Today marks the 140th anniversary of a momentous occasion in the history of human communication. March 10, 1876 was the day Alexander Graham Bell, the sort-of inventor of the telephone, uttered into his famous device, “Come here! I want to see you!” The man who heard those words from the next room was Thomas A. Watson.
Though the message wasn’t glamorous, it was kind of genius. If Watson responded by ducking into the room, Bell would immediately know his message had been received and understood and they would know that they’d finally invented the device that would be sure to change the world.
Watson did receive the message, or at least close enough to it. He would later report that Bell had said, “Come here! I want you!” And of course, that’s how the children’s game of Telephone was invented.
Still, the world was sufficiently impressed. The well-connected Bell obtained a patent, edging out the claims of electrical engineer Elisha Gray and other telephone-like inventors who are each worthy of mention by a more thorough or trustworthy blog than this one.
But no matter where the somewhat controversial credit for the telephone’s invention should fall, there’s little question that Bell was responsible for launching it into commercial viability, maybe in part because he handled the pressure of those first words so beautifully. Because to me, that would be the most terrifying part of getting in on the invention of a communication method with the potential to take off.
I know that I couldn’t handle such pressure, because a week ago, my sons had some allowance money burning holes in their pockets. They begged me to take them to a store so they could spend some of their hard-earned cash.
What they decided to buy was a set of walkie-talkies, with a video component so they can see one another as they’re talking. It’s pretty much just a lower tech version of FaceTime, exciting for them because our family has not yet reached the era of kiddo smart phones.
They’re really pretty cool little toys and the boys have had a lot of fun with them. But that first night we brought them home, my youngest, who lacks patience for such things, disappeared to play with something else while his older brother and I figured out the new walkie-talkies. We dug them out of their many ridiculous layers of plastic packaging, installed the appropriate batteries, and followed the instructions to synch them.
Then my son ran to another room and yelled, “Say something, Mom!”
I admit that for a second or two, I panicked a little. It felt like a momentous occasion, the breaking in of brand new walkie-talkies. If I said something boring or pointless, I would definitely lose cool mom points. If, on the other hand, I took a chance and ended up saying something stupid, my words might live on in embarrassing family lore.
I briefly thought through my options:
- The practical approach, like Bell’s first telephone call to Watson: “Come Here! I want to see you!” (perhaps not so practical when I can already see an image of him in the device).
- The highfalutin approach, like Samuel Morse communicating from DC to Baltimore, for the first time with the telegraph: “What hath God wrought?” (sure to garner epic mockery in the annals of family history)
- The seasonal approach, like that of Neil Papworth to the phone of Richard Jarvis, demonstrating the world’s first text message: “Merry Christmas” (hardly appropriate at the beginning of March)
- The careless approach, like Ray Tomlinson’s 1971 note to himself in the first successful e-mail: “most likely…‘QWERTYIOP’ or something similar.” (Perhaps it will take an FBI investigation to uncover what happened to the “U”)
- The taunting approach, like Motorola’s Martin Cooper to his AT&T rival Joel Engel in the first successful cell phone call: “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end.” (That’s just not very sportsman like.)
In the end I went with the mom approach: “Time to clean your room!” It turned out, the darn audio didn’t work. But the video worked just fine, because I clearly saw my son stick his tongue out at me before he rushed into the room and grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand to take it to his brother.
It occurred to me that perhaps what Bell meant to say to his assistant was, “Come here! I want you…to clean up this dreadful experiment!” But Watson, being no dummy, hurried into the room with a big smile on his face. And history was made. Good thing, too, because if not, 140 years later, we might all still be communicating by terribly pretentious telegram.