People are using phones in their cars, commercial airliners, golf carts, their back yards and every room of their homes. They are using them to say "I love you," shop for clothing, summon paramedics, get the latest ball scores, sell insurance and dissuade the suicidal. How many there are is difficult to say. We know there are about 120 million telephone lines in the United States, and about 425 million in the world, but one line can have many extensions, so no one knows for sure how many phones there are right now.
But at a time when many Americans say they don't have enough time to devote to their careers and children, they are spending more time on the telephone -- about 25 percent more time as in 1980, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
The global telephone network is by far the largest integrated machine in the world. Americans make so many international calls that it has become a factor in the balance-of-payments problem. In 1988, the United States sent abroad $2 billion more than it got back in overseas calling -- a fair piece of the $126 billion trade deficit.
Doing without the telephone is unthinkable. It is so ingrained in our lives that its use is habitual rather than conscious. This familiarity has robbed us of the wonder of an invention that converts spoken words into electrical waves, transmits them along a line and reconverts them into sound that is so true there is often no need to ask who is at the other end. It is easy to forget that before the telephone, the experience of talking to someone far away occurred only among the gods of mythology. . .
MARCH 7, 1876 -- The most valuable patent ever issued -- No. 174,465 -- goes to Alexander Graham Bell. Had Bell been just a few hours later in getting his designs to the patent office, Elisha Gray would have gotten credit for the telephone and what we know today as the Bell system might be known instead as the Gray system.
The following autumn, Bell's lawyer offered the patent to the mighty Western Union Telegraph Co. for $100,000; he was turned down contemptuously.
Although it was crude and hardly worked, the telephone was the biggest hit of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The visiting Brazilian emperor, Pedro II, tried it out and dropped the instrument in astonishment, saying, "It works!"
1877 -- The engineer-in-chief of the British Post Office pens a reassuring memo to his superiors. "My department is in possession of full knowledge of the details of the invention, and the possible use of the telephone is limited."
APRIL 4, 1877 -- The first telephone is installed in a private home -- that of Charles Williams of Somerville, Mass. Since there was no one else to call, Williams had a line run to his Boston office so his wife could reach him during the day.
For many years, the telephone company discouraged the use of the phone as a social instrument, but customers persisted in using the electronic marvel for "trivial gossip," and so in the 1920s it began encouraging the use of the telephone for personal conversations.
1877 -- The first telephone exchange is put into operation in Boston by Edwin Holmes, who operated an electric burglar-alarm business. This first switchboard was connected to telephones in six offices that bought alarms from Holmes. It served as a telephone system by day and a burglar-alarm system by night. It was a complicated setup, but the important thing here is that it was the first telephone system; without the exchange, every telephone would need a separate line to every other telephone.
1878 -- The first phone is installed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Timing has always been a key factor in the trading of securities, and the telephone quickly revolutionized the Wall Street operations. Within a few years, many brokers had telephones linking their offices with the trading floor.
1878 -- Emma M. Nutt, a former telegraph operator, is hired as the first female telephone operator. The first operators were young boys, but they proved unsuitable because of foul language and practical jokes. The telephone, along with the typewriter, were wedges that got women into the American office building. This in turn brought about an important new figure in American life -- the operator, called "Central."
Central was a locally known figure, and did more than just connect people on the telephone. In addition to responding to emergencies, Central might be asked to call back in 15 minutes to remind one to take the cake out of the oven, and people would put the receiver in their baby's cradle so Central could be alerted to its crying.