“Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you.”
When Alexander Graham Bell uttered those words, he was ushering in the third technology that would transform global communication.
With the advent of the printing press, books could be printed far more quickly than when copied by hand, expanding access to information. German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg provided that key to “unlocking the modern age” about 1476.
The telegraph was next, transforming how society could communicate over distance. Our drumbeats, smoke signals, semaphores and carrier pigeons gave way to the speed of electricity running along wires.
Samuel Morse, of Massachusetts, would invent a telegraph and convince the US government to build a line to test it. In the 1830s Morse and Alfred Vail also created the series of dots-and-dashes that we know as Morse code and that encoded the telegraph message from sender to receiver.
On 24 May 1844, Morse sent Vail the historic first message: “What hath God wrought!”
The telegraph would make the Pony Express redundant after the Western Union Telegraph Company completed the connection between New York City and San Francisco in 1861.
Next: using electricity to transmit speech
On 02 June 1875, Bell and Thomas Watson discovered, by accident, that sound could be transmitted over a wire. Bell received the patent on his invention on 07 March 1876, almost 32 years after the first telegraph message from Morse to Vail.
The first telephone line ran from Boston to Somerville, Massachusetts; it was completed in 1877. Also born: the first telephone exchange and switchboard. By 1900 the Bell telephone system had about 600,000 phones. By 1905, 2.2 million phones. By 1920, 5.8 million. Exponential growth.
Each of these technologies required networks to effect change.
In the case of books, one network already existed: the library (just not the lending kind). A network of teachers would spread literacy around the world, a network more social than technical.
Both the telegraph and telephone required physical networks of wire strung along poles as well as transmitters and receivers at either end of the wire.
The value of both the telegraph network and the telephone network was a function of the number of nodes (receiver/transmitter) as well as interoperability (could different networks communicate with one another).
Robert Metcalfe, co-founder of 3Com and co-inventor of Ethernet technology, is credited with the theory that the value of “a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.”
Metcalfe’s Law argues that there is an economic law of increasing returns. “Usually, when people share a piece of equipment, the return diminishes. When more people are engaged in the network, more value is returned to the user,” he wrote.
The logic is inescapable: a single telephone has no value. Two that are connected to one another have some value. Four, more. Sixteen, even more. And so forth.
The law of increasing returns would also apply to the Internet and to digital social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
And as with many inventions, there were naysayers.
There are conditions in America which necessitate the use of such instruments more than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind … The absence of servants has compelled America to adopt communications systems for domestic purposes.
~ Sir William Preece, chief engineer for the British Post Office, 1878, as reported in The Telephone in a Changing World by Marion May Dilts
As well as optimists:
Someday we will build up a world telephone system, making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language or common understanding of languages, which will join all the people of the earth into one brotherhood. There will be heard throughout the earth a great voice coming out of the ether which will proclaim, “Peace on earth, good will towards men.”
~ AT&T chief engineer and Electrical Review writer John J. Carty projected in his “Prophets Column” in 1891
Aside: Bell’s “father, uncle, and grandfather were authorities on elocution and speech therapy for the deaf.” He and his parents would immigrate from Scotland to Canada in 1870 and then later from Canada to Boston, Massachusetts.
[T]hey established speech-therapy practices specializing in teaching deaf children to speak. One of Alexander Graham Bell’s pupils was a young Helen Keller, who when they met was not only blind and deaf but also unable to speak.