Part 1 out of 4
Scanned by Charles Keller with OmniPage Professional OCR software
THE HISTORY OF THE TELEPHONE
BY HERBERT N. CASSON
Thirty-five short years, and presto!
the newborn art of telephony is fullgrown.
Three million telephones are now scattered
abroad in foreign countries, and seven millions
are massed here, in the land of its birth.
So entirely has the telephone outgrown the ridicule
with which, as many people can well remember,
it was first received, that it is now in most
places taken for granted, as though it were a
part of the natural phenomena of this planet. It
has so marvellously extended the facilities of
conversation--that "art in which a man has all
mankind for competitors"--that it is now an
indispensable help to whoever would live the
convenient life. The disadvantage of being deaf and
dumb to all absent persons, which was universal
in pre-telephonic days, has now happily been
overcome; and I hope that this story of how and
by whom it was done will be a welcome addition
to American libraries.
It is such a story as the telephone itself might
tell, if it could speak with a voice of its own.
It is not technical. It is not statistical. It is
not exhaustive. It is so brief, in fact, that a
second volume could readily be made by describing
the careers of telephone leaders whose names
I find have been omitted unintentionally from
this book--such indispensable men, for instance,
as William R. Driver, who has signed more telephone
cheques and larger ones than any other
man; Geo. S. Hibbard, Henry W. Pope, and
W. D. Sargent, three veterans who know telephony
in all its phases; George Y. Wallace, the
last survivor of the Rocky Mountain pioneers;
Jasper N. Keller, of Texas and New England;
W. T. Gentry, the central figure of the Southeast,
and the following presidents of telephone
companies: Bernard E. Sunny, of Chicago; E.
B. Field, of Denver; D. Leet Wilson, of Pittsburg;
L. G. Richardson, of Indianapolis; Caspar
E. Yost, of Omaha; James E. Caldwell, of
Nashville; Thomas Sherwin, of Boston; Henry T.
Scott, of San Francisco; H. J. Pettengill, of
Dallas; Alonzo Burt, of Milwaukee; John Kil-
gour, of Cincinnati; and Chas. S. Gleed, of Kansas
I am deeply indebted to most of these men for
the information which is herewith presented;
and also to such pioneers, now dead, as O. E.
Madden, the first General Agent; Frank L.
Pope, the noted electrical expert; C. H. Haskins,
of Milwaukee; George F. Ladd, of San Francisco;
and Geo. F. Durant, of St. Louis.
H. N. C.
PINE HILL, N. Y., June 1, 1910.
I THE BIRTH OF THE TELEPHONE
II THE BUILDING OF THE BUSINESS
III THE HOLDING OF THE BUSINESS
IV THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ART
V THE EXPANSION OF THE BUSINESS
VI NOTABLE USERS OF THE TELEPHONE
VII THE TELEPHONE AND NATIONAL EFFICIENCY
VIII THE TELEPHONE IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES
IX THE FUTURE OF THE TELEPHONE
THE HISTORY OF THE TELEPHONE
THE BIRTH OF THE TELEPHONE
In that somewhat distant year 1875, when the
telegraph and the Atlantic cable were the
most wonderful things in the world, a tall young
professor of elocution was desperately busy in a
noisy machine-shop that stood in one of the narrow
streets of Boston, not far from Scollay
Square. It was a very hot afternoon in June,
but the young professor had forgotten the heat
and the grime of the workshop. He was wholly
absorbed in the making of a nondescript machine,
a sort of crude harmonica with a clock-spring
reed, a magnet, and a wire. It was a most
absurd toy in appearance. It was unlike any
other thing that had ever been made in any country.
The young professor had been toiling over
it for three years and it had constantly baffled
him, until, on this hot afternoon in June, 1875,
he heard an almost inaudible sound--a faint
TWANG--come from the machine itself.
For an instant he was stunned. He had been
expecting just such a sound for several months,
but it came so suddenly as to give him the sensation
of surprise. His eyes blazed with delight,
and he sprang in a passion of eagerness to an
adjoining room in which stood a young mechanic
who was assisting him.
"Snap that reed again, Watson," cried the
apparently irrational young professor. There
was one of the odd-looking machines in each
room, so it appears, and the two were connected
by an electric wire. Watson had snapped the
reed on one of the machines and the professor
had heard from the other machine exactly the
same sound. It was no more than the gentle
TWANG of a clock-spring; but it was the first time
in the history of the world that a complete sound
had been carried along a wire, reproduced perfectly
at the other end, and heard by an expert
That twang of the clock-spring was the first
tiny cry of the newborn telephone, uttered in the
clanging din of a machine-shop and happily
heard by a man whose ear had been trained to
recognize the strange voice of the little newcomer.
There, amidst flying belts and jarring
wheels, the baby telephone was born, as feeble
and helpless as any other baby, and "with no
language but a cry."
The professor-inventor, who had thus rescued
the tiny foundling of science, was a young Scottish
American. His name, now known as widely
as the telephone itself, was Alexander Graham
Bell. He was a teacher of acoustics and a student
of electricity, possibly the only man in his
generation who was able to focus a knowledge
of both subjects upon the problem of the telephone.
To other men that exceedingly faint
sound would have been as inaudible as silence
itself; but to Bell it was a thunder-clap. It was
a dream come true. It was an impossible thing
which had in a flash become so easy that he could
scarcely believe it. Here, without the use of a
battery, with no more electric current than that
made by a couple of magnets, all the waves of
a sound had been carried along a wire and
changed back to sound at the farther end. It
was absurd. It was incredible. It was something
which neither wire nor electricity had been
known to do before. But it was true.
No discovery has ever been less accidental.
It was the last link of a long chain of discoveries.
It was the result of a persistent and
deliberate search. Already, for half a year
or longer, Bell had known the correct theory of
the telephone; but he had not realized that the
feeble undulatory current generated by a magnet
was strong enough for the transmission of speech.
He had been taught to undervalue the incredible
efficiency of electricity.
Not only was Bell himself a teacher of the
laws of speech, so highly skilled that he was
an instructor in Boston University. His father,
also, his two brothers, his uncle, and his
grandfather had taught the laws of speech in the
universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, and London.
For three generations the Bells had been professors
of the science of talking. They had even
helped to create that science by several inven-
tions. The first of them, Alexander Bell, had
invented a system for the correction of stammering
and similar defects of speech. The second,
Alexander Melville Bell, was the dean of British
elocutionists, a man of creative brain and a most
impressive facility of rhetoric. He was the author
of a dozen text-books on the art of speaking
correctly, and also of a most ingenious
sign-language which he called "Visible Speech."
Every letter in the alphabet of this language
represented a certain action of the lips and
tongue; so that a new method was provided for
those who wished to learn foreign languages or
to speak their own language more correctly.
And the third of these speech-improving Bells,
the inventor of the telephone, inherited the
peculiar genius of his fathers, both inventive and
rhetorical, to such a degree that as a boy he had
constructed an artificial skull, from gutta-percha
and India rubber, which, when enlivened by a
blast of air from a hand-bellows, would actually
pronounce several words in an almost human
The third Bell, the only one of this remarkable
family who concerns us at this time, was a young
man, barely twenty-eight, at the time when his
ear caught the first cry of the telephone. But he
was already a man of some note on his own account.
He had been educated in Edinburgh, the
city of his birth, and in London; and had in one
way and another picked up a smattering of
anatomy, music, electricity, and telegraphy.
Until he was sixteen years of age, he had read
nothing but novels and poetry and romantic tales
of Scottish heroes. Then he left home to become
a teacher of elocution in various British
schools, and by the time he was of age he had
made several slight discoveries as to the nature
of vowel-sounds. Shortly afterwards, he met in
London two distinguished men, Alexander J.
Ellis and Sir Charles Wheatstone, who did far
more than they ever knew to forward Bell in
the direction of the telephone.
Ellis was the president of the London Philological
Society. Also, he was the translator
of the famous book on "The Sensations of Tone,"
written by Helmholtz, who, in the period from
1871 to 1894 made Berlin the world-centre for
the study of the physical sciences. So it happened
that when Bell ran to Ellis as a young
enthusiast and told his experiments, Ellis informed
him that Helmholtz had done the same
things several years before and done them more
completely. He brought Bell to his house and
showed him what Helmholtz had done--how he
had kept tuning-forks in vibration by the power
of electro-magnets, and blended the tones of several
tuning-forks together to produce the complex
quality of the human voice.
Now, Helmholtz had not been trying to invent
a telephone, nor any sort of message-carrier.
