From wooden boxes to plastic cells: Bell’s telephone turns 140

Valerie Mason with display of early telephones

Valerie Mason with display of early telephones

Mr. Watson come here.”

With those imperious words, Alexander Graham Bell ushered in a new communications age, 140-years-ago today.

The inventor of the telephone was trying to get his device working on March 10, 1876 with the help of his assistant Thomas Watson who was in another room.

“Bell spilled a bit of acid on his pants and he yelled out, ‘Mr. Watson come here, I want you,'” says Valerie Mason, visitor experience manager at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Cape Breton.

“Watson heard him, so they knew they were on the right track,” she adds. “That was a big step in the development of the telephone.”

That first accidental phone call happened three days after Bell received his U.S. patent beating out rivals who claimed they were the telephone’s rightful inventors.

“Bell was able to patent his device first and what he patented was a much more practical device than anything that came closely afterwards,” Mason says.

“But he was in court defending his patent for the next 20 years or so. There were over 500 cases brought against him and he won all of them.”

Early telephones

Mason says the historic site’s display case of early 19th century telephones is a popular one with visitors. (Last year, nearly 80,000 of them came to the museum.)

The earliest commercial telephone in the case dates from 1877.

“It’s basically a wooden box with a hole in it,” she says.

“The hole served as the transmitter and the receiver. So you spoke into it and then you turned your head and you listened to it.”

Bell's earliest devices

Bell’s earliest devices

She says Bell himself would be pleased with today’s smartphones that give users the world at their fingertips.

“To unwind in the evening, sometimes he would read the encyclopedia,” she says.

“So, when you think about how thrilled he would be to have something that he could take and immediately find a fact whenever he wanted it or jot things down, he kept a notebook with him all the time so he could write down ideas when they came to him.”

She adds that Bell would love today’s phones except for their ringing.

“He never liked having a phone near him when he worked because he didn’t like the intrusion, but other than that, I think he’d be pretty pleased.”

Links: CHMA-FM report in which Valerie Mason talks about telephone history

Wikipedia entry on the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site

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