a piece of mechanism which I had made for him
under instructions from the office. It had not been made as he had directed and he had broken
down the rudimentary discipline of the shop in coming directly to me to get it altered.
It was a receiver and a transmitter of his Harmonic Telegraph, an invention of his with which lie was then endeavouring to win fame and
fortune. It was a simple affair by means of which, utilising the law of sympathetic vibration,
he expected to send six or eight Morse messages on a single wire at the same time, without interference.
Although most of you are probably familiar with the device, I must, to make my story clear, give you a brief description of the
instruments, for though Bell never succeeded in perfecting his telegraph, his experimenting on it led to a discovery of the highest
The essential parts of both transmitter and receiver were an electromagnet and a flattened piece of steel clock spring.
The spring was clamped by one end to one pole of the magnet, and had its other end free to vibrate over tile
The transmitter had, besides this, make and break, points like an ordinary vibrating
bell which, when the current was on, kept the spring vibrating with a sort of nasal whine,
of a pitch corresponding to the pitch of the spring. When the signalling key was closed, an electrical copy of that whine passed through the wire and the distant receiver.
There were, say, six transmitters with their springs tuned to six
different pitches and six receivers with their springs tuned to correspond.
Now, theoretically, when a
transmitter sent its electrical whine into the line wire, its own faithful receiver spring at the distant station would wriggle sympathetically, but all the others on the simile line would
remain coldly quiescent. Even when all the transmitters were whining at once through their entire gamut. making a row as if all the miseries this world of trouble ever produced were concentrated there, each receiver spring along the line would select its own from that sea of troubles and ignore all the others.
Just see what a simple, sure-to-work invention this was; for just break up those various
whines into the dots and dashes of Morse messages arid one wire would do the work of
SIX, and the Dimplex telegraph that had just been invented would he beaten to a
frazzle. Bell’s reward would be immediate and rich, for the Duplex had been bought by the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company, giving
them a great advantage over their only competitor, the Western Union Company, amid the latter would, of course,
buy Bell’s invention amid his
financial problems would be solved.
All this was, as I have said, theoretical, amid it was mighty lucky for
Graham Bell that it was, for had his harmonic telegraph been a well-behaved
apparatus that always did what its parent wanted it to do, the speaking telephone might never
have emerged from a certain marvellous conception, that had even then been
surging back of Bell’s high forehead for 2 or 3 years. What that conception was, I soon learned, for
he couldn’t help speaking about it, although his friends tried to hush it up. They
didn’t like to have him get the reputation of being visionary, or something worse.
To go on with my story; after Mr. Farmer’s peace-making machines were finished, I made half a dozen pairs of the harmonic
instruments for Bell. He was surprised, when he tried them, to find that they didn’t work as well as he expected.
The cynical Watson wasn’t at all
surprised, for he had never seem anything electrical yet that worked at first the way the inventor thought it would.
Bell wasn’t discouraged in the least, and a long course of experiments followed
which give me a steady job that gave me a steady job that winter and brought me into close
contact with a wonderful personality that did more to mould my life rightly than
anything else that ever came info it.
I became mightily tired of those “whiners’’ that winter. I called them
by that name, perhaps, as an inadequate expression of my disgust with their persistent perversity, the struggle
with which soon began to take all the joy
out of my young life, not being
endowed with the power of Macbeth’s weird
‘‘Look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not.’’
Let me say here, that I have always had a feeling of respect for Elisha Gray, who, a few years later, made that harmonic telegraph work,
and vibrate well-behaved messages, that would go where they were sent,
with out fooling with every receiver on the line.
Most of Bell’s early experimenting on the harmonic telegraph was done in Salem, at the home of Mrs. George
Sanders, where he resided for several years, having charge of the
instrumentation of her deaf nephew. The present Y.M.C.A. building is on the site of that house. I
would occasionally work with Bell there, but most of his experimenting in
which I took part was done in Boston.
BELL’S THEORY OF TRANSMITTING SPEECH
Mr. Bell was very apt to b his experimenting at night, for he was busy during
the day at the Boston University, where he
was Professor of Vocal Physiology, especially teaching his father's system of visible
speech, by which a deaf mute might learn to talk - quite significant
to what Bell was soon to do in making mute metal talk. For this reason, I would
often remain at the shop during the evening to help him test some improvement he had
me make on the
One evening, when we were resting from our struggles with the apparatus, Bell said to
me: ‘‘Watson, I want to tell you of another idea I have, which I think
still surprise you.’’ I listened, I suspect, somewhat languidly, for I
must have been working that day about 16 hours, with only a short nutritive interval; Bell had already given
me, during the weeks we had worked together, more new ideas on a great variety of subjects,
including visible speech, elocution and flying machines, than my brain could
assimilate, but when he went on to say that he had an idea by which he believed it would he possible to talk by telegraph,
system got such a shock that the tired feeling vanished. I have never forgotten his exact words; they have run in my
mind ever since like a mathematical formula. “If”, he said, “I could
make a current of electricity vary in intensity, precisely as the air varies in density
during the production of a sound, I should be able to transmit speech telegraphically.”
He then sketched for me an instrument that he
thought would do this, and we discussed the possibility of constructing one.