His aim was to point out the physical basis of
music, and nothing more. But this fact that
an electro-magnet would set a tuning-fork humming
was new to Bell and very attractive. It
appealed at once to him as a student of speech.
If a tuning-fork could be made to sing by a
magnet or an electrified wire, why would it not
be possible to make a musical telegraph--a telegraph
with a piano key-board, so that many messages
could be sent at once over a single wire?
Unknown to Bell, there were several dozen inven-
tors then at work upon this problem, which
proved in the end to be very elusive. But it gave
him at least a starting-point, and he forthwith
commenced his quest of the telephone.
As he was then in England, his first step was
naturally to visit Sir Charles Wheatstone, the
best known English expert on telegraphy.
Sir Charles had earned his title by many inventions.
He was a simple-natured scientist, and
treated Bell with the utmost kindness. He
showed him an ingenious talking-machine that
had been made by Baron de Kempelin. At this
time Bell was twenty-two and unknown; Wheatstone
was sixty-seven and famous. And the
personality of the veteran scientist made so vivid
a picture upon the mind of the impressionable
young Bell that the grand passion of science became
henceforth the master-motif of his life.
From this summit of glorious ambition he was
thrown, several months later, into the depths of
grief and despondency. The White Plague had
come to the home in Edinburgh and taken away
his two brothers. More, it had put its mark
upon the young inventor himself. Nothing but
a change of climate, said his doctor, would put
him out of danger. And so, to save his life, he
and his father and mother set sail from Glasgow
and came to the small Canadian town of Brantford,
where for a year he fought down his
tendency to consumption, and satisfied his nervous
energy by teaching "Visible Speech" to a
tribe of Mohawk Indians.
By this time it had become evident, both to
his parents and to his friends, that young Graham
was destined to become some sort of a creative
genius. He was tall and supple, with a pale
complexion, large nose, full lips, jet-black eyes,
and jet-black hair, brushed high and usually
rumpled into a curly tangle. In temperament
he was a true scientific Bohemian, with the ideals
of a savant and the disposition of an artist. He
was wholly a man of enthusiasms, more devoted
to ideas than to people; and less likely to master
his own thoughts than to be mastered by them.
He had no shrewdness, in any commercial sense,
and very little knowledge of the small practical
details of ordinary living. He was always intense,
always absorbed. When he applied his
mind to a problem, it became at once an enthralling
arena, in which there went whirling a chariot-
race of ideas and inventive fancies.
He had been fascinated from boyhood by his
father's system of "Visible Speech." He knew
it so well that he once astonished a professor of
Oriental languages by repeating correctly a sentence
of Sanscrit that had been written in "Visible
Speech" characters. While he was living in
London his most absorbing enthusiasm was the
instruction of a class of deaf-mutes, who could
be trained to talk, he believed, by means of the
"Visible Speech" alphabet. He was so deeply
impressed by the progress made by these pupils,
and by the pathos of their dumbness, that when
he arrived in Canada he was in doubt as to which
of these two tasks was the more important--the
teaching of deaf-mutes or the invention of a
At this point, and before Bell had begun to
experiment with his telegraph, the scene of the
story shifts from Canada to Massachusetts. It
appears that his father, while lecturing in Boston,
had mentioned Graham's exploits with a
class of deaf-mutes; and soon afterward the Boston
Board of Education wrote to Graham, offering
him five hundred dollars if he would come to
Boston and introduce his system of teaching in a
school for deaf-mutes that had been opened recently.
The young man joyfully agreed, and on
the first of April, 1871, crossed the line and became
for the remainder of his life an American.
For the next two years his telegraphic work
was laid aside, if not forgotten. His success as
a teacher of deaf-mutes was sudden and overwhelming.
It was the educational sensation of
1871. It won him a professorship in Boston
University; and brought so many pupils around
him that he ventured to open an ambitious
"School of Vocal Physiology," which became at
once a profitable enterprise. For a time there
seemed to be little hope of his escaping from the
burden of this success and becoming an inventor,
when, by a most happy coincidence, two of his
pupils brought to him exactly the sort of stimulation
and practical help that he needed and had
not up to this time received.
One of these pupils was a little deaf-mute
tot, five years of age, named Georgie Sanders.
Bell had agreed to give him a series of private
lessons for $350 a year; and as the child lived
with his grandmother in the city of Salem, sixteen
miles from Boston, it was agreed that Bell should
make his home with the Sanders family. Here
he not only found the keenest interest and sympathy
in his air-castles of invention, but also was
given permission to use the cellar of the house as
For the next three years this cellar was his
favorite retreat. He littered it with tuning-
forks, magnets, batteries, coils of wire, tin
trumpets, and cigar-boxes. No one outside of
the Sanders family was allowed to enter it, as
Bell was nervously afraid of having his ideas
stolen. He would even go to five or six stores
to buy his supplies, for fear that his intentions
should be discovered. Almost with the secrecy
of a conspirator, he worked alone in this cellar,
usually at night, and quite oblivious of the fact
that sleep was a necessity to him and to the
"Often in the middle of the night Bell would
wake me up," said Thomas Sanders, the father
of Georgie. "His black eyes would be blazing
with excitement. Leaving me to go down to
the cellar, he would rush wildly to the barn and
begin to send me signals along his experimental
wires. If I noticed any improvement in his
machine, he would be delighted. He would leap
and whirl around in one of his `war-dances' and
then go contentedly to bed. But if the experiment
was a failure, he would go back to his workbench
and try some different plan."
The second pupil who became a factor--a
very considerable factor--in Bell's career was a
fifteen-year-old girl named Mabel Hubbard, who
had lost her hearing, and consequently her speech,
through an attack of scarlet-fever when a baby.
She was a gentle and lovable girl, and Bell, in his
ardent and headlong way, lost his heart to her
completely; and four years later, he had the
happiness of making her his wife. Mabel Hubbard
did much to encourage Bell. She followed each
step of his progress with the keenest interest.
She wrote his letters and copied his patents. She
cheered him on when he felt himself beaten.
And through her sympathy with Bell and his ambitions,
she led her father--a widely known Boston
lawyer named Gardiner G. Hubbard--to
become Bell's chief spokesman and defender, a
true apostle of the telephone.
Hubbard first became aware of Bell's inventive
efforts one evening when Bell was visiting
at his home in Cambridge. Bell was illustrating
some of the mysteries of acoustics by the aid of
a piano. "Do you know," he said to Hubbard,
"that if I sing the note G close to the strings of
the piano, that the G-string will answer me?"
"Well, what then?" asked Hubbard. "It is
a fact of tremendous importance," replied Bell.
"It is an evidence that we may some day have
a musical telegraph, which will send as many
messages simultaneously over one wire as there
are notes on that piano."
Later, Bell ventured to confide to Hubbard
his wild dream of sending speech over an electric
wire, but Hubbard laughed him to scorn. "Now
you are talking nonsense," he said. "Such a
thing never could be more than a scientific toy.
You had better throw that idea out of your mind
and go ahead with your musical telegraph, which
if it is successful will make you a millionaire."
But the longer Bell toiled at his musical telegraph,
the more he dreamed of replacing the telegraph
and its cumbrous sign-language by a new
machine that would carry, not dots and dashes,
but the human voice. "If I can make a deaf-
mute talk," he said, "I can make iron talk." For
months he wavered between the two ideas. He
had no more than the most hazy conception of
what this voice-carrying machine would be like.
At first he conceived of having a harp at one end
of the wire, and a speaking-trumpet at the other,
so that the tones of the voice would be reproduced
by the strings of the harp.
Then, in the early Summer of 1874, while he
was puzzling over this harp apparatus, the dim
outline of a new path suddenly glinted in front
of him. He had not been forgetful of "Visible
Speech" all this while, but had been making
experiments with two remarkable machines--the
phonautograph and the manometric capsule, by
means of which the vibrations of sound were
made plainly visible. If these could be im-
proved, he thought, then the deaf might be taught
to speak by SIGHT--by learning an alphabet of
vibrations. He mentioned these experiments to
a Boston friend, Dr. Clarence J. Blake, and he,
being a surgeon and an aurist, naturally said,
"Why don't you use a REAL EAR?"
Such an idea never had, and probably never
could have, occurred to Bell; but he accepted it
with eagerness. Dr. Blake cut an ear from a dead
man's head, together with the ear-drum and the
associated bones. Bell took this fragment of
a skull and arranged it so that a straw touched
the ear-drum at one end and a piece of moving
smoked glass at the other. Thus, when Bell
spoke loudly into the ear, the vibrations of the
drum made tiny markings upon the glass.
