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Communications Technology

The First Phone Call Was 133 Years Ago 196

Posted by kdawson
from the come-here-mister-watson dept.
magacious writes "March 10 is the 133rd anniversary of the first telephone call. It occurred between Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson back on this day in 1876. But there is some debate about whether Bell is actually the rightful owner of the crown for such invention. Having worked on the idea of transmitting speech using electricity for some time, Bell filed his patent on 14 February 1876, either just before or just after his main rival for the title of inventor of the telephone, Elisha Gray, filed his own. Bell won the patent and Gray died in obscurity."
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The First Phone Call Was 133 Years Ago

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  • Antonio Meucci (Score:5, Informative)

    by Shin-LaC (1333529) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @05:07AM (#27147551)
    was using his electromagnetic telephone [wikipedia.org] to talk to his wife from his basement lab to their second-floor bedroom in 1856.
    • Re:Antonio Meucci (Score:5, Informative)

      by Kirys (662749) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @05:24AM (#27147663) Homepage

      Meucci was the real owner of the idea of the phone. But he was almost forgotten, only recently it received some credits.

      • Re:Antonio Meucci (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @06:59AM (#27148151)

        H. Res. 269
        In the House of Representatives, U.S.,
        June 11, 2002.
        Whereas Antonio Meucci, the great Italian inventor, had a career that was both extraordinary and tragic;
        Whereas, upon immigrating to New York, Meucci continued to work with ceaseless vigor on a project he had begun in Havana, Cuba, an invention he later called the `teletrofono', involving electronic communications;
        Whereas Meucci set up a rudimentary communications link in his Staten Island home that connected the basement with the first floor, and later, when his wife began to suffer from crippling arthritis, he created a permanent link between his lab and his wife's second floor bedroom;
        Whereas, having exhausted most of his life's savings in pursuing his work, Meucci was unable to commercialize his invention, though he demonstrated his invention in 1860 and had a description of it published in New York's Italian language newspaper;
        Whereas Meucci never learned English well enough to navigate the complex American business community;
        Whereas Meucci was unable to raise sufficient funds to pay his way through the patent application process, and thus had to settle for a caveat, a one year renewable notice of an impending patent, which was first filed on December 28, 1871;
        Whereas Meucci later learned that the Western Union affiliate laboratory reportedly lost his working models, and Meucci, who at this point was living on public assistance, was unable to renew the caveat after 1874;
        Whereas in March 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, who conducted experiments in the same laboratory where Meucci's materials had been stored, was granted a patent and was thereafter credited with inventing the telephone;
        Whereas on January 13, 1887, the Government of the United States moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation, a case that the Supreme Court found viable and remanded for trial;
        Whereas Meucci died in October 1889, the Bell patent expired in January 1893, and the case was discontinued as moot without ever reaching the underlying issue of the true inventor of the telephone entitled to the patent; and
        Whereas if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell:
        Now, therefore, be it
        Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.
        Attest:
        Clerk.

        • Well that sucks, I was always kind of proud that my birthday is on the same day as Bell.

          I guess historical fame through massive fraud still counts as quite an achievement...

      • ...or 'top ups' as we call them in the UK
      • Re:Antonio Meucci (Score:5, Insightful)

        by hey! (33014) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @09:03AM (#27148949) Homepage Journal

        I think the audio telephone was one of those ideas whose time had come. It's not as if it sprung from the head of some individual genius, a lot of people were working in that direction; take any one of them out of the picture and the result wouldn't be much different.

        Ironically, the telephone was more or less an inevitable outgrowth of work on improving the capacity of long distance cables to carry telegraphs -- a digital medium. In a sense, we've come full circle.

        One of the ideas that people were working on is what we'd call frequency division multiplexing: sending multiple simultaneous telegraph signals on the same wire but encoded on carriers of different frequencies. Once you started to work in that direction an audio telephone would be simple, relatively speaking. So somebody would have "invented" it, because plenty of people were working along those lines.

        The lone genius inventor is a mythical idea, one that distorts our thinking about stuff like intellectual property. There are genius inventors, to be sure, but surely there were men like Thomas Edison or Nicola Tesla that lived in the dark ages. The reason we've never heard of them is that even a genius needs other people's ideas to build upon.

