Famous First Words: Of All the Things They Could Have Said

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.

Actor_portraying_Alexander_Graham_Bell_in_an_AT&T_promotional_film_(1926)
This man is not a telephone inventor, but he once played the role of Alexander Graham Bell, who according to some historians, wasn’t either. Film commissioned by AT&T. (Early Office Museum.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

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I don’t know what words were first to be uttered over a walkie-talkie, but given that the device wound up being called a “walkie-talkie,” I’m guessing the lost words weren’t terribly creative. photo credit: mob on the radio via photopin (license)

 

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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”)
  5. 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.)

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    But seriously, it wouldn’t hurt the kid to clean his room.

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.

Go, Go Bananas!

Last week I received some exciting news from WordPress. I’ve been at this blogging thing for a little over two years now, posting once a week about history (sort of) and sharing bits of my experiences. And apparently last Thursday I published my 100th post.

Okay, so the number is a little inflated because I have reposted a couple of times. And, yes, if you know how many weeks there are in a year, then I’m sure you’ve realized I’ve missed a few weeks here or there. I am aware that many bloggers out there are way more productive than I am, posting two or three times a week. Some even post every single day!

That’s more than I can commit to because I’m a wife and mother and fiction writer, too. All of that comes first for me. But also because as shallow as my “research” often really is, it takes a fair bit of thought to put one of my posts together.

So when I saw that I’d posted 100 times to this blog, I was pretty excited. I wanted to celebrate. The question then, was how does one celebrate such an accomplishment?

Well, I thought about that, fielded a few suggestions from Facebook (mostly ice cream) and decided there’s really only one way to celebrate something this big: with BANANAS.

It even looks like a smile.
It even looks like a smile.

In 1876, the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by throwing a big party on a world stage. The Centennial Exposition of 1876 was the first World’s Fair to be hosted on American soil. It started May 10 in the host city of Philadelphia and ran for six months, including around 30,000 exhibits and welcoming a whopping 10 million visitors.

The Exposition was more than a celebration of America’s past. It was a declaration to the world that the nation was emerging as an industrial leader and world power. And it was an opportunity for visitors to experience first-hand the cutting edge of cool.

Among the exhibits was a 50-foot-tall Corliss steam engine, a travel bathtub, a 2000-pound mechanical calculator, the first commercial root beer, the arm and torch that would eventually grace the Statue of Liberty, some device called a “telephone” invented by a fella named Bell, and the first bananas available to the public in the United States.

I think it's pretty safe to assume that the 1876 Centennial Exposition also introduced the world to the banana phone.   photo credit: bhardy via photopin cc
I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the 1876 Centennial Exposition also introduced the world to the banana phone. photo credit: bhardy via photopin cc

Originating in Southeast Asia, bananas were cultivated possibly as early as 1000 BC. They came to the New World in 1516 where they were planted by a Spanish priest Tomás de Berlanga who later took them into Panama. The fruit spread rapidly through Central and South America, but it didn’t make the journey to the US until the 1870’s.

So when banana trees (actually according to most persnickety Internet “experts” the plants are technically herbs) went on display at the Exposition on June 5th and the fruits (or, again, for the persnickety, the berries) could be purchased for 10 cents each, wrapped in aluminum foil and eaten with a fork, Americans were smitten.

Clearly NOT a tree.
Clearly NOT a tree.

In the 138 years since, bananas have grown to be the most often consumed fruit in the United States. That’s despite the insistence of some fitness “experts” (whom I’m assuming are also persnickety) that these nutrient rich, portable, fiber-rich, low-fat super fruits are somehow bad for us.

So, I know I haven’t been posting for 100 years and I think it unlikely that this silly little blog will ever emerge as a dominant world power, but I’ve decided that I’m going to celebrate 100 practical history posts Centennial Exposition style anyway.

And because I also value the opinions of my friends, I think I’ll have ice cream, too.

Now we're talking!
Now we’re talking!