It was one of the most extraordinary incidents
in the whole history of the telephone. To an
uninitiated onlooker, nothing could have been
more ghastly or absurd. How could any one
have interpreted the gruesome joy of this young
professor with the pale face and the black
eyes, who stood earnestly singing, whispering,
and shouting into a dead man's ear? What
sort of a wizard must he be, or ghoul, or madman?
And in Salem, too, the home of the
witchcraft superstition! Certainly it would
not have gone well with Bell had he lived
two centuries earlier and been caught at such
What had this dead man's ear to do with the
invention of the telephone? Much. Bell noticed
how small and thin was the ear-drum, and
yet how effectively it could send thrills and
vibrations through heavy bones. "If this tiny disc
can vibrate a bone," he thought, "then an iron
disc might vibrate an iron rod, or at least, an iron
wire." In a flash the conception of a membrane
telephone was pictured in his mind. He saw in
imagination two iron discs, or ear-drums, far
apart and connected by an electrified wire, catching
the vibrations of sound at one end, and reproducing
them at the other. At last he was on the
right path, and had a theoretical knowledge of
what a speaking telephone ought to be. What
remained to be done was to construct such a machine
and find out how the electric current could
best be brought into harness.
Then, as though Fortune suddenly felt that he
was winning this stupendous success too easily,
Bell was flung back by an avalanche of troubles.
Sanders and Hubbard, who had been paying the
cost of his experiments, abruptly announced that
they would pay no more unless he confined his
attention to the musical telegraph, and stopped
wasting his time on ear-toys that never could be
of any financial value. What these two men
asked could scarcely be denied, as one of them
was his best-paying patron and the other was the
father of the girl whom he hoped to marry. "If
you wish my daughter," said Hubbard, "you must
abandon your foolish telephone." Bell's "School
of Vocal Physiology," too, from which he had
hoped so much, had come to an inglorious end.
He had been too much absorbed in his experiments
to sustain it. His professorship had been
given up, and he had no pupils except Georgie
Sanders and Mabel Hubbard. He was poor,
much poorer than his associates knew. And his
mind was torn and distracted by the contrary
calls of science, poverty, business, and affection.
Pouring out his sorrows in a letter to his mother,
he said: "I am now beginning to realize the
cares and anxieties of being an inventor. I have
had to put off all pupils and classes, for flesh and
blood could not stand much longer such a strain
as I have had upon me."
While stumbling through this Slough of Despond,
he was called to Washington by his patent
lawyer. Not having enough money to pay the
cost of such a journey, he borrowed the price of a
return ticket from Sanders and arranged to stay
with a friend in Washington, to save a hotel bill
that he could not afford. At that time Professor
Joseph Henry, who knew more of the theory of
electrical science than any other American, was
the Grand Old Man of Washington; and poor
Bell, in his doubt and desperation, resolved to
run to him for advice.
Then came a meeting which deserves to be
historic. For an entire afternoon the two men
worked together over the apparatus that Bell had
brought from Boston, just as Henry had worked
over the telegraph before Bell was born. Henry
was now a veteran of seventy-eight, with only
three years remaining to his credit in the bank
of Time, while Bell was twenty-eight. There
was a long half-century between them; but the
youth had discovered a New Fact that the sage,
in all his wisdom, had never known.
"You are in possession of the germ of a great
invention," said Henry, "and I would advise you
to work at it until you have made it complete."
"But," replied Bell, "I have not got the
electrical knowledge that is necessary."
"Get it," responded the aged scientist.
"I cannot tell you how much these two words
have encouraged me," said Bell afterwards, in
describing this interview to his parents. "I live
too much in an atmosphere of discouragement for
scientific pursuits; and such a chimerical idea as
telegraphing VOCAL SOUNDS would indeed seem to
most minds scarcely feasible enough to spend
time in working over."
By this time Bell had moved his workshop from
the cellar in Salem to 109 Court Street, Boston,
where he had rented a room from Charles
Williams, a manufacturer of electrical supplies.
Thomas A. Watson was his assistant, and both
Bell and Watson lived nearby, in two cheap little
bedrooms. The rent of the workshop and bedrooms,
and Watson's wages of nine dollars a
week, were being paid by Sanders and Hubbard.
Consequently, when Bell returned from Washington,
he was compelled by his agreement to
devote himself mainly to the musical telegraph,
although his heart was now with the telephone.
For exactly three months after his interview with
Professor Henry, he continued to plod ahead,
along both lines, until, on that memorable hot
afternoon in June, 1875, the full TWANG of the
clock-spring came over the wire, and the telephone
From this moment, Bell was a man of one purpose.
He won over Sanders and Hubbard. He
converted Watson into an enthusiast. He forgot
his musical telegraph, his "Visible Speech,"
his classes, his poverty. He threw aside a profession
in which he was already locally famous.
And he grappled with this new mystery of electricity,
as Henry had advised him to do, encouraging
himself with the fact that Morse, who was
only a painter, had mastered his electrical
difficulties, and there was no reason why a professor
of acoustics should not do as much.
The telephone was now in existence, but it was
the youngest and feeblest thing in the nation. It
had not yet spoken a word. It had to be taught,
developed, and made fit for the service of the
irritable business world. All manner of discs
had to be tried, some smaller and thinner than a
dime and others of steel boiler-plate as heavy as
the shield of Achilles. In all the books of electrical
science, there was nothing to help Bell and
Watson in this journey they were making
through an unknown country. They were as
chartless as Columbus was in 1492. Neither
they nor any one else had acquired any experience
in the rearing of a young telephone. No
one knew what to do next. There was nothing
For forty weeks--long exasperating weeks--
the telephone could do no more than gasp and
make strange inarticulate noises. Its educators
had not learned how to manage it. Then, on
March 10, 1876, IT TALKED. It said distinctly--
"MR. WATSON, COME HERE, I WANT YOU." Watson,
who was at the lower end of the wire, in the
basement, dropped the receiver and rushed with
wild joy up three flights of stairs to tell the glad
tidings to Bell. "I can hear you!" he shouted
breathlessly. "I can hear the WORDS."
It was not easy, of course, for the weak young
telephone to make itself heard in that noisy workshop.
No one, not even Bell and Watson, was
familiar with its odd little voice. Usually Watson,
who had a remarkably keen sense of hearing,
did the listening; and Bell, who was a professional
elocutionist, did the talking. And day by day
the tone of the baby instrument grew clearer--a
new note in the orchestra of civilization.
On his twenty-ninth birthday, Bell received
his patent, No. 174,465--"the most valuable
single patent ever issued" in any country. He
had created something so entirely new that there
was no name for it in any of the world's languages.
In describing it to the officials of the
Patent Office, he was obliged to call it "an
improvement in telegraphy," when, in truth, it was
nothing of the kind. It was as different from the
telegraph as the eloquence of a great orator is
from the sign-language of a deaf-mute.
Other inventors had worked from the standpoint
of the telegraph; and they never did, and
never could, get any better results than signs
and symbols. But Bell worked from the standpoint
of the human voice. He cross-fertilized
the two sciences of acoustics and electricity. His
study of "Visible Speech" had trained his mind
so that he could mentally SEE the shape of a word
as he spoke it. He knew what a spoken word
was, and how it acted upon the air, or the ether,
that carried its vibrations from the lips to the ear.
He was a third-generation specialist in the
nature of speech, and he knew that for the transmission
of spoken words there must be "a pulsatory
action of the electric current which is the
exact equivalent of the aerial impulses."
Bell knew just enough about electricity, and
not too much. He did not know the possible
from the impossible. "Had I known more about
electricity, and less about sound," he said, "I
would never have invented the telephone."
What he had done was so amazing, so foolhardy,
that no trained electrician could have thought
of it. It was "the very hardihood of invention,"
and yet it was not in any sense a chance discovery.
It was the natural output of a mind that
had been led to assemble just the right materials
for such a product.
As though the very stars in their courses were
working for this young wizard with the
talking wire, the Centennial Exposition in
Philadelphia opened its doors exactly two
months after the telephone had learned to
talk. Here was a superb opportunity to
let the wide world know what had been
done, and fortunately Hubbard was one of the
Centennial Commissioners. By his influence a
small table was placed in the Department of
Education, in a narrow space between a stairway
and a wall, and on this table was deposited the
first of the telephones.
Bell had no intention of going to the
Centennial himself. He was too poor. Sanders
and Hubbard had never done more than pay his
room-rent and the expense of his experiments.
For his three or four years of inventing he had re-
ceived nothing as yet--nothing but his patent.