I did not
make it; it was altogether too costly, and the chances of’ its working too uncertain to impress his financial backers
- Mr. Gardiner, G. Hubbard and Mr. Thomas Sanders
- who were insisting that the wisest thing for Bell to do was to perfect the harmonic
telegraph; then he would have the money and leisure enough to build air castles like the telephone.
2 JUNE 1875
I must have done other work in the shop besides Bell’s during the winter and spring of 1875,
but I cannot remember a single
item of it. I do remember that when I was not working for Bell I was thinking of his ideas.
through my recollection of that period runs that nightmare; the harmonic telegraph, the ill working of which got on my conscience, for I
blamed my lack of mechanical skill for the poor operation of an invention apparently so
simple. Try our best, we could not make that thing work rightly, and Bell came as near to being
discouraged as I ever knew him to be.
But this spring of 1875 was the dark hour just before the dawn.
If the exact time could be fixed, the date when the conception of the adulatory
or speech-transmitting current took its perfect form in Bell’s mind would be the greatest day in the history of the telephone,
but certainly 2
June 1875 must always rank next; for on that day, the mocking fiend inhabiting that
demoniac telegraph apparatus,
just as a now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t sort of a satanic joke, opened the curtain
that hides from man great Nature’s secrets and gave us a glimpse, as
quick as if it were through the shutter of a snap-shot camera, into that treasury of things not yet discovered. That imp didn’t do this in any kindly, helpful spirit
- any inventor knows he isn’t that
kind of a being - he just meant to tantalize and prove that a man is too stupid to, grasp a secret,
even if it is revealed to
him. But he hadn’t properly estimated Bell, though he had probably sited me up all right.
glimpse was enough to let Bell see and seize the very thing he had been dreaming
about and drag it out into the world of
THE TELEPHONE BORN
Coming hack to earth, I’ll try and tell you what happened that day. In the
on the harmonic telegraph, Bell had found that the reason why the messages got mixed up was
inaccuracy in the
adjustment of the pitches of the receiver springs to those of the transmitter.
Bell always had to do this
tuning himself, as my sense of pitch and knowledge of music
were quite lacking - a faculty (or lackulty) which you will hear hater became quite
useful. Mr. Bell was in the habit of observing the pitch of a spring by pressing it
against his ear while the corresponding transmitter in a distant room was sending its
intermittent current through the magnet of that receiver. He would then manipulate
the tuning screw
until that spring was tuned to accord with the pitch of the whine coming from the transmitter.
experimenting was carried on in the upper story of the Williams’ building, where we
had a wire
connecting two rooms perhaps 60 ft apart looking out on Court Street.
On the afternoon of 2 June 1875, we were hard at work on the same old job,
testing some modification of the instruments. Things were badly out of tune that
afternoon in that hot garret, not only the instruments, but, I fancy, my enthusiasm
and my temper
though Bell was as energetic as ever. I had charge of the transmitters as usual, setting them
after the other, while Bell was retuning the receiver springs one by one, pressing
them against his ear as I have described. One of the transmitter springs I was attending to stopped vibrating and I
plucked it to start it again. It didn’t start and I kept on plucking it, when suddenly I heard a
shout from Bell in the next room, and them out he came with a rush, demanding, “What did
you do then? Don’t change anything. Let me see!” I showed him. It was very simple.
The contact screw was screwed down so far that it made permanent contact with the spring, so that when I snapped the spring, the circuit had remained unbroken while the strip of magnetized steel by its vibration over the pole of its magnet, was generating
that marvellous conception of Bell’s - a current of electricity that varied in intensity precisely as the air was varying in density within hearing distance of that spring. That undulatory current had passed through the connecting wire to the distant receiver which, fortunately, was a mechanism that could
transform that current back into an extremely faint echo of the sound of the vibrating spring that had generated it. But what was still
more fortunate, the right man had that mechanism at his ear during that fleeting moment, and instantly recognized the transcendent importance of that faint sound
transmitted. The shout I heard and was excited rush info my room were the result of that
The speaking telephone was born at that moment. Bell knew perfectly well that
the mechanism that could transmit all the complex vibrations of one sound could do the
same for any sound, even that of speech. That experiment showed him that the complex
apparatus he had thought
would be needed to accomplish that long dreamed result was not at all necessary, for here was an extremely simple mechanism operating
in a perfectly obvious way, that could do it perfectly. All the experimenting that followed that discovery,
up to the time the telephone was
put into practical use was largely a matter of working out the details. We spent a few hours verifying the discovery, repeating it with all the differently
tuned springs we had, and before we parted that night, Bell gave me directions for making the first electric speaking telephone.
I was to mount a small drumhead of gold beater’s skin over one of the receivers,
join the centre of the
drumhead to the free end of the receiver spring and arrange a mouthpiece over the drumhead to talk into.
His idea was to force the steel spring to follow the vocal
vibrations and generate a current of electricity that would vary in intensity as the air varies in density during the
utterance of speech sounds. I followed these directions and had the instrument ready
for its trial the very
next day. I rushed it, for Bell’s excitement and enthusiasm over the discovery had aroused mine again, which had been sadly dampened during those last few weeks by the meagre results of the harmonic
experiments. I made every part of that first telephone myself, but I didn’t realize while I was working on it what a
tremendously important piece of work I was doing.
