Tangled history of calling the pros

by Andy Bryenton

These days we almost take it for granted that a professional person will be at the end of a telephone line to help us with our problems. Need a plumber, an electrician, a lawyer or a computer repair person? No problem. However, what about the people who designed the phone in the first place? It turns out they could have used some help of their own.

Ironically, for a means of communication that today spans the world, the telephone was mired from day one in huge arguments over who was its true inventor. That is largely because it was impossible for far-flung professors and engineers to communicate without the phone itself. A variety of genius inventors were working away on the problem of turning the old morse code telegraph into a carrier of the human voice at the same time, inspired by the old ‘tin can and string’ devices which, in the 1860s, were already called ‘telephones’.

Why? They had a Greek name because the concept of two ceramic shells connected with a tight waxed cord was used by the ancient Greeks.

Antonio Meucci came up with a phone-like device that almost worked back in 1854. He got some of the fundamentals right but then gave up. In Germany, Johann Reiss created a telephone that worked, but only over a very short wire. He felt it would still be useful aboard ships or as an intercom in factories. However, his prototype was ridiculed as a ‘toy’ by the professor he showed it to, and he missed his chance. Two Americans, Alexander Bell and Elisha Grey came up with the telephone at about the same time in 1864. Ever since there have been accusations that Bell stole from Grey or vice versa.

The final piece of the puzzle was the telephone switchboard. The first of these was constructed literally from junk in New Haven, USA, by George Coy. It cost only $40 and was made of ‘the handles of teapot lids, bustle wire, carriage bolts and scrap wood’. Nevertheless, it enabled people to phone other homes and businesses, where previously the phone had only been able to connect point to point. When Coy released the first phone book, with 50 local businesses inside, those 50 experienced massive growth because they were able to be called for advice, to check on stock, or to make appointments. The era of being able to call in the pros had arrived.