In order to live, he had been compelled to
reorganize his classes in "Visible Speech," and
to pick up the ravelled ends of his neglected
But one Friday afternoon, toward the end of
June, his sweetheart, Mabel Hubbard, was taking
the train for the Centennial; and he went to the
depot to say good-bye. Here Miss Hubbard
learned for the first time that Bell was not to
go. She coaxed and pleaded, without effect.
Then, as the train was starting, leaving Bell on
the platform, the affectionate young girl could
no longer control her feelings and was overcome
by a passion of tears. At this the susceptible
Bell, like a true Sir Galahad, dashed after the
moving train and sprang aboard, without ticket
or baggage, oblivious of his classes and his poverty
and of all else except this one maiden's
distress. "I never saw a man," said Watson, "so
much in love as Bell was."
As it happened, this impromptu trip to the
Centennial proved to be one of the most timely
acts of his life. On the following Sunday after-
noon the judges were to make a special tour of
inspection, and Mr. Hubbard, after much trouble,
had obtained a promise that they would spend a
few minutes examining Bell's telephone. By
this time it had been on exhibition for more
than six weeks, without attracting the serious
attention of anybody.
When Sunday afternoon arrived, Bell was at
his little table, nervous, yet confident. But hour
after hour went by, and the judges did not arrive.
The day was intensely hot, and they had many
wonders to examine. There was the first electric
light, and the first grain-binder, and the
musical telegraph of Elisha Gray, and the marvellous
exhibit of printing telegraphs shown by
the Western Union Company. By the time they
came to Bell's table, through a litter of school-
desks and blackboards, the hour was seven
o'clock, and every man in the party was hot, tired,
and hungry. Several announced their intention
of returning to their hotels. One took up a telephone
receiver, looked at it blankly, and put it
down again. He did not even place it to his ear.
Another judge made a slighting remark which
raised a laugh at Bell's expense. Then a most
marvellous thing happened--such an incident as
would make a chapter in "The Arabian Nights
Accompanied by his wife, the Empress
Theresa, and by a bevy of courtiers, the Emperor
of Brazil, Dom Pedro de Alcantara, walked
into the room, advanced with both hands outstretched
to the bewildered Bell, and exclaimed:
"Professor Bell, I am delighted to see you
again." The judges at once forgot the heat
and the fatigue and the hunger. Who was
this young inventor, with the pale complexion
and black eyes, that he should be the friend
of Emperors? They did not know, and for
the moment even Bell himself had forgotten,
that Dom Pedro had once visited Bell's class
of deaf-mutes at Boston University. He was
especially interested in such humanitarian work,
and had recently helped to organize the first
Brazilian school for deaf-mutes at Rio de
Janeiro. And so, with the tall, blond-bearded
Dom Pedro in the centre, the assembled judges,
and scientists--there were fully fifty in all--
entered with unusual zest into the proceedings of
this first telephone exhibition.
A wire had been strung from one end of the
room to the other, and while Bell went to the
transmitter, Dom Pedro took up the receiver and
placed it to his ear. It was a moment of tense
expectancy. No one knew clearly what was
about to happen, when the Emperor, with a
dramatic gesture, raised his head from the receiver
and exclaimed with a look of utter amazement:
"MY GOD--IT TALKS!"
Next came to the receiver the oldest scientist
in the group, the venerable Joseph Henry, whose
encouragement to Bell had been so timely. He
stopped to listen, and, as one of the bystanders
afterwards said, no one could forget the look of
awe that came into his face as he heard that iron
disc talking with a human voice. "This," said
he, "comes nearer to overthrowing the doctrine
of the conservation of energy than anything I
Then came Sir William Thomson, latterly
known as Lord Kelvin. It was fitting that he
should be there, for he was the foremost elec-
trical scientist at that time in the world, and had
been the engineer of the first Atlantic Cable.
He listened and learned what even he had not
known before, that a solid metallic body could
take up from the air all the countless varieties of
vibrations produced by speech, and that these
vibrations could be carried along a wire and
reproduced exactly by a second metallic body. He
nodded his head solemnly as he rose from the
receiver. "It DOES speak," he said emphatically.
"It is the most wonderful thing I have seen in
So, one after another, this notable company
of men listened to the voice of the first telephone,
and the more they knew of science, the less they
were inclined to believe their ears. The wiser
they were, the more they wondered. To Henry
and Thomson, the masters of electrical magic, this
instrument was as surprising as it was to the man
in the street. And both were noble enough to
admit frankly their astonishment in the reports
which they made as judges, when they gave Bell
a Certificate of Award. "Mr. Bell has achieved
a result of transcendent scientific interest,"
wrote Sir William Thomson. "I heard it speak
distinctly several sentences. . . . I was
astonished and delighted. . . . It is the
greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the electric
Until nearly ten o'clock that night the judges
talked and listened by turns at the telephone.
Then, next morning, they brought the apparatus
to the judges' pavilion, where for the remainder
of the summer it was mobbed by judges and scientists.
Sir William Thomson and his wife ran
back and forth between the two ends of the wire
like a pair of delighted children. And thus it
happened that the crude little instrument that
had been tossed into an out-of-the-way corner
became the star of the Centennial. It had been
given no more than eighteen words in the official
catalogue, and here it was acclaimed as the wonder
of wonders. It had been conceived in a cellar
and born in a machine-shop; and now, of all the
gifts that our young American Republic had
received on its one-hundredth birthday, the telephone
was honored as the rarest and most welcome
of them all.
THE BUILDING OF THE BUSINESS
After the telephone had been born in Boston,
baptized in the Patent Office, and
given a royal reception at the Philadelphia Centennial,
it might be supposed that its life thenceforth
would be one of peace and pleasantness.
But as this is history, and not fancy, there must
be set down the very surprising fact that the
young newcomer received no welcome and no
notice from the great business world. "It is a
scientific toy," said the men of trade and
commerce. "It is an interesting instrument, of
course, for professors of electricity and acoustics;
but it can never be a practical necessity. As
well might you propose to put a telescope into
a steel-mill or to hitch a balloon to a shoe-
Poor Bell, instead of being applauded, was
pelted with a hailstorm of ridicule. He was an
"impostor," a "ventriloquist," a "crank who says
he can talk through a wire." The London Times
alluded pompously to the telephone as the latest
American humbug, and gave many profound
reasons why speech could not be sent over a wire,
because of the intermittent nature of the electric
current. Almost all electricians--the men who
were supposed to know--pronounced the telephone
an impossible thing; and those who did
not openly declare it to be a hoax, believed that
Bell had stumbled upon some freakish use of
electricity, which could never be of any practical
Even though he came late in the succession of
inventors, Bell had to run the gantlet of scoffing
and adversity. By the reception that the public
gave to his telephone, he learned to sympathize
with Howe, whose first sewing-machine was
smashed by a Boston mob; with McCormick,
whose first reaper was called "a cross between an
Astley chariot, a wheelbarrow, and a flying-
machine"; with Morse, whom ten Congresses regarded
as a nuisance; with Cyrus Field, whose
Atlantic Cable was denounced as "a mad freak
of stubborn ignorance"; and with Westinghouse,
who was called a fool for proposing "to stop a
railroad train with wind."
The very idea of talking at a piece of sheet-
iron was so new and extraordinary that the normal
mind repulsed it. Alike to the laborer and
the scientist, it was incomprehensible. It was
too freakish, too bizarre, to be used outside of
the laboratory and the museum. No one, literally,
could understand how it worked; and the
only man who offered a clear solution of the
mystery was a Boston mechanic, who maintained
that there was "a hole through the middle
of the wire."
People who talked for the first time into a
telephone box had a sort of stage fright. They
felt foolish. To do so seemed an absurd performance,
especially when they had to shout at
the top of their voices. Plainly, whatever of
convenience there might be in this new contrivance
was far outweighed by the loss of personal
dignity; and very few men had sufficient imagination
to picture the telephone as a part of the
machinery of their daily work. The banker said
it might do well enough for grocers, but that it
would never be of any value to banking; and the
grocer said it might do well enough for bankers,
but that it would never be of any value to grocers.
As Bell had worked out his invention in Salem,
one editor displayed the headline, "Salem
Witchcraft." The New York Herald said: "The
effect is weird and almost supernatural." The
Providence Press said: "It is hard to resist
the notion that the powers of darkness are somehow
in league with it." And The Boston Times
said, in an editorial of bantering ridicule: "A
fellow can now court his girl in China as well
as in East Boston; but the most serious aspect
of this invention is the awful and irresponsible
power it will give to the average mother-in-
law, who will be able to send her voice around
the habitable globe."