THE FIRST TELEPHONE LINE
The two rooms in the attic were too near together for the test, as our voices
would he heard through the air, so I ran a wire especially for the trial from one of the
rooms in the attic down two flights to the third floor where Williams’ main shop was, ending it near
my work bench at the back of the building. That was the first telephone line.
can well imagine that both
our hearts were beating above the normal rate, while we were getting ready for the trial of the new
instrument that evening. I got more satisfaction from the experiment that Mr. Bell did, for shout my best I
could not make him hear me, but I could hear his voice and almost catch the words.
I rushed upstairs and told him what I had heard. It was enough to show
him that he was on the right track, and before he left that night,
he gave me direction for several improvements in the telephones I was to have ready for the next trial.
I hope my pride in the fact that I made the first telephone, put up the first telephone wire and heard the first words ever uttered through a telephone, has never been too ostentatious and offensive to my friends,
but I am sure that you will grant that a reasonable amount of that human weakness is excusable in
me. My pride has been tempered to quite a bearable degree by my realization that the reason
I heard Bell in that first trial of the telephone and he did not hear me, was the
vast superiority of his strong vibratory tones over any sound my undeveloped voice was then able to utter.
My sense of hearing, however, has always been
unusually acute, and that might have helped to determine this result.
The building where these first telephone experiments were made is still in existence.
It is now
used as a theatre. The lower stories have been much altered, but that attic is still quite unchanged and a few weeks ago I stood on the very spot where I snapped those springs and helped test the first telephone over 53 years before.
MR. WATSON HEARD THE FIRST SENTENCE EVER SPOKEN OVER THE TELEPHONE
Of course, in our struggle to expel the imps from the invention, an immense amount of experimenting had to be done, but it wasn’t many days before we
could talk back and forth and hear each other’s voice. It is, however, hard for me to realize now that it was not until the following March that I heard a complete and intelligible sentence.
It made such an impression upon
me that I wrote that first sentence in a book I have always preserved. The occasion had not been arranged and rehearsed as I suspect the sending of the first message over the Morse telegraph had
been years before, for instead of that noble first telegraphic message - ”What
hath God wrought?” the first
message of the telephone was: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” Perhaps, if Mr. Bell had realized that he was about to make a bit of history, he
would have been prepared with a more sounding and interesting sentence.
Soon after the first telephones where made, Bell hired two rooms on the top floor of
an inexpensive hoarding
house at 5 Exeter Place, Boston, since demolished to make room for mercantile buildings.
He slept in one room; the other he fitted up as a laboratory. I ran a wire for him between the two
room and, after that time, practically all his experimenting was done there.
It was there one
evening when I had gone to help him test some improvement and to spend the night
with him, that I heard the first complete sentence I have just told you about.
Matters began to move more rapidly and, during the summer of 1876, the telephone was talking so well that one didn’t have to ask the other
man to say it over again more than three or four times before one could understand
quite well, provided the sentences were simple.
THE CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION
This was the year of the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, and Bell decided to make an exhibit there.
I was still working for Williams, and one of the jobs I did for Bell was to construct a telephone of each form that had been devised up to that time.
These were the first nicely finished instruments that had been
made. There had been no money nor time to waste on polish or non-essentials.
But these Centennial
telephones were done up in the highest style of the art. You could see your face in
them. These aristocratic telephones worked finely, in spite of their glitter, when Sir William
them at Philadelphia that summer. I was as proud as Bell himself, when I read Sir William’s report, wherein he said after
giving an account of the tests: “I need hardly say I was astonished and delighted, so were the others who witnessed the experiment and verified
with their own ears the electric transmission of speech. This, perhaps, the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by electric telegraph, has been obtained by
appliances of quite a homespun and
rudimentary character.” I have never forgiven Sir William for that last line. Homespun!
However, I recovered from this blow, and soon after Mr. Gardiner G. Hubbard, afterwards Mr. Bell’s father-in-law, offered
me an interest in Bell’s patents if I would give tip my work at Williams’ and devote
my time to the telephone. I accepted, although I
wasn’t altogether sure it was a wise thing to do from a financial standpoint.
stipulated that I was to work under Mr. Bell’s directions, on the harmonic telegraph as well as on the
speaking telephone, for the two men who were paying the bills still thought there was
something in the former invention, although very little attention had been given to its vagaries after the 2
I moved my domicile from Salem to another room on the top floor at 5 Exeter Place,
giving us the entire floor and, as Mr. Bell had lost most of his pupils by wasting so much of his time
on telephones, he could devote nearly all his time to the experimenting. Then followed a
period of hard and continuous work on the invention. I made telephones with every modification
combination of their essential parts that either of us could think of. I made and we tested
telephones with all
sizes of diaphragms made of all kinds of materials - diaphragms of boiler iron several feet
in diameter, down to a miniature affair made of the bones and
drum of a
human ear, and found that the best results came from an iron diaphragm of about
the same site and thickness as is used today. We tested electromagnets and
permanent magnets, of a multitude of sizes and shapes, with long cores and short cores, fat cores and thin
cores, solid cores and cores of wire, with coils of many sizes, shapes and
mouthpieces of an infinite variety. Out of the hundreds of experiments,
there emerged practically
the same telephone you can take off the hook and listen with today, although it was
then transmitter as well as receiver.