        • Re:Antonio Meucci (Score:5, Interesting)

          by iocat (572367) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @11:33AM (#27151201) Homepage Journal
          Bingo! I wish I had mod points. When you look at a lot of major inventions -- the telephone, the car, the lightbulb, TV, digital general purpose computers, etc. -- you'll find that regardless of whoever eventually was credited with the invention, there were any number of people working on the same problem, at about the same rate, and making very close breakthroughs, at the same time. Sometimes ideas are just "in the air." Typically one guy gets credit, which is sort of sad, but that's kind of the way it is -- at least with lay people. Anyone who is a historian or reads a little more deeply will evetually learn all the other peopel and their possibly claims / contributions. Because there are so many people who were clearly on the right track, you will also get a lot of arguments.

          for instance, if you look here [nau.edu], you'll see three groups, each of which has a strong case for being said to be the inevntor of the modern computer (Konrad Zuse, who built a programmable electro-mechanical computer in 1936, Anastoff and Berry who build a digital computer -- that was not general purpose or programmable in 1942, and Eckert and Mauchley, who built a vacuum tube base, programmable, general purpose computer in 1946). I won't get into the details, but it becomes a religious thing at some point -- I once fell out with a friend because I refused to accept Anastoff as the sole inventor of the computer. (My friend was from Iowa).

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well... american technology history rewriting, according to the president of the USA america even invented the automobile. I am glad Daimler and Benz are dead already and have been for a long time :-)
      I am not even sure if Edison really was the inventor of the lightbulb afair a russian was first but did not patent it!

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jabuzz (182671)

        Never heard of the Russian angle but Swan in the U.K. invented one at the same time as Edison. Big patent battle, ended up joining forces and cornering the market.

        • Never heard of the Russian angle but Swan in the U.K. invented one at the same time as Edison. Big patent battle, ended up joining forces and cornering the market.

          Alexandr Lodygin [wikipedia.org] was the Russian guy. He came up with a carbon-filament incandescent bulb in 1872, and got a patent (Russian) on it in 1874. So he's got a true working model, he just never properly commercialized that. He's also the one who patented (whether he was the first to invent or not is debatable) tungsten filament, so the modern lightbulb design probably owes more to him than to Edison.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Chris Mattern (191822)

        I am not even sure if Edison really was the inventor of the lightbulb afair a russian was first but did not patent it!

        It is universally acknowledged that Edison did not invent the light bulb. What he did was make it practical by devising a filament that lasted more than a few hours before burning out.

      • > I am not even sure if Edison really was the inventor
        > of the lightbulb afair a russian was first

        Yes, this is true. A russian has invented the first lightbulb.

        However, as far as I know, Edison invented the first *working* lightbulb.
      • by djh101010 (656795)

        Well... american technology history rewriting, according to the president of the USA america even invented the automobile. I am glad Daimler and Benz are dead already and have been for a long time :-)

        I've _never_ heard it claimed that the USA invented the automobile. But you say it came from a President - curious what you mean. It _is_ accurate to say that Ford's assembly line was the invention of the mass-production concept.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by VShael (62735)

      Not that it matters much, but Congress passed a resolution on June 11th, 2002, recognising him as the inventor of the telephone.

      Also, people should know that Meucci sent his patent designs to the lab where Bell worked. And they went "missing".

      There's a whole shady side to that story which is not really acknowledged in the official history.

    • by mog007 (677810)

      Could be similar to the radio fiasco between Tesla and Marconi. Even though Tesla was eventually awarded the patent, Marconi is usually mentioned when you ask people who invented radio.

      Similar to the lightbulb, which wasn't invented by Edison, or the transistor which wasn't invented at Bell Labs.

  • by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @05:08AM (#27147555)

    Of course, the light bulb was only invented in 1879.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      And not by Edison, who just got the patent...
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tsjaikdus (940791)

        Edison created something that could actually be used. That is including the electrical grid, switches, powermeters, bulb fitting and so on that was all needed to make the bulb glow. All this stuff didn't really exist back then. And a lot of new inventions that came out of that were indeed patented.

        I think the patent system is put to good use in this case. If it were for Swan or some other introvert nerd, we would still be reading by candlelight.