There were hundreds of shrewd capitalists in
American cities in 1876, looking with sharp eyes
in all directions for business chances; but not one
of them came to Bell with an offer to buy his
patent. Not one came running for a State contract.
And neither did any legislature, or
city council, come forward to the task of giving
the people a cheap and efficient telephone service.
As for Bell himself, he was not a man of affairs.
In all practical business matters, he was as
incompetent as a Byron or a Shelley. He had
done his part, and it now remained for men of
different abilities to take up his telephone and
adapt it to the uses and conditions of the business
The first man to undertake this work was Gardiner
G. Hubbard, who became soon afterwards
the father-in-law of Bell. He, too, was a man
of enthusiasm rather than of efficiency. He was
not a man of wealth or business experience, but
he was admirably suited to introduce the telephone
to a hostile public. His father had been
a judge of the Massachusetts Supreme Court;
and he himself was a lawyer whose practice had
been mainly in matters of legislation. He was,
in 1876, a man of venerable appearance, with
white hair, worn long, and a patriarchal beard.
He was a familiar figure in Washington, and well
known among the public men of his day. A versatile
and entertaining companion, by turns
prosperous and impecunious, and an optimist
always, Gardiner Hubbard became a really
indispensable factor as the first advance agent of
the telephone business.
No other citizen had done more for the city of
Cambridge than Hubbard. It was he who secured
gas for Cambridge in 1853, and pure
water, and a street-railway to Boston. He had
gone through the South in 1860 in the patriotic
hope that he might avert the impending Civil
War. He had induced the legislature to establish
the first public school for deaf-mutes, the
school that drew Bell to Boston in 1871. And he
had been for years a most restless agitator for
improvements in telegraphy and the post office.
So, as a promoter of schemes for the public good,
Hubbard was by no means a novice. His first
step toward capturing the attention of an indifferent
nation was to beat the big drum of publicity.
He saw that this new idea of telephoning
must be made familiar to the public mind. He
talked telephone by day and by night. Whenever
he travelled, he carried a pair of the magical
instruments in his valise, and gave demonstra-
tions on trains and in hotels. He buttonholed
every influential man who crossed his path.
He was a veritable "Ancient Mariner" of the
telephone. No possible listener was allowed to
Further to promote this campaign of publicity,
Hubbard encouraged Bell and Watson to perform
a series of sensational feats with the telephone.
A telegraph wire between New York
and Boston was borrowed for half an hour, and
in the presence of Sir William Thomson, Bell
sent a tune over the two-hundred-and-fifty-mile
line. "Can you hear?" he asked the operator
at the New York end. "Elegantly," responded
the operator. "What tune?" asked Bell.
"Yankee Doodle," came the answer. Shortly
afterwards, while Bell was visiting at his
father's house in Canada, he bought up all the
stove-pipe wire in the town, and tacked it to
a rail fence between the house and a telegraph
office. Then he went to a village eight miles
distant and sent scraps of songs and Shakespearean
quotations over the wire.
There was still a large percentage of people
who denied that spoken words could be transmitted
by a wire. When Watson talked to Bell
at public demonstrations, there were newspaper
editors who referred sceptically to "the
supposititious Watson." So, to silence these doubters,
Bell and Watson planned a most severe test
of the telephone. They borrowed the telegraph
line between Boston and the Cambridge Observatory,
and attached a telephone to each end.
Then they maintained, for three hours or longer,
the FIRST SUSTAINED conversation by telephone,
each one taking careful notes of what he said
and of what he heard. These notes were published
in parallel columns in The Boston Advertiser,
October 19, 1876, and proved beyond
question that the telephone was now a practical
After this, one event crowded quickly on the
heels of another. A series of ten lectures was
arranged for Bell, at a hundred dollars a lecture,
which was the first money payment he
had received for his invention. His opening
night was in Salem, before an audience
of five hundred people, and with Mrs. Sand-
ers, the motherly old lady who had sheltered
Bell in the days of his experiment, sitting
proudly in one of the front seats. A pole
was set up at the front of the hall, supporting
the end of a telegraph wire that ran from Salem
to Boston. And Watson, who became the first
public talker by telephone, sent messages from
Boston to various members of the audience. An
account of this lecture was sent by telephone to
The Boston Globe, which announced the next
"This special despatch of the Globe has been
transmitted by telephone in the presence of twenty people,
who have thus been witnesses to a feat never before
attempted--the sending of news over the space of sixteen
miles by the human voice."
This Globe despatch awoke the newspaper
editors with an unexpected jolt. For the first
time they began to notice that there was
a new word in the language, and a new
idea in the scientific world. No newspaper
had made any mention whatever of the
telephone for seventy-five days after Bell
received his patent. Not one of the swarm
of reporters who thronged the Philadelphia
Centennial had regarded the telephone as a
matter of any public interest. But when a column
of news was sent by telephone to The Boston
Globe, the whole newspaper world was agog
with excitement. A thousand pens wrote the
name of Bell. Requests to repeat his lecture
came to Bell from Cyrus W. Field, the veteran
of the Atlantic Cable, from the poet Longfellow,
and from many others.
As he was by profession an elocutionist, Bell
was able to make the most of these opportunities.
His lectures became popular entertainments.
They were given in the largest halls. At one
lecture two Japanese gentlemen were induced to
talk to one another in their own language, via
the telephone. At a second lecture a band
played "The Star-Spangled Banner," in Boston,
and was heard by an audience of two thousand
people in Providence. At a third, Signor Ferranti,
who was in Providence, sang a selection
from "The Marriage of Figaro" to an audience
in Boston. At a fourth, an exhortation from
Moody and a song from Sankey came over the
vibrating wire. And at a fifth, in New Haven,
Bell stood sixteen Yale professors in line, hand
in hand, and talked through their bodies--a
feat which was then, and is to-day, almost too
wonderful to believe.
Very slowly these lectures, and the tireless
activity of Hubbard, pushed back the ridicule
and the incredulity; and in the merry month of
May, 1877, a man named Emery drifted into
Hubbard's office from the near-by city of Charlestown,
and leased two telephones for twenty
actual dollars--the first money ever paid for a
telephone. This was the first feeble sign that
such a novelty as the telephone business could be
established; and no money ever looked handsomer
than this twenty dollars did to Bell,
Sanders, Hubbard, and Watson. It was the
tiny first-fruit of fortune.
Greatly encouraged, they prepared a little circular
which was the first advertisement of the
telephone business. It is an oddly simple little
document to-day, but to the 1877 brain it was
startling. It modestly claimed that a telephone
was superior to a telegraph for three reasons:
"(1) No skilled operator is required, but direct
communication may be had by speech without the intervention
of a third person.
"(2) The communication is much more rapid, the
average number of words transmitted in a minute by the
Morse sounder being from fifteen to twenty, by telephone
from one to two hundred.
"(3) No expense is required, either for its operation
or repair. It needs no battery and has no complicated
machinery. It is unsurpassed for economy and simplicity."
The only telephone line in the world at this
time was between the Williams' workshop in
Boston and the home of Mr. Williams in Somerville.
But in May, 1877, a young man named
E. T. Holmes, who was running a burglar-alarm
business in Boston, proposed that a few telephones
be linked to his wires. He was a friend
and customer of Williams, and suggested this
plan half in jest and half in earnest. Hubbard
was quick to seize this opportunity, and at once
lent Holmes a dozen telephones. Without asking
permission, Holmes went into six banks and
nailed up a telephone in each. Five bankers
made no protest, but the sixth indignantly
ordered "that playtoy" to be taken out. The
other five telephones could be connected by a
switch in Holmes's office, and thus was born the
first tiny and crude Telephone Exchange. Here
it ran for several weeks as a telephone system
by day and a burglar-alarm by night. No
money was paid by the bankers. The service
was given to them as an exhibition and an advertisement.
The little shelf with its five telephones
was no more like the marvellous exchanges of
to-day than a canoe is like a Cunarder, but it was
unquestionably the first place where several telephone
wires came together and could be united.
Soon afterwards, Holmes took his telephones
out of the banks, and started a real telephone
business among the express companies of Boston.
But by this time several exchanges had been
opened for ordinary business, in New Haven,
Bridgeport, New York, and Philadelphia.
Also, a man from Michigan had arrived, with the
hardihood to ask for a State agency--George
W. Balch, of Detroit. He was so welcome that
Hubbard joyfully gave him everything he asked
--a perpetual right to the whole State of Michigan.
Balch was not required to pay a cent in
advance, except his railway fare, and before he
was many years older he had sold his lease for
a handsome fortune of a quarter of a million
dollars, honestly earned by his initiative and
By August, when Bell's patent was sixteen
months old, there were 778 telephones in use.