TALKING FROM BOSTON TO CAMBRIDGE
Progress was rapid and, on 9 October 1876, we were ready to take the baby omit of doors for the first time.
permission from the Walworth Manufacturing Company to use their private wire running
from Bolton to Cambridge, about 2 miles long. I went to Cambridge that evening with one of
our best telephones, and waited until Bell signalled from the Boston office on the Morse
sounder. Then I cut out the sounder and connected in the telephone and listened.
Not a murmur came through! Could it be that, although the thing worked all right in the house, it
wouldn’t work under practical line conditions? I knew that we were using the most
complex and delicate electric current that had ever been employed for a practical purpose
and that it was extremely “intense”, for Bell had talked
through the circuit composed of 20 or 30 human beings joined hand to hand.
Could it be, I thought, that these high-tension vibrations, leaking off at each insulator along the line,
had vanished completely
before they reached the Charles river? That fear passed through my mind as I worked over the
instrument, adjusting it and tightening the wires in the binding posts,
without improving matters in the least. Then the thought struck me that perhaps there was another Morse
sounder in some other room. I traced the wires from the place they entered the building
enough I found a relay with a high resistance coil in the circuit. I cut it out
with a piece of wire across the binding posts and rushed hack to my telephone and listened.
That was the trouble. Plainly as one could
wish came Bell’s “ahoy”. I ahoyed back, and the first long-distance
telephone conversation began. (“Ahoy!” was the telephonic shout, and was used during the
experiments, but “hello!” superseded it when the telephone got into practical use).
Sceptics had been objecting that the telephone could never compete with the telegraph as its messages
would not he accurate. For this reason, Bell had arranged that we should make a record of all
we said and heard that night, if we succeeded in
talking at all. We carried out this plan and the entire conversation was
published in parallel columns in the next morning’s Advertiser, as the latest startling scientific
achievement. Infatuated with the joy of talking over an actual telegraph wire, we kept
our conversation until long after midnight. It was a very happy boy who
travelled back to
Boston in the small hours with
the telephone under his arm done up in a newspaper. Bell had taken his record to the newspaper office and was not at the laboratory when I arrived there, but when he
came in, there ensued a jubilation and war dance that elicited next morning from our landlady, who
wasn’t at all scientific in her tastes, the remark that we’d have to vacate if we didn’t make less noise at nights.
Tests on still longer telegraph lines soon followed - the success of each experiment
being in rather exact accordance with the condition of the poor, rusty-joined wires we had to
use. Talk about imps that baffle inventors! There was one of an especially
vicious and malignant type in every unsoldered joint of the old wires. The
genial Tom Doolittle hadn’t
even thought of’ his hard-drawn copper wire then, with which he later eased the lot of the
struggling telephone men.
OUR MANY VISITORS
Meanwhile, the fame of the invention had spread rapidly almond mind all sorts of people made pilgrimages to Bell’s laboratory to
hear the telephone talk. A list of
the scientists who came to the attic of that cheap boarding house to see the telephone
would read like the roster of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
My old electrical mentor, Moses G. Farmer, called one day to see the latest improvements.
He told me then, with tears in bus eyes,
when he first read a description of Bell’s telephone he couldn’t sleep for a week,
he was so mad with himself for not discovering the thing years before. “Watson,” said he, “that
thing has flaunted itself in my very face a dozen times within the last 10 years and every time I was too blind to see it.
continued, ‘‘If Bell had known anything about electricity he would never have
invented the telephone.”
Two of our regular visitors were young Japanese pupils of Professor Bell - very polite, deferential, quiet, bright-eyed little
men, who saw everything and made cryptic notes. They took huge delight in proving that the telephone
could talk Japanese. A curious effect of the telephone I noticed at that time was its power to
tongues of men otherwise fluent
enough by nature and profession. I remember a prominent lawyer, who, which
my voice in the telephone making big some such profound remark to him as ‘‘How do you do’’,
could only reply, after a
long pause, ‘‘Rig a jig jig and away we go”.
We began to get requests for telephone installations long before we were ready to supply
them. In April 1877, the first outdoor telephone line was run between Mr.
Williams’ office at 109 Court Street, and his house in Somerville. Professor Bell and I were present
and participated in the important
ceremony of opening the line and the event was a headliner in the next morning’s papers.
At about this time, Professor Bell’s financial problems had begun to press hard for solution.
We were very much disappointed
because the President of the Western Union Telegraph Company had refused,
somewhat contemptuously, Mr. Hubbard's offer to sell him all the Bell patents for the
exorbitant sum of 100,000 dollars. It was an especially hard blow to me for, while the
negotiations were pending, 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 facer. Two years later, the Western Union
would gladly have bought those patents for 25,000,000 dollars.
But, before that happy time, there were lots of troubles of all the old and of several
new varieties to he surmounted.
Professor Bell’s particular trouble in the Spring of 1877, arose from the fact that he had fallen in love with a most charming young lady.
