Alexander Graham Bell patented the device that became the telephone on this day in 1876.  Two other men, Antonio Meucci and Elisha Gray, had previously patented similar devices, but due to either altruism or shortsightedness allowed their patents to expire so that Bell’s application could proceed.  (That is the official story, anyway.  In 2008, the fabulously named Zenith F. Wilbur, former patent examiner, swore in an affidavit that Bell’s attorney had bribed him to award Bell the patent instead of Gray.)   Bell’s first transmission – “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” – ranks somewhere near “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” in the quotation canon. 

By 1904 there were more than 3 million telephones in the United States.  Small towns sometimes had only one telephone.  Rural areas were not always wired for access.  In the West, neighbors fixed two telephones to the top wire of a barbed wire fence; this worked just as well so long as the fence stayed up.  Fence line systems remained in isolated areas until as late as the 1970’s. 

Today pay phones have virtually disappeared and callers forego landlines in favor of mobile phones, Skype, and Google Voice.  Churches and schools lease space within their steeples and on their roofs to wireless providers and their towers.  9/11 is at least partially defined by the calls made by passengers on the doomed planes, calls that were not possible in the days of landline service.  And email and messaging threaten to make voice calls entirely obsolete.   


All morning in the February light
he has been mending cable,
splicing the pairs of wires together
according to their colors,
white-blue to white-blue
violet-slate to violet-slate,
in the warehouse attic by the river.

When he is finished
the messages will flow along the line:
thank you for the gift,
please come to the baptism,
the bill is now past due
voices that flicker and gleam back and forth
across the tracer-colored wires.

We live so much of our lives
without telling anyone,
going out before dawn,
working all day by ourselves,
shaking our heads in silence
at the news on the radio.
He thinks of the many signals
flying in the air around him
the syllables fluttering,
saying please love me,
from continent to continent
over the curve of the earth. 

 “Telephone Repairman,” Joseph Millar, from Overtime (Eastern Wash. Univ. Press, 2001)