This looked like success to the optimistic Hubbard.
He decided that the time had come to
organize the business, so he created a simple
agreement which he called the "Bell Telephone
Association." This agreement gave Bell, Hubbard
and Sanders a three-tenths interest apiece
in the patents, and Watson one-tenth. THERE WAS
NO CAPITAL. There was none to be had.
The four men had at this time an absolute
monopoly of the telephone business; and everybody
else was quite willing that they should
The only man who had money and dared to
stake it on the future of the telephone was
Thomas Sanders, and he did this not mainly for
business reasons. Both he and Hubbard were
attached to Bell primarily by sentiment, as Bell
had removed the blight of dumbness from
Sanders's little son, and was soon to marry
Also, Sanders had no expectation, at first, that
so much money would be needed. He was not
rich. His entire business, which was that of cutting
out soles for shoe manufacturers, was not at
any time worth more than thirty-five thousand
dollars. Yet, from 1874 to 1878, he had
advanced nine-tenths of the money that was spent
on the telephone. He had paid Bell's room-rent,
and Watson's wages, and Williams's expenses,
and the cost of the exhibit at the Centennial.
The first five thousand telephones, and more,
were made with his money. And so many long,
expensive months dragged by before any
relief came to Sanders, that he was compelled,
much against his will and his business
judgment, to stretch his credit within an inch
of the breaking-point to help Bell and the telephone.
Desperately he signed note after note
until he faced a total of one hundred and ten
thousand dollars. If the new "scientific toy"
succeeded, which he often doubted, he would
be the richest citizen in Haverhill; and if it
failed, which he sorely feared, he would be a
A disheartening series of rebuffs slowly forced
the truth in upon Sanders's mind that the business
world refused to accept the telephone as an
article of commerce. It was a toy, a plaything,
a scientific wonder, but not a necessity to be
bought and used for ordinary purposes by ordinary
people. Capitalists treated it exactly as
they treated the Atlantic Cable project when
Cyrus Field visited Boston in 1862. They
admired and marvelled; but not a man subscribed
a dollar. Also, Sanders very soon learned that it
was a most unpropitious time for the setting
afloat of a new enterprise. It was a period of
turmoil and suspicion. What with the Jay
Cooke failure, the Hayes-Tilden deadlock, and
the bursting of a hundred railroad bubbles,
there was very little in the news of the day to
It was impossible for Sanders, or Bell, or Hubbard,
to prepare any definite plan. No matter
what the plan might have been, they had no
money to put it through. They believed that
they had something new and marvellous, which
some one, somewhere, would be willing to buy.
Until this good genie should arrive, they could do
no more than flounder ahead, and take whatever
business was the nearest and the cheapest. So
while Bell, in eloquent rhapsodies, painted word-
pictures of a universal telephone service to
applauding audiences, Sanders and Hubbard were
leasing telephones two by two, to business men
who previously had been using the private lines
of the Western Union Telegraph Company.
This great corporation was at the time their
natural and inevitable enemy. It had swallowed
most of its competitors, and was reaching out to
monopolize all methods of communication by
wire. The rosiest hope that shone in front of
Sanders and Hubbard was that the Western
Union might conclude to buy the Bell patents,
just as it had already bought many others. In
one moment of discouragement they had offered
the telephone to President Orton, of the Western
Union, for $100,000; and Orton had refused it.
"What use," he asked pleasantly, "could this
company make of an electrical toy?"
But besides the operation of its own wires, the
Western Union was supplying customers with
various kinds of printing-telegraphs and dial
telegraphs, some of which could transmit sixty
words a minute. These accurate instruments, it
believed, could never be displaced by such a scientific
oddity as the telephone. And it continued
to believe this until one of its subsidiary
companies--the Gold and Stock--reported that
several of its machines had been superseded by
At once the Western Union awoke from its
indifference. Even this tiny nibbling at its business
must be stopped. It took action quickly
and organized the "American Speaking-Telephone
Company," with $300,000 capital, and
with three electrical inventors, Edison, Gray, and
Dolbear, on its staff. With all the bulk of its
great wealth and prestige, it swept down upon
Bell and his little bodyguard. It trampled upon
Bell's patent with as little concern as an elephant
can have when he tramples upon an ant's nest.
To the complete bewilderment of Bell, it coolly
announced that it had "the only original telephone,"
and that it was ready to supply "superior
telephones with all the latest improvements
made by the original inventors--Dolbear, Gray,
The result was strange and unexpected. The
Bell group, instead of being driven from the
field, were at once lifted to a higher level in the
business world. The effect was as if the Standard
Oil Company were to commence the manufacture
of aeroplanes. In a flash, the telephone
ceased to be a "scientific toy," and became an
article of commerce. It began for the first time
to be taken seriously. And the Western Union,
in the endeavor to protect its private lines, became
involuntarily a bell-wether to lead capitalists
in the direction of the telephone.
Sanders's relatives, who were many and rich,
came to his rescue. Most of them were well-
known business men--the Bradleys, the Saltonstalls,
Fay, Silsbee, and Carlton. These men,
together with Colonel William H. Forbes, who
came in as a friend of the Bradleys, were the first
capitalists who, for purely business reasons,
invested money in the Bell patents. Two months
after the Western Union had given its weighty
endorsement to the telephone, these men organized
a company to do business in New England
only, and put fifty thousand dollars in its
In a short time the delighted Hubbard found
himself leasing telephones at the rate of a thousand
a month. He was no longer a promoter,
but a general manager. Men were standing in
line to ask for agencies. Crude little telephone
exchanges were being started in a dozen or more
cities. There was a spirit of confidence and enterprise;
and the next step, clearly, was to create
a business organization. None of the partners
were competent to undertake such a work.
Hubbard had little aptitude as an organizer; Bell
had none; and Sanders was held fast by his
leather interests. Here, at last, after four years
of the most heroic effort, were the raw materials
out of which a telephone business could be
constructed. But who was to be the builder, and
where was he to be found?
One morning the indefatigable Hubbard
solved the problem. "Watson," he said, "there's
a young man in Washington who can handle
this situation, and I want you to run down
and see what you think of him." Watson
went, reported favorably, and in a day or
so the young man received a letter from
Hubbard, offering him the position of General
Manager, at a salary of thirty-five hundred
dollars a year. "We rely," Hubbard said,
"upon your executive ability, your fidelity, and
unremitting zeal." The young man replied, in
one of those dignified letters more usual in
the nineteenth than in the twentieth century.
"My faith in the success of the enterprise is such
that I am willing to trust to it," he wrote, "and I
have confidence that we shall establish the harmony
and cooperation that is essential to the
success of an enterprise of this kind." One week
later the young man, Theodore N. Vail, took
his seat as General Manager in a tiny office in
Reade Street, New York, and the building of the
This arrival of Vail at the critical moment
emphasized the fact that Bell was one of the most
fortunate of inventors. He was not robbed of
his invention, as might easily have happened.
One by one there arrived to help him a number of
able men, with all the various abilities that the
changing situation required. There was such a
focussing of factors that the whole matter
appeared to have been previously rehearsed. No
sooner had Bell appeared on the stage than his
supporting players, each in his turn, received his
cue and took part in the action of the drama.
There was not one of these men who could have
done the work of any other. Each was distinctive
and indispensable. Bell invented the telephone;
Watson constructed it; Sanders financed
it; Hubbard introduced it; and Vail put it on a
The new General Manager had, of course, no
experience in the telephone business. Neither
had any one else. But he, like Bell, came to his
task with a most surprising fitness. He was a
member of the historic Vail family of Morristown,
New Jersey, which had operated the
Speedwell Iron Works for four or five generations.
His grand-uncle Stephen had built the
engines for the Savannah, the first American
steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean; and his
cousin Alfred was the friend and co-worker of
Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. Morse
had lived for several years at the Vail homestead
in Morristown; and it was here that he
erected his first telegraph line, a three-mile circle
around the Iron Works, in 1838. He and
Alfred Vail experimented side by side in the
making of the telegraph, and Vail eventually received
a fortune for his share of the Morse patent.
Thus it happened that young Theodore Vail
learned the dramatic story of Morse at his
mother's knee. As a boy, he played around the
first telegraph line, and learned to put messages
on the wire. His favorite toy was a little
telegraph that he constructed for himself. At
twenty-two he went West, in the vague hope of
possessing a bonanza farm; then he swung back
into telegraphy, and in a few years found
himself in the Government Mail Service at Washington.