        • by jabuzz (182671)

          Perhaps you might like to take a trip to Cragside, the home of Lord Armstrong in Northumberland. To quote from the Wikipedia article

          In 1870, water from one of the estate's lakes was used to drive a Siemens dynamo in what was the world's first hydroelectric power station. The resultant electricity was used to power an arc lamp installed in the Gallery in 1878. The arc lamp was replaced in 1880 by Joseph Swan's incandescent lamps in what Swan considered 'the first proper installation' of electric lighting.

      • by Shakrai (717556) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @08:19AM (#27148607) Journal

        And not by Edison, who just got the patent...

        Edison was one of the original patent/FUD trolls. A lot of people seem to think those tactics are new but in reality businesses have been engaging in them for a long time. Edison even went so far as to electrocute animals (including an elephant) during the "war of the currents" to try and scare people away from a competing product. He also tried to change the term from "electrocuted" to "Westinghoused".

        • by mog007 (677810)

          That's because he was a stubborn prick, and dead set in his ways. Even though Edison was against the idea of capital punishment, he invented the electric chair just to show people how dangerous AC was.

  • Research (Score:5, Informative)

    by EEPROMS (889169) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @05:09AM (#27147577)
    Some of the latest research into Bells own lab notes is showing that he saw Grays pre patent applications for a liquid based microphone before hand. In fact what gave it away was his (Bells) notes are an exact copy of Grays patent that and the fact Bell never even looked at this type of configuration until he went to Washington then changed his research completely.
    • Re:Research (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Lumpy (12016) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @08:14AM (#27148573) Homepage

      Yup. Bell's "invention" was completely based on other people's ideas.

      Just like how edison stole most of his "ideas" from Tesla.

      Patents dont encourage innovation. The only make the first person to file it rich. Which discourages the sharing of ideas and information for fear that some rich jerk like edison or Bell will come along and patent your idea first. There are documented cases all throughout american and european history that Patents hampered scientific innovation and industrial progress.

      • Re:Research (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Reality Master 101 (179095) <RealityMaster101&gmail,com> on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @08:55AM (#27148885) Homepage Journal

        Patents dont encourage innovation. The only make the first person to file it rich. Which discourages the sharing of ideas and information for fear that some rich jerk like edison or Bell will come along and patent your idea first.

        You're completely contradicting yourself. Ones of the major *points* of patents is to encourage sharing of ideas. Without patents, everyone would hoard their ideas, because there would be no legal protection -- the second any rich person heard your idea, they would start mass-producing it, leaving you out in the cold.

        The example here shows what happens when you share without a patent -- someone beats you to the patent office! But note that once the small investor gets there, he can share all he wants with legal protection.

        Now this is the cue for anti-patent people to start listing a litany of cases where patents didn't protect some little guy. But that doesn't change the millions of cases where it does, that doesn't get the publicity.

        • by sjames (1099)

          Patents allow free sharing of ideas once they are patented and deeply discourages any sharing before that. Given 2 inventors, each with the same problem about 90% solved (and with a DIFFERENT 10% unsolved), they will tend not to communicate at all, each fearing that the other will beat a path to the patent office and render years of their own work moot.

          Just because patents are supposed to encourage sharing of ideas doesn't mean they actually accomplish that goal.

          The essential problem is that the patent syst

        • by Lumpy (12016)

          and this is different from me having to come up with $40,000 a year to patent my ideas how?

          If I make $35,000 a year $40,000 in fees to patent things might as well be $100,000,000 to me.

          Make filing patents FREE or low cost, and I'll accept your point completely.

      • Patents dont encourage innovation. The only make the first person to file it rich.

        The US doesn't award patents based on who is first to file. In cases of disputed patents, the patent is awarded to the first person to have invented it.

    • by Spazmania (174582)

      Bell got the basic idea for the liquid microphone from Gray's caveat, which he gained access to when the examiner summoned Bell to defend an earlier version of Bell's application in light of Gray's caveat. The liquid microphone led Bell in a new direction that significantly improved the invention.

      But here's the hitch: Gray didn't have a working telephone. He only had a better microphone... and at the end of the day it was only an intermediate step: a liquid microphone wasn't practical in production; Bell ha

    • Some of the latest research into Bells own lab notes is showing that he saw Grays pre patent applications for a liquid based microphone before hand.

      The Centennial Exposition was our coming-out party.

      It's heart and soul the grand Corliss steam engine which powered the exhibits - a breath-taking 45 feet high and with a flywheel 30 feet in diameter.