I had never been in love myself at that time and that was my first opportunity of observing what a serious matter it can be, especially when the father isn’t altogether enthusiastic.
I rather suspected at that time that that shrewd but
kind-hearted gentleman put obstacles in the course of that true love, in order to
stimulate the young man to still greater exertion in perfecting his inventions.
But he might have thought as Prospero did:
“They are both in either’s power; but this swift business I must uneasy make, test too light winning
Make the prize light.”
Bell’s immediate financial needs were solved, however, by the demand that began at this
time for public lectures by him
on the telephone. It is hard to realize today what an intense and widespread interest there
was then in the telephone. I
don’t believe any new invention could stir the public today as the telephone
did then, surfeited as we are now with the wonderful things that have been
Bell’s first lecture, as I have said, was given before a well known scientific society
- the Essex Institute - at Salem, Massachusetts. They were especially interested in the telephone because
Bell was living at Salem during the early telephone experiments. The first lecture was free to
members of the society, but it packed the hall and created so much interest that Bell was requested to repeat it for an admission fee.
This he did to an audience that again filled the house. Requests for lectures poured in
upon Bell after that. Such
men as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry W. Longfellow signed the request for the Boston lectures.
The Salem lectures were
soon followed by a lecture in Providence to an audience of 2000, by a course of three lectures at the largest hall in Boston
- all three packed, by three in Chickering Hall, New York, and by others in most of the large cities of New
England. They all took place in the Spring and early Summer of 1877, during which
time there was little opportunity for experimenting for either Bell or myself, which I think now was rather a good thing, for we had become quite stale and
needed a change that would give us a new influx of ideas.
My part in time lectures was important, although entirely invisible as far as the
audience was concerned. I was always at the other end of the wire, generating and
transmitting to the hall where Professor Bell was speaking, such telephonic
phenomena as he needed to illustrate his lectures. I would have at my end circuit
breakers rheotomes, we called them - that
would utter electric howls of various pitches, a lusty cornet player, sometimes a small brass hand, and
an electric organ with Edward Wilson to play on it; but the star performer was the
young man who 2 years before didn’t have voice enough to let Bell hear his own
telephone, but in whom that 2 years of strenuous shouting into mouthpieces of various sizes
and shapes had developed a voice with the carrying capacity of a steam calliope.
My special function in these lectures was to show the
audience that the telephone could really talk. Not only that, I had to do all the singing, too, for which
my musical deficiencies fitted me admirably.
My Telephone Entertainers
Professor Bell would have one telephone by his side on the stage where he was speaking, and three or four others of the big box variety we used at that
time would be
suspended about the hall, all connected by means of a hired telegraph wire with the place where I was stationed, from 5-25
miles away. Bell would give the audience, first, the commonplace parts of the
show and then would come the thrillers of the evening; my shouts and songs.
shout such sentences as, “How do you do”, “Good evening”, “What do you think of the telephone?” which they could all hear, although the words issued
from the mouthpieces rather badly marred by the defective talking powers of the telephones of that date.
I would sing “Hold the Fort”, “Pull for the Shore”, “Yankee Doodle”, and as a delicate allusion to the Professor’s nationality, “Aumld Lang
Syne”. My sole sentimental song was ‘Do Not Trust Him, Gentle Lady.”
This repertoire always brought
down the house. After every
song, I would listen at my telephone for further directions from the lecturer, and always felt the artist’s joy when I heard in it the long applause that followed each of my efforts.
I was always encored to the limit of my repertoire,
sometimes had to sing it through twice.
I have always understood that Professor Bell was a fine platform speaker,
but this is
entirely hearsay on my part for, although I spoke at every one of his lectures, I have never yet had the pleasure of hearing
him deliver an address.
First Sound-Proof Booth
In making the preparations for the New York lectures, I incidentally invented the sound-proof booth,
but as Mr. Lockwood was not then associated with us,
and for other reasons,
I never patented it. It happened thus: Bell thought he would like to astonish the New Yorkers by having his lecture illustrations sent
all the way from
Boston. To determine whether this was practicable, he made arrangements to test the
telephones a few days before on one of the Atlantic and Pacific wires. The trial was to take place at midnight.
Bell was at the New York end; I was at the Boston
laboratory. Having vividly in mind the strained relations already existing with our
landlady, and realizing the carrying power of my voice when I really let it go, as I knew I should have to that night, I cast
some device to deaden the noise. Time was short and appliances scarce, so the best
I could do was to take the blankets on our beds and arrange them in a sort of loose
with the telephone tied up in one end and the other end open for the operator to crawl
into. Thus equipped, I awaited time signal from New York announcing that Bell was ready.
soon after midnight. Then I connected in the telephone, deposited myself in that cavity, and shouted and listened for 2 or 3 hours.
It didn’t work as well as it
might. It is a wonder some of my remarks didn't burn holes in the blankets. We talked after a
fashion, but Bell decided it wasn’t safe to risk it with a New York and
audience. My sound-proof booth, however, was a
complete success, as far as stopping the sound was concerned, for I found
inquiry next day that
nobody had heard my row. Later, inventors improved my booth, making it more comfortable for a
but not a bit more sound-proof.