By 1876, he was at the head of this Department,
which he completely reorganized. He
introduced the bag system in postal cars, and
made war on waste and clumsiness. By virtue
of this position he was the one man in the United
States who had a comprehensive view of all railways
and telegraphs. He was much more apt,
consequently, than other men to develop the idea
of a national telephone system.
While in the midst of this bureaucratic house-
cleaning he met Hubbard, who had just been
appointed by President Hayes as the head of a
commission on mail transportation. He and
Hubbard were constantly thrown together, on
trains and in hotels; and as Hubbard invariably
had a pair of telephones in his valise, the two men
soon became co-enthusiasts. Vail found himself
painting brain-pictures of the future of the
telephone, and by the time that he was asked to
become its General Manager, he had become so
confident that, as he said afterwards, he "was
willing to leave a Government job with a small
salary for a telephone job with no salary."
So, just as Amos Kendall had left the post
office service thirty years before to establish the
telegraph business, Theodore N. Vail left the
post office service to establish the telephone business.
He had been in authority over thirty-five
hundred postal employees, and was the developer
of a system that covered every inhabited portion
of the country. Consequently, he had a quality of
experience that was immensely valuable in
straightening out the tangled affairs of the telephone.
Line by line, he mapped out a method, a
policy, a system. He introduced a larger view
of the telephone business, and swept off the table
all schemes for selling out. He persuaded half
a dozen of his post office friends to buy stock, so
that in less than two months the first "Bell
Telephone Company" was organized, with $450,000
capital and a service of twelve thousand
Vail's first step, naturally, was to stiffen up the
backbone of this little company, and to prevent
the Western Union from frightening it into a
surrender. He immediately sent a copy of Bell's
patent to every agent, with orders to hold the
fort against all opposition. "We have the only
original telephone patents," he wrote; "we have
organized and introduced the business, and we do
not propose to have it taken from us by any
corporation." To one agent, who was showing the
white feather, he wrote:
"You have too great an idea of the Western Union.
If it was all massed in your one city you might well
fear it; but it is represented there by one man only,
and he has probably as much as he can attend to outside
of the telephone. For you to acknowledge that
you cannot compete with his influence when you make
it your special business, is hardly the thing. There
may be a dozen concerns that will all go to the Western
Union, but they will not take with them all their friends.
I would advise that you go ahead and keep your present
advantage. We must organize companies with sufficient
vitality to carry on a fight, as it is simply useless
to get a company started that will succumb to the first
bit of opposition it may encounter."
Next, having encouraged his thoroughly
alarmed agents, Vail proceeded to build up a
definite business policy. He stiffened up the
contracts and made them good for five years only.
He confined each agent to one place, and reserved
all rights to connect one city with another.
He established a department to collect and pro-
tect any new inventions that concerned the telephone.
He agreed to take part of the royalties
in stock, when any local company preferred to
pay its debts in this way. And he took steps
toward standardizing all telephonic apparatus by
controlling the factories that made it.
These various measures were part of Vail's
plan to create a national telephone system. His
central idea, from the first, was not the mere
leasing of telephones, but rather the creation
of a Federal company that would be a permanent
partner in the entire telephone business. Even
in that day of small things, and amidst the
confusion and rough-and-tumble of pioneering, he
worked out the broad policy that prevails to-day;
and this goes far to explain the fact that
there are in the United States twice as many
telephones as there are in all other countries
Vail arrived very much as Blucher did at the
battle of Waterloo--a trifle late, but in time to
prevent the telephone forces from being routed
by the Old Guard of the Western Union. He
was scarcely seated in his managerial chair, when
the Western Union threw the entire Bell army
into confusion by launching the Edison transmitter.
Edison, who was at that time fairly
started in his career of wizardry, had made an
instrument of marvellous alertness. It was beyond
all argument superior to the telephones then in
use and the lessees of Bell telephones clamored
with one voice for "a transmitter as good as
Edison's." This, of course, could not be had in a
moment, and the five months that followed were
the darkest days in the childhood of the telephone.
How to compete with the Western Union,
which had this superior transmitter, a host of
agents, a network of wires, forty millions of
capital, and a first claim upon all newspapers,
hotels, railroads, and rights of way--that was
the immediate problem that confronted the new
General Manager. Every inch of progress had
to be fought for. Several of his captains
deserted, and he was compelled to take control
of their unprofitable exchanges. There was
scarcely a mail that did not bring him some
bulletin of discouragement or defeat.
In the effort to conciliate a hostile public, the
telephone rates had everywhere been made too
low. Hubbard had set a price of twenty dollars
a year, for the use of two telephones on a private
line; and when exchanges were started, the rate
was seldom more than three dollars a month.
There were deadheads in abundance, mostly officials
and politicians. In St. Louis, one of the
few cities that charged a sufficient price, nine-
tenths of the merchants refused to become
subscribers. In Boston, the first pay-station ran
three months before it earned a dollar. Even as
late as 1880, when the first National Telephone
Convention was held at Niagara Falls, one of the
delegates expressed the general situation very
correctly when he said: "We were all in a state
of enthusiastic uncertainty. We were full of
hope, yet when we analyzed those hopes they were
very airy indeed. There was probably not one
company that could say it was making a cent, nor
even that it EXPECTED to make a cent."
Especially in the largest cities, where the
Western Union had most power, the lives of the
telephone pioneers were packed with hardships
and adventures. In Philadelphia, for instance, a
resolute young man named Thomas E. Cornish
was attacked as though he had suddenly become a
public enemy, when he set out to establish the
first telephone service. No official would grant
him a permit to string wires. His workmen were
arrested. The printing-telegraph men warned
him that he must either quit or be driven out.
When he asked capitalists for money, they replied
that he might as well expect to lease jew's-
harps as telephones. Finally, he was compelled
to resort to strategy where argument had failed.
He had received an order from Colonel Thomas
Scott, who wanted a wire between his house and
his office. Colonel Scott was the President of the
Pennsylvania Railroad, and therefore a man of
the highest prestige in the city. So as soon as
Cornish had put this line in place, he kept his men
at work stringing other lines. When the police
interfered, he showed them Colonel Scott's signature
and was let alone. In this way he put
fifteen wires up before the trick was discovered;
and soon afterwards, with eight subscribers, he
founded the first Philadelphia exchange.
As may be imagined, such battling as this did
not put much money into the treasury of the
parent company; and the letters written by
Sanders at this time prove that it was in a hard
The following was one of the queries put to
Hubbard by the overburdened Sanders:
"How on earth do you expect me to meet a
draft of two hundred and seventy-five dollars
without a dollar in the treasury, and with a debt
of thirty thousand dollars staring us in the face?"
"Vail's salary is small enough," he continued
in a second letter, "but as to where it is coming
from I am not so clear. Bradley is awfully blue
and discouraged. Williams is tormenting me
for money and my personal credit will not stand
everything. I have advanced the Company two
thousand dollars to-day, and Williams must have
three thousand dollars more this month. His
pay-day has come and his capital will not carry
him another inch. If Bradley throws up his
hand, I will unfold to you my last desperate
And if the company had little money, it had
less credit. Once when Vail had ordered a small
bill of goods from a merchant named Tillotson, of
15 Dey Street, New York, the merchant replied
that the goods were ready, and so was the bill,
which was seven dollars. By a strange coincidence,
the magnificent building of the New
York Telephone Company stands to-day on the
site of Tillotson's store.
Month after month, the little Bell Company
lived from hand to mouth. No salaries were paid
in full. Often, for weeks, they were not paid
at all. In Watson's note-book there are such
entries during this period as "Lent Bell fifty
cents," "Lent Hubbard twenty cents," "Bought
one bottle beer--too bad can't have beer every
day." More than once Hubbard would have
gone hungry had not Devonshire, the only clerk,
shared with him the contents of a dinner-pail.
Each one of the little group was beset by taunts
and temptations. Watson was offered ten thousand
dollars for his one-tenth interest, and hesitated
three days before refusing it. Railroad
companies offered Vail a salary that was higher
and sure, if he would superintend their mail business.
And as for Sanders, his folly was the talk
of Haverhill. One Haverhill capitalist, E. J. M.
Hale, stopped him on the street and asked,
"Have n't you got a good leather business, Mr.
Sanders?" "Yes," replied Sanders. "Well,"
said Hale, "you had better attend to it and quit
playing on wind instruments." Sanders's
banker, too, became uneasy on one occasion and
requested him to call at the bank. "Mr.
Sanders," he said, "I will be obliged if you will
take that telephone stock out of the bank, and
give me in its place your note for thirty thousand
dollars. I am expecting the examiner here in a
few days, and I don't want to get caught with
that stuff in the bank."