      Eliza Gray was an electrical engineer of national reputation, an inventor with a huge and lucrative patent portfolio.

      Doesn't it seem at least passing strange t

  • To hearing "the call to the number you have requested can not be completed at this time" or "the number you have dialed is out of network or turned off".

  • 133 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by microbee (682094) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @05:13AM (#27147605)

    is such an important number that it's worth a news story by its own

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @05:17AM (#27147633)
    started "can I speak to Mr Alexander Bell" .... Hello Mr. Bell, how are you today. I wonder if you would take a few minutes to answer some questions ... hangs up in disgust
  • If I remember correctly, Elisha Gray's patent application for this was one of several that he submitted that day, only a few hours after Bell's went in.
    • Not to mention he was far from obscure. Take a look at his Wikipedia entry; the man was a prolific and important inventor.
  • This is a classic example why patents are bad. When the time is ripe for a technology to emerge it will emerge in several people's minds and not just in a lone genius' mind. This is called progress and mere progress should not be patented. There are no inventions but there is progress.

    • by tlambert (566799) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @07:00AM (#27148153)

      At the time patent duration was shorter, per the patent act of 1790, and was decided by a board, not to exceed 14 years. In addition, it wasrequested that you have a working prototype of your invention that you could demonstrate for the patent office for the purposes of the parent examination process. There were other hard requirements: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patent_Act_of_1790 [wikipedia.org].

      So it's a little disingenuous to claim this as an example of why patents are a bad thing.

      -- Terry

      • The Patent Act of 1790 was considered a complete disaster by everyone. The "modern" US patent law was set forth in the Patent Act of 1832: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patent_Act_of_1836 [wikipedia.org]
      • by Hatta (162192)

        At the time patent duration was shorter, per the patent act of 1790, and was decided by a board, not to exceed 14 years

        That's an improvement over the current system.

        In addition, it wasrequested that you have a working prototype of your invention that you could demonstrate for the patent office for the purposes of the parent examination process

        That's another improvement over the current system.

        So it's a little disingenuous to claim this as an example of why patents are a bad thing.

        If it was harder to get a b

  • by rollingcalf (605357) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @06:09AM (#27147861)

    They gave it to him instead of others who developed a phone, because they thought history would prefer that somebody named "Bell" invented the telephone, like how Sir Thomas Crapper is credited with inventing the flush toilet even though he really didn't invent it.

    • by eln (21727)

      They gave it to him instead of others who developed a phone, because they thought history would prefer that somebody named "Bell" invented the telephone, like how Sir Thomas Crapper is credited with inventing the flush toilet even though he really didn't invent it.

      He didn't invent the toilet, but he did invent the ballcock! This makes Crapper and the ballcock perhaps the most hilarious inventor-invention combo ever. The fact that a ballcock is a primary component of most toilets is just icing on the cake.

  • Call me again in five [wikipedia.org] years.
  • When it's 3213 then it may be considered 'news for nerds'... otherwise it's just the aniversary of the phone...

  • by DavidD_CA (750156) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @06:40AM (#27148055) Homepage

    And tomorrow marks the 133rd anniversary of the first telemarker.

  • by krygny (473134) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @06:46AM (#27148085)

    How could he have died in obscurity if we're discussing him today? I'm still trying to find out who, from the US, invented the automobile (according to Obama). Now, *THAT GUY* died in obscurity.

    • by Lars T. (470328)

      How could he have died in obscurity if we're discussing him today? I'm still trying to find out who, from the US, invented the automobile (according to Obama). Now, *THAT GUY* died in obscurity.

      His name was Uncle Benz and he invented the ricer.

      • by bsDaemon (87307)

        And for the first time in weeks, I *DON'T* had mod points... very disappointing. That was pretty funny.

    • by mog007 (677810)

      I thought the first automobile was invented by Gottlieb Daimler, over in Germany.

      • That was the first GASOLINE powered automobine. Interestingly, both hydrogen and electric powered vehicles predate the gas guzzler by at least 50 years. Of course, wood and coal fired steam engines powered automobiles were in operation some thirty years before Herr Daimler was even born.
        • by mog007 (677810)

          Hydrogen and electric cars in the beginning of the 19th century? Cite your source.

  • by sapone (152094) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @07:19AM (#27148247)

    ...who also invented an early telephone [wikipedia.org]. In 1861!