“The Supposititious Mr. Watson”
One of those New York lecture rooms large in my memory on account of a novel
experience I had at my end of the wire. After hearing me sing, the manager of the lectures
decided that, while I might satisfy a Boston audience, I would never do for a
New York congregation; so he engaged a fine baritone soloist - a powerful negro, who
was to assume the singing part of my programme. Being much better acquainted with the telephone than
the manager was, I had doubts about the advisability of this change in the cast.
didn’t say anything, as I didn’t want to be accused of professorial
jealousy, and I knew my repertoire would he on the spot in case things went
wrong. I was stationed that night at the telegraph office at New Brunswick, New Jersey, and I, and the rest of the usual appliances of
that end of the
went down in the afternoon to get things ready. I rehearsed my rival and found him a fine singer,
but had difficulty in getting him to crowd his lips
mouthpiece. He was handicapped for the
telephone business by being musical, and he didn’t like the sound of his voice jammed up in that way.
However, he promised to do what I
wanted when it came to the actual work of the evening, and I went to supper.
When I returned to the telegraph office, just before eight o’clock, I found to my horror that the young lady
operator had invited six or eight of her dear friends to witness the interesting proceedings.
Now, besides my musical deficiencies, I had another qualification as a
telephone man - I was very modest; in fact, in the presence of ladies, extremely
bashful. It didn’t trouble me in the least to talk or sing to a great audience, provided, of course, it was a few miles away, but when I saw those girls, the complacency with which I had
been contemplating the probable failure of any fine singer was changed to
painful apprehension. If he wasn’t successful, a very
bashful young man would have a new experience. I
should be obliged to sing myself before those giggling, unscientific girls.
This world would be a better place to live in if we all tried to help our
fellow-men succeed, as I tried that night, when the first song was called for, to
make my musical friend achieve a lyrical triumph on the Metropolitan stage.
But he sang that
song for the benefit of those girls, not for Chickering Hall, and it was with a
heavy heart that I listened for Bell’s voice when he finished it. The blow fell.
most delightful platform tones, Bell
uttered the fatal word I had foreboded, “Mr. Watson, the audience could not hear that.
Won’t you please sing?” Bell was always a kind-hearted man, but he didn’t know.
However, I nerved myself with the thought that that New York audience, made sceptical by the failure of that song, might he
thinking cynical things about my beloved leader and his telephone, so I
turned my back on those girls and made that telephone rattle with the stirring
strains of “Hold the Fort”, as it never had before. Then I listened again, Ah, the sweetness of appreciation!
That New York
audience was applauding vigorously. When it stopped, the same voice came with a new note of
triumph in it. “Mr. Watson, the audience heard that perfectly and call for an
encore.” I sang through my entire repertoire and began again on “Hold the Fort”, before the
audience was satisfied. That experience did me good, I have never had stage fright
since. But the ‘‘supposititious Mr. Watson”, as they called me then, had to do the
singing at all of Bell’s subsequent lectures. Nobody else had a chance
at the job; one
experience was enough for Mr. Bell.
My baritone had his hat on his head and a cynical expression on his face, when I finished
working on those songs.
‘‘Is that what you wanted?“ he asked. ‘‘Yes.’’ ‘‘Well, boss, I
couldn’t do that.’’ Of course he couldn’t.
An Exhibition in Lawrence
Another occasion is burnt into my memory that wasn’t such a triumph over difficulties.
lectures, we always had another trouble to contend with, besides the rusty joints in the
wires; that was the operators cutting in, during the lectures, their highest resistance relays, which enabled them to hear some of the intermittent current effects I
sent to the hall. Inductance, retardation, and all that sort of thing which you have so largely
were invented long before the telephone was, and were waiting here on earth all ready to slam it when Bell
Bell lectured at Lawrence, Massachusetts, one evening in May, and I prepared to
furnish him with the usual programme from the laboratory in Boston. But the wire the company assigned us was the worst yet.
It worked fairly well when
we tried it in the afternoon, but in the evening every station on the line had evidently cut in its relay, and do my best I
couldn't get a sound through to the hall.
The local newspaper generally sent a reporter to my end of the wire to write up the occurrences there.
This is the report of
such an envoy as it appeared in the Lawrence paper the morning after Bell’s lecture there:
“Mr. Fisher returned this morning. He says that Watson, the organist and himself occupied the laboratory, sitting in their shirt sleeves with their collars off.
Watson shouted his lungs into the telephone
mouthpiece, ‘Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!’ and, receiving no response, inquired of Fisher if he pardoned for a little ‘hamburg edging’ on his language.
Mr. Fisher endeavoured to transmit to his Lawrence townsmen the tune of ‘Federal Street’ played
upon the cornet, but the air was not distinguishable here. About 10 p.m., Watson discovered the ‘Northern Lights’ and
found his wires alive with lightning, which was not included in the original scheme of the telephone.
He says the loose electricity abroad in the world was too
much for him.”
Waiting for Watson
The next morning my poem appeared in the Lawrence paper. The writer must have sat up all night to write it.
It was entitled “Waiting for
Watson,” and I am
very proud of the only poem I ever had written about me. I am going to ask your
permission to read it . Please notice the great variety of human feeling the poet
put into it. It even
suggests missiles, though it flings none.
