"What was that?" shouted Bell. What had happened was clearly manifest; a sound had been sent distinctly over an electric wire. Bell's harmonic telegraph immediately went into the discard, and the young inventor--Bell was then only twenty-nine--became a man of one passionate idea. Yet final success did not come easily; the inventor worked day and night for forty weeks before he had obtained satisfactory results. It was on March 10, 1876, that Watson, in a distant room, picked up the first telephone receiver and heard these words, the first that had ever passed over a magnetized wire, "Come here, Watson; I want you." The speaking instrument had become a reality, and the foundation of the telephone, in all its present development, had been laid. When the New York and San Francisco line was opened in January, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell spoke these same words to his old associate, Thomas Watson, located in San Francisco, both men using the same instruments that had served so well on that historic occasion forty years before.
Though Bell's first invention comprehended the great basic idea that made it a success, the instrument itself bore few external resemblances to that which has become so commonplace today. If one could transport himself back to this early period and undergo the torture of using this primitive telephone, he would appreciate somewhat the labor, the patience, the inventive skill, and the business organization that have produced the modern telephone. In the first place you would have no separate transmitter and receiver. You would talk into a funnel-shaped contrivance and then place it against your ear to get the returning message. In order to make yourself heard, you would have to shout like a Gloucester sea captain at the height of a storm. More than the speakers' voices would come over the wire. It seemed to have become the playground of a million devils; moanings, shriekings, mutterings, and noises of all kinds would constantly interrupt the flow of speech. To call up your "party" you would not merely lift the receiver as today; you would tap with a lead pencil, or some other appliance, upon the diaphragm of your transmitter. There were no separate telephone wires. The talking at first was done over the telegraph lines. The earliest "centrals" reminded most persons of madhouses, for the day of the polite, soft-spoken telephone girl had not arrived. Instead, boys were rushing around with the ends of wires which they were frantically attempting to peg into the holes of the primitive switchboard and so establish "connections." When not knocking down and fighting each other, these boys were swearing into transmitters at the customers; and it is said that the incurable profanity of these early "telephone boys" had much to do with their supersession by girls. In the early days of the telephone, each instrument had to carry its own battery, usually installed in a little box under the transmitter. The early telephone wires, even in the largest cities, were strung on poles, as they are in country and suburban districts today. In places like New York and Chicago, these thousands of overhanging wires not only destroyed the attractiveness of the thoroughfare, but constantly interfered with the fire department and proved to be public nuisances in other ways. A telephone wire, however, loses much of its transmitting power when placed under ground, and it took many years of experimenting before the engineers perfected these subways. In these early days, of course, the telephone was purely a local matter. Certain visionary enthusiasts had foreseen the possibility of a national, long distance system, but a large amount of labor, both in the laboratory and out, was to be expended before these aspirations could become realities.
The transformation of this rudimentary means of communication into the beautiful mechanism which we have today forms a splendid chapter in the history of American invention. Of all the details in Bell's apparatus the receiver is almost the only one that remains now what it was forty years ago.