  • Bell. Well, we did it Watson. What an afternoon. We finally perfected the first telephone.
    Watson. Yeah, uh, hey listen, somebody called me today. Uh, whoever it was, said some very sexual things, very angry, sexual things.
    Bell. Oh, really? Probably just some teenagers somewhere...

  • by aquatone282 (905179) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @08:06AM (#27148507)

    Yeah? Well the rest of you can GET OFF MY LAWN!

    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      I remember rotary dials...does that mean I can stay on your lawn?
    • by Mikkeles (698461)

      Actually, I remember the old, fully automated systems: one picked up the phone, turned a crank, spoke (e.g.) "Hello, Mabel. I would like to talk to Frank at the garage", waited a moment, and magically one was connected to Frank!

      Voice recognition and no need to memorise the number!

    • by CompMD (522020)

      There are still two rotary dial Western Electric 554 phones hard wired into my parents' house that are fully operational and used on a nearly daily basis. They have the finest sound quality and reliability of any phone I've ever used.

  • by Photo_Nut (676334) on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @08:25AM (#27148647)

    I like this story. See, I married into the family... Mr. Watson is my wife's great great grandfather. He left his family with an estate in New Hampshire which we go to every year and in this estate there are 2 telephones. An interesting family tradition in her branch of the family is to give the male children the middle name of Watson. Anyway, to place a call, you crank a generator which causes a bell to ring at the other end of the line, then the person at the other end of the line picks up and the call is connected.

    Today we all have cell phones (and ironically, the cell phone reception isn't that great - verizon or AT&T - we brought an iPhone last summer to the estate, and it browsed the web painfully slowly - a 28K modem with AOL and all the ads would beat it), but how many people can say that they have talked on a phone made by hand by the inventor of the telephone in this day and age where cell phones can make video calls and store books and play video games and browse the web?

    • by tttonyyy (726776)

      how many people can say that they have talked on a phone made by hand by the inventor of the telephone

      Not you, according to the article/Wikipedia entry. It would seem Meucci got there before Gray/Bell.

  • Bell: Hello, Watson?
    Other person: Oh I'm sorry, I think you have the wrong number. What did you dial?
    Bell: Three.
    Other person: Ah, this is two.
    Bell: Oh, simple mistake to make, sorry to bother you.
    *hangs up*
  • by tjstork (137384) <todd.bandrowsky@NOSpAM.gmail.com> on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @09:15AM (#27149087) Homepage Journal

    I love how everyone loves to paint poor Elisha Gray as this hard working guy, but, he was actually by no means a poor man himself. He had a nice little business that he sold to Western Union for a healthy chunk of change. Viewed in that context, what we're really talking about here is the then giant Western Union, via Elisha Gray, versus the then tiny Bell, fighting over the telephone. If anyone was the "tiny" guy fighting the system at that time, it was in fact, Alexander Graham Bell!

  • Randall Stross [randallstross.com], Silicon valley historian and NY Times technology columnist, wrote an interesting biography of Edison a few years back. He compared Edison [favorably] to modern Silicon Valley entrepenuers.

    With regard to telephones, Edison was obssessed with increasing telegraph line capacity. He invented several multiplexing schemes. One scheme would transmit/decode messages at different frwquencies multiplexed on the same line. His competitors made the conceptual leap of using ALL frequencies to t
  • To commemorate this historical event, it appears AT&T knocked out all the phones here at work....

    Had to unplug the Adtran unit for about 20 seconds to hard reset it, to get the voice T1 circuits to come back up again.

  • ..it was a wrong number.
  • Gray and a Bell exec named Barton got together after Grey's Western Electric was bought by ATT, and set up the wholesale telco business Graybar to supply equipment to the Bells and the independents.

    he didn't get the patent, but he didn't camp out by the side of the railroad tracks, either.

  • I always liked the I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue joke about the first telephone. They were doing famous people's answerphone messages. Here's Alexander Bell's:

    "Hello, this is Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the first telephone. If you've invented another telephone, please leave a message after the beep."

  • Don't feel to bad for Elisha. He was part owner of the Graybar Electric Company [wikipedia.org]. Which today is still one of the largest suppliers of electric and voice data supplies who still today suck up large amounts of money for over priced items. It was that money he used to try and patent the telephone.

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