Lawrence, Massachusetts, Daily American, Tuesday, 29 May 1877.
WAITING FOR WATSON
To the great hall we strayed,
Fairly our fee we paid,
Seven hundred there delayed,
But, where was Watson?
Seven hundred souls were there,
Waiting with stony stare,
In that expectant air,
Waiting for Watson.
Oh; how our ears we strained,
Hoe our hopes waxed and waned,
Patience to dregs we drained,
Yes, we did, Watson!
Give but one lusty groan,
For bread we’ll take a home,
Ring your old
Ring, brother Watson.
Doubtless ‘tis very fine,
When, all along the line,
Things work most superfine,
Doubtless ‘tis Watson.
We know that, every day,
Schemes laid to work and pay,
Fail and “gang aft a-gley”
Often, friend Watson.
And we’ll not curse, on fling,
But, next time, do the thing,
And we’ll all rise and sing,
“Bully for Watson!”
Or, by the unseen powers,
Hope in our bosom sours,
No telephone in ours-
“Please, Mr. Watson.”
My Last Public Appearance
But my vacation was about over. Besides raising the wind, the lectures had stirred
up a great demand for telephone lines. The public was ready for the telephone
long before we were ready for the public, and this pleasant artistic interlude had to stop; I was
needed in the shop to build some telephones to satisfy the insistent demand.
Fred Gower, a
young newspaper man of Providence, had become interested with Mr. Bell in the lecture work.
He had an unique scheme for a dual lecture with my illustrations sent
from a central point to halls in two cities at the same time. I think my last appearance in public was at
of these dualities. Bell lectured at New Haven and Gower gave the talk at Hartford, while I was in
between at Middletown, Conn., with my apparatus, including my songs. It didn’t work very well.
The two lecturers didn’t speak synchronously. Gower told
me afterwards that I was giving him, “How’ do you do”, when he wanted “Hold the Fort”, and Bell said I made it
awkward for him by singing “Do Not Trust Him, Gentle Lady”, when he needed the trombone solo.
THE “GOWER-BELL” TELEPHONE
In the following August, Professor Bell married and went to England, taking with him a
complete set of up-to-date telephones, with which he intended to start the trouble in that
country. Fred Gower became so fascinated with lecturing on the telephone that he gave
up an exclusive right Mr. Hubbard had
granted him for renting telephones all over New England, for the exclusive privilege of using the
telephone for lecture purposes all over the United States. But it wasn’t
remunerative after Bell and I gave it up. The
discriminating public preferred Mr. Bell as speaker - and I always felt that the singing
never reached the early heights.
Gower went to England later. There he made some small modification of Bell’s telephone, called it the “Gower-Bell”
telephone, and made a fortune out of his hyphenated atrocity. Later,
he married Lillian Nordica, although she soon separated from him. He became interested in ballooning.
The last scene in his life before the curtain dropped showed a balloon over the waters of the English Channel.
A fishing boat hails him, “Where are
you bound? “ Gower’s voice replies, ‘‘To
London.” When the balloon and its pilot drifted into the mist for ever.
DEVELOPING A CALLING APPARATUS - THE WATSON “BUZZER”
As I said, I went back to work, and my next 2 years was a continuous performance.
It began to dawn on
me that people engaged in getting their living in the ordinary walks of life couldn’t he expected to keep the
telephone at their ear all the time waiting for my call, especially as it weighed
about 10 pounds then and was as big as a small packing case, so it devolved on me to get up some sort of a call
signal. Williams, on his line, used to call by thumping the diaphragm through the
mouthpiece with the butt of a lead pencil. If there was someone chose to the telephone at the other
end, and it was very still, it did pretty well, but it seriously
damaged the vitals of the machine and therefore I decided it wasn’t really practical for the general
public; besides we might have to supply a pencil with every telephone mind that
would be expensive. Then, I rigged a little hammer inside the box with a button on the outside.
When the button was thumped the hammer would hit the side of the
diaphragm where it
could not be damaged, the usual electrical transformation took place, and a much more modest, but still
unmistakable, thump would issue from the telephone at the other end.
That was the first calling apparatus ever devised for use with the telephone,
not counting Williams’ lead pencil, and several with that attachment were put into
practical use. But the exacting public wanted something better, and I devised the Watson “Buzzer”
- the only practical use we ever made of the harmonic telegraph relics.
Many of these were sent out . It was a vast improvement on the Watson “Thumper,”
but still it didn’t take the popular fancy. It made a sound quite like the
horseradish grater automobile signal we are so familar with now-a-days, and aroused
just the same feeling of resentment which that does. It brought me only a fleeting fame for I soon
superseded it by a magneto-electric call bell that solved the
problem, and was destined to make a long - suffering public turn cranks for the next 15 years or so, as it
never had before, or ever will hereafter.
