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 Kilgour, of Cincinnati; and Chas. S. Gleed, of Kansas City.
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
CHAPTER I. 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 in acoustics.
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 manner.
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 musical telegraph.
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 his workshop.
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 Sanders family.
"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 black magic.
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 was born.
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 to know.
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 received 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 profession.
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 Entertainments."
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 ever saw."
Then came Sir William Thomson, latterly known as Lord Kelvin. It was fitting that he should be there, for he was the foremost electrical 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 America."
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 telegraph."
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.
CHAPTER II. 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-factory."
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 value.
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 world.
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 demonstrations 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 escape.
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 success.
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 morning—
"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 enterprise.
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 have it.
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 Hubbard's daughter.
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 bankrupt.
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 encourage investors.
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 telephones.
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, and Edison."
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 treasury.
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 business began.
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 business basis.
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 telephones.
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 protect 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 combined.
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 plight.
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 plan."
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 value.
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.
CHAPTER III. 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 agreed—
(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, agreed—
(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.
The Western Union had lost its case, for several very simple reasons: It had tried to operate a telephone system on telegraphic lines, a plan that has invariably been unsuccessful, it had a low idea of the possibilities of the telephone business; and its already busy agents had little time or knowledge or enthusiasm to give to the new enterprise. With all its power, it found itself outfought by this compact body of picked men, who were young, zealous, well-handled, and protected by a most invulnerable patent.
The Bell Telephone now took its place with the Telegraph, the Railroad, the Steamboat, the Harvester, and the other necessities of a civilized country. Its pioneer days were over. There was no more ridicule and incredulity. Every one knew that the Bell people had whipped the Western Union, and hastened to join in the grand Te Deum of applause. Within five months from the signing of the agreement, there had to be a reorganization; and the American Bell Telephone Company was created, with six million dollars capital. In the following year, 1881, twelve hundred new towns and cities were marked on the telephone map, and the first dividends were paid—$178,500. And in 1882 there came such a telephone boom that the Bell System was multiplied by two, with more than a million dollars of gross earnings.
At this point all the earliest pioneers of the telephone, except Vail, pass out of its history. Thomas Sanders sold his stock for somewhat less than a million dollars, and presently lost most of it in a Colorado gold mine. His mother, who had been so good a friend to Bell, had her fortune doubled. Gardiner G. Hubbard withdrew from business life, and as it was impossible for a man of his ardent temperament to be idle, he plunged into the National Geographical Society. He was a Colonel Sellers whose dream of millions (for the telephone) had come true; and when he died, in 1897, he was rich both in money and in the affection of his friends. Charles Williams, in whose workshop the first telephones were made, sold his factory to the Bell Company in 1881 for more money than he had ever expected to possess. Thomas A. Watson resigned at the same time, finding himself no longer a wage-worker but a millionaire. Several years later he established a shipbuilding plant near Boston, which grew until it employed four thousand workmen and had built half a dozen warships for the United States Navy.
As for Bell, the first cause of the telephone business, he did what a true scientific Bohemian might have been expected to do; he gave all his stock to his bride on their marriage-day and resumed his work as an instructor of deaf-mutes. Few kings, if any, had ever given so rich a wedding present; and certainly no one in any country ever obtained and tossed aside an immense fortune as incidentally as did Bell. When the Bell Company offered him a salary of ten thousand dollars a year to remain its chief inventor, he refused the offer cheerfully on the ground that he could not "invent to order." In 1880, the French Government gave him the Volta Prize of fifty thousand francs and the Cross of the Legion of Honor. He has had many honors since then, and many interests. He has been for thirty years one of the most brilliant and picturesque personalities in American public life. But none of his later achievements can in any degree compare with what he did in a cellar in Salem, at twenty-eight years of age.
They had all become rich, these first friends of the telephone, but not fabulously so. There was not at that time, nor has there been since, any one who became a multimillionaire by the sale of telephone service. If the Bell Company had sold its stock at the highest price reached, in 1880, it would have received less than nine million dollars—a huge sum, but not too much to pay for the invention of the telephone and the building up of a new art and a new industry. It was not as much as the value of the eggs laid during the last twelve months by the hens of Iowa.