Then, in the very midnight of this depression,
poor Bell returned from England, whither he and
his bride had gone on their honeymoon, and
announced that he had no money; that he had
failed to establish a telephone business in England;
and that he must have a thousand dollars
at once to pay his urgent debts. He was
thoroughly discouraged and sick. As he lay in
the Massachusetts General Hospital, he wrote a
cry for help to the embattled little company that
was making its desperate fight to protect his
patents. "Thousands of telephones are now in
operation in all parts of the country," he said,
"yet I have not yet received one cent from my
invention. On the contrary, I am largely out of
pocket by my researches, as the mere value of the
profession that I have sacrificed during my three
years' work, amounts to twelve thousand dollars."
Fortunately, there came, in almost the same
mail with Bell's letter, another letter from a
young Bostonian named Francis Blake, with the
good news that he had invented a transmitter as
satisfactory as Edison's, and that he would prefer
to sell it for stock instead of cash. If ever a man
came as an angel of light, that man was Francis
Blake. The possession of his transmitter instantly
put the Bell Company on an even footing
with the Western Union, in the matter of
apparatus. It encouraged the few capitalists
who had invested money, and it stirred others to
come forward. The general business situation
had by this time become more settled, and in four
months the company had twenty-two thousand
telephones in use, and had reorganized into the
National Bell Telephone Company, with $850,
000 capital and with Colonel Forbes as its first
President. Forbes now picked up the load that
had been carried so long by Sanders. As the son
of an East India merchant and the son-in-law
of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was a Bostonian
of the Brahmin caste. He was a big, four-
square man who was both popular and efficient;
and his leadership at this crisis was of immense
This reorganization put the telephone business
into the hands of competent business men at every
point. It brought the heroic and experimental
period to an end. From this time onwards the
telephone had strong friends in the financial
world. It was being attacked by the Western
Union and by rival inventors who were jealous
of Bell's achievement. It was being half-starved
by cheap rates and crippled by clumsy apparatus.
It was being abused and grumbled at by an
impatient public. But the art of making and
marketing it had at last been built up into a
commercial enterprise. It was now a business,
fighting for its life.
THE HOLDING OF THE BUSINESS
For seventeen months no one disputed Bell's
claim to be the original inventor of the
telephone. All the honor, such as it was, had
been given to him freely, and no one came forward
to say that it was not rightfully his. No
one, so far as we know, had any strong desire to
do so. No one conceived that the telephone
would ever be any more than a whimsical oddity
of science. It was so new, so unexpected, that
from Lord Kelvin down to the messenger boys
in the telegraph offices, it was an incomprehensible
surprise. But after Bell had explained his
invention in public lectures before more than
twenty thousand people, after it had been on exhibition
for months at the Philadelphia Centennial,
after several hundred articles on it had appeared
in newspapers and scientific magazines, and after
actual sales of telephones had been made in
various parts of the country, there began to
appear such a succession of claimants and infringers
that the forgetful public came to believe
that the telephone, like most inventions, was the
product of many minds.
Just as Morse, who was the sole inventor of the
American telegraph in 1837, was confronted by
sixty-two rivals in 1838, so Bell, who was the sole
inventor in 1876, found himself two years later
almost mobbed by the "Tichborne claimants" of
the telephone. The inventors who had been his
competitors in the attempt to produce a musical
telegraph, persuaded themselves that they had
unconsciously done as much as he. Any possessor
of a telegraphic patent, who had used
the common phrase "talking wire," had a chance
to build up a plausible story of prior invention.
And others came forward with claims so vague
and elusive that Bell would scarcely have been
more surprised if the heirs of Goethe had
demanded a share of the telephone royalties on
the ground that Faust had spoken of "making
a bridge through the moving air."
This babel of inventors and pretenders amazed
Bell and disconcerted his backers. But it was no
more than might have been expected. Here was
a patent--"the most valuable single patent ever
issued"--and yet the invention itself was so
simple that it could be duplicated easily by any
smart boy or any ordinary mechanic. The making
of a telephone was like the trick of Columbus
standing an egg on end. Nothing was easier to
those who knew how. And so it happened that,
as the crude little model of Bell's original telephone
lay in the Patent Office open and unprotected
except by a few phrases that clever lawyers
might evade, there sprang up inevitably around
it the most costly and persistent Patent War that
any country has ever known, continuing for
eleven years and comprising SIX HUNDRED LAWSUITS.
The first attack upon the young telephone business
was made by the Western Union Telegraph
Company. It came charging full tilt upon Bell,
driving three inventors abreast--Edison, Gray,
and Dolbear. It expected an easy victory; in
fact, the disparity between the two opponents
was so evident, that there seemed little chance of
a contest of any kind. "The Western Union will
swallow up the telephone people," said public
opinion, "just as it has already swallowed up all
improvements in telegraphy."
At that time, it should be remembered, the
Western Union was the only corporation that was
national in its extent. It was the most powerful
electrical company in the world, and, as Bell
wrote to his parents, "probably the largest
corporation that ever existed." It had behind it
not only forty millions of capital, but the prestige
of the Vanderbilts, and the favor of financiers
everywhere. Also, it met the telephone pioneers
at every point because it, too, was a WIRE company.
It owned rights-of-way along roads and
on house-tops. It had a monopoly of hotels and
railroad offices. No matter in what direction the
Bell Company turned, the live wire of the Western
Union lay across its path.
From the first, the Western Union relied more
upon its strength than upon the merits of its case.
Its chief electrical expert, Frank L. Pope, had
made a six months' examination of the Bell
patents. He had bought every book in the
United States and Europe that was likely to
have any reference to the transmission of speech,
and employed a professor who knew eight
languages to translate them. He and his men
ransacked libraries and patent offices; they
rummaged and sleuthed and interviewed; and
found nothing of any value. In his final report
to the Western Union, Mr. Pope announced that
there was no way to make a telephone except
Bell's way, and advised the purchase of the Bell
patents. "I am entirely unable to discover any
apparatus or method anticipating the invention of
Bell as a whole," he said; "and I conclude that
his patent is valid." But the officials of the great
corporation refused to take this report seriously.
They threw it aside and employed Edison, Gray,
and Dolbear to devise a telephone that could be
put into competition with Bell's.
As we have seen in the previous chapter, there
now came a period of violent competition which
is remembered as the Dark Ages of the telephone
business. The Western Union bought out
several of the Bell exchanges and opened up a
lively war on the others. As befitting its size, it
claimed everything. It introduced Gray as the
original inventor of the telephone, and ordered
its lawyers to take action at once against the Bell
Company for infringement of the Gray patent.
This high-handed action, it hoped, would most
quickly bring the little Bell group into a humble
and submissive frame of mind. Every morning
the Western Union looked to see the white flag
flying over the Bell headquarters. But no white
flag appeared. On the contrary, the news came
that the Bell Company had secured two eminent
lawyers and were ready to give battle.
The case began in the Autumn of 1878 and
lasted for a year. Then it came to a sudden and
most unexpected ending. The lawyer-in-chief of
the Western Union was George Gifford, who was
perhaps the ablest patent attorney of his day.
He was versed in patent lore from Alpha to
Omega; and as the trial proceeded, he became
convinced that the Bell patent was valid. He
notified the Western Union confidentially, of
course, that its case could not be proven, and that
"Bell was the original inventor of the telephone."
The best policy, he suggested, was to withdraw
their claims and make a settlement. This wise advice
was accepted, and the next day the white flag
was hauled up, not by the little group of Bell
fighters, who were huddled together in a tiny,
two-room office, but by the mighty Western
Union itself, which had been so arrogant when
the encounter began.
A committee of three from each side was appointed,
and after months of disputation, a
treaty of peace was drawn up and signed. By
the terms of this treaty the Western Union
(1) To admit that Bell was the original inventor.
(2) To admit that his patents were valid.
(3) To retire from the telephone business.
The Bell Company, in return for this surrender,
(1) To buy the Western Union telephone system.
(2) To pay the Western Union a royalty of twenty
per cent on all telephone rentals.
(3) To keep out of the telegraph business.
This agreement, which was to remain in force
for seventeen years, was a master-stroke of
diplomacy on the part of the Bell Company.
It was the Magna Charta of the telephone. It
transformed a giant competitor into a friend. It
added to the Bell System fifty-six thousand telephones
in fifty-five cities. And it swung the
valiant little company up to such a pinnacle of
prosperity that its stock went skyrocketing until
it touched one thousand dollars a share.