Perhaps I didn’t have any trouble with the phaguey thing! The generator part of it was only an adaption of a magneto shocking machine I
found in Davis’ Manual of Magnetism and worked well enough, but I was guilty of the
jingling part of it. At any rate, I felt guilty when letters began to come
from our agents reciting their woes with the thing, which they said had a trick of sticking and failing
on the most important occasions to tinkle in response to the
frantic crankings of the man who wanted you. But I soon got it so it behaved itself and it has been good ever since, for I have been told that nothing better has ever been
invented, that they have been manufactured by the millions all over the world, and
that identical jingler today does practically all the world’s telephonic calling.
For some reason, my usual good luck I presume, the magneto call bells didn’t get my
name attached to them. I never regretted this, for the agents, who bought them from Williams, impressed
by the long and narrow box in which the mechanism was placed, promptly christened them ‘‘Williams’
Coffins”. I always thought that a narrow escape for me!
The first few hundreds of these call bells were a continuous shock to me for other reasons than their failure to respond.
I used on them a switch, that had to be thrown one way by hand, when the telephone was
being used, and then thrown back by hand to limit the bell in circuit again. But
average man or woman wouldn’t do this more than half the time, and I was obliged to try a series of devices, which culminated in that remarkable achievement of the
human brain - the automatic switch hook - that demanded of the public only that it should hang
up the telephone after it got through talking. This the public
learnt to do quite well after a few years of practice.
THE BLAKE TRANSMITTER
You wouldn’t believe me if I should tell you a tithe of the difficulties we got into by flexible cords
breaking inside the covering, when we first began to use hand telephones!
Then they began to clamour for switchboards for the first centrals, and
individual call bells began to keep me awake at
nights. The latter were very important then, for much luxuries as one-station lines were scarce.
twenty stations on a wire
was the rule, and we were trying hard to get a signal that would call one station
without disturbing the whole town. All of these and many other things had to be done at
once, and, as if this was not enough, it suddenly became necessary for me to devise a
battery transmitter. The
Western Union people had discovered that the telephone was not such a toy
as they had thought, and as our 100,000 dollar offer was no longer open for acceptance, they decided to get a share of the business for themselves, and Edison evolved for them
carbon-mutton transmitter. This was the hardest blow yet.
We were still using the magneto transmitter, although Bell’s patent clearly
covered the battery transmitter. Our transmitter was doing
much to develop the American voice and lungs, making them powerful but not melodious. This was, by the way, the telephone epoch when they
used to say that all the farmers waiting in a country grocery
would rush out and hold their horses when they saw any one preparing to use the telephone.
Edison's transmitters talked louder than the magnetos we were using and our
agents began to clamour for them, and I had to work nights to get to get up
something just as good. Fortunately for
my constitution, Frank Blake came along with his transmitter. We bought it and I got a little sleep for
a few days. Then our little David of a corporation sued that huge Goliath, the Western
Union Company, for infringing the Bell patents, and I had to devote my leisure
to testifying in that suit, and making reproductions of the
earliest apparatus to prove to the court that they would really talk and were
not a bluff, as our opponents were asserting.
Then I put in the rest of my leisure making trips among our agents this side of the Mississippi to bring them up to date and see what the enemy were up to.
I kept a
daily of those trips. It reads rather funnily today, but
I won’t go into that. It would detract from the seriousness of this discourse.
Nor must I forget an occasional diversion in the way of a sleet storm which,
combining with our wires then beginning to fill the air with house-top lines and pole
lines along the sidewalks, would
make things extremely interesting for all concerned. I don’t remember ever going out to erect new poles and run wires after
such a catastrophe. I think I must have
done so, but such a trifling matter naturally would have made but little impression
Is it any wonder that any memory of those 2 years seems like a combination of the Balkan war, the rush hours on the subway and a panic on
the stock market?
TURNING TO OTHER ACTIVITIES
My connexion with the telephone business ceased in 1881. The strenuous years I had passed through had fixed in me a
habit of not sleeping at night as much as I should, and a doctor man told me I would better go abroad for a year or
two for a change. There was not the least need of this, but
- as it coincided exactly with my desires, and as the telephone business had
thought, merely a matter of routine, with nothing more to do except pay dividends and fight
infringers, I resigned my position as General Inspector of the
Company, and went over the ocean for the first time.
When I returned to America a year or so later, I found the telephone
business had not suffered in the least from my absence, but there were so many better men doing the work that I had been
doing, that I didn’t care to go into it again.
I was looking for more trouble in life and so I went into ship building, where I
found all I needed.
Before Mr. Bell went to England on his bridal trip, we agreed that as soon as the telephone became a matter of routine
business he and
I would begin experimenting on flying machines, on which subject he was full of ideas at that early
time. I never carried out this agreement. Bell did some notable
work on airships later, but I turned may attention to battleships.
MY GREATEST PRIDE
Such is my very inadequate story of the earliest days of the telephone so far as they made part of my life.
Today, when I go into a central
office or talk over a long distance wire or read the annual report of the
American Telephone and Telegraph Company, filled with
figures up in the millions and billions, when I think of the growth of the
business, and the marvellous improvements that have been made since the day I left it,
was nothing more to do but routine, I must say that all that early work I have told you
about seems to shrink into a very small measure. And, proud as I always shall he,
that I had the
opportunity of doing some of that earliest
work myself, my greatest pride is that I am one of the great army of telephone
every one of whom has played his part in making the Telephone Service what it is today.
I thank you.