i  n  v  e  n  t  i   o  n

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Benjamin H. Cheever



       2-4cheeverdropm.gif (751 bytes)y great-grandfather is famous for having heard the first words ever spoken over the telephone: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” That was in March of 1876. By 1881, Thomas Augustus Watson had stopped working on telephones, surrendering his third of a business which became Bell Telephone.
       This was not the only time one of my beloved forebears is supposed to have turned his back on substantial wealth. My father’s great-uncle Ebenezer was an abolitionist who had been drawn through the streets of Newburyport behind a carriage by copperheads, locals whose sympathies lay with the slave-holding states. “He [Ebenezer] ran a biscuit factory that turned out hardtack for the sailing vessels,” my father once wrote in a letter. “When the War between the States was declared, he was offered a contract by the government to make hardtack for the soldiers. He rejected the offer because he felt that his hardtack wasn’t good enough for the Union Soldiers. A competitor named Pierce accepted the contract and made a fortune and founded a dynasty on the proceeds. Uncle Ebenezer had no regrets. He played the flute. The Pierce bakery has since grown into the National Biscuit Company while the wind whistles through Uncle Ebenezer’s abandoned flour mill.”
       Of course I regret the loss of so much dough and also money, but the turn of history that has me grinding my teeth at night is the one that began in March of 1876.
       Without the telephone, my great-grandfather might easily have slipped unnoticed into the mists of time, but not Bell. Alexander Graham Bell and his father, Alexander Melville Bell, and his grandfather, Alexander Bell, all worked with the deaf. Bell taught a system his father developed and which enabled the deaf to learn to speak. Why, that’s similar to the function of the telephone, you say, enabling communication where it had not previously been possible. I don’t think so. Or not anymore.
       On the night in March of 1876, before the day that everything started to go awry, I draw up a scene in which Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Augustus Watson (can you imagine either of these men fitting his signature onto a credit card printout?) stand at the door of a laboratory. Perhaps it is beginning to snow. My picture of Bell is taken from the movies and a few old photographs. I see him as a somewhat girthy fellow, given to dark, uncomfortable suits and facial hair. Watson, the younger man, would have been slighter and perhaps more casually dressed. After exchanging a few final words, Bell goes off down the street. I see cobbles. Watson stays to lock up.
       Bell eats a solitary dinner at the Ye Olde Fish & Chips. He’d have something reasonable, perhaps the cod. Then home and to bed. It’s widely believed that visualization is essential to any sort of success. Having read his 19th century self-help books, Bell therefore begins to fidget with his telephone the moment he loses consciousness. The dream world, after all, is the point at which the past, present, and future all come together.
       The inventor keeps a glass of water on his bedside table and sleeps with the windows opened. A gust of air tips over this water glass and spills its contents into the great man’s bed. Still asleep, Bell reaches for his spectral phone and calls for assistance: “Mr. Watson come here, I need you.”
       He hears a strange ringing. First checking his alarm clock, which had not gone off, the flustered Bell calls out again: “I’m cold! I’m wet.”
       A human voice comes on the line, but not his trusted assistant. This is a woman, clearly pleased with herself and speaking in tones of such intimacy as to denote a long and torrid sexual affair. Bell had heard a voice like this only once in his life and that was near Covent Garden in London, when he had been accosted by a creature he assumed must have been a prostitute.
       “Thank you for calling Bell Telephone,” the whore continues. “To insure the highest level of customer service, this call may be monitored and recorded. If you are using a touch-tone phone, please press 1.”
       A touch-tone phone? Bell had never heard of such a thing, but this is a dream, and so he looks down at the machine in his hand and discovers that, lo and behold, it has a keypad with twelve buttons, curiously labeled.
       “Damn it Watson,” he says. “I’ve spilled on myself. It might be acid. Come here. I need you!”
       “Congratulations!” the strumpet continues in honeyed tones, “for having selected Bell Telephone. If it isn’t a Bell, it isn’t a telephone. We are the premier world-wide communications service. If you are a current member of the Bell Telephone family please press 1 now. If you would like to join the family today and at temporarily reduced rates, press 2.”
       “Listen!” shouts the inventor, still groggy, but greatly agitated, “I’ve spilled on myself. I may be in grave danger.”
       “If you have a question regarding billing,” continues the cheerful whore, “please press 3. If you are experiencing technical difficulties, press 4. If you would like to hear the details of our new comprehensive business plan, please press 5. If you would like to hear this menu again, press 6”
       “I don’t want to press anymore bloody buttons,” Bell roars, into the darkness of his empty bedroom, “I want to talk to a living breathing person. I want to talk to him now!”
       By now his own rantings had shaken the unfortunate man into full wakefulness. He found himself alone in bed, cold, wet, but otherwise unhurt. He was uneasy, though. Was this dream in any way prophetic? he wondered. Or had he simply eaten a bad dinner. The inventor had broken one of his basic rules in having the cod special at the Ye Olde Fish & Chips on the last day before the menu changed. “I knew that cod smelled oddly,” he mumbled to himself, putting on fresh sheets and a dry nightshirt. Before retiring a second time, he went down into the kitchen and re-examined the prototype. It was a simple device, not beautiful by any means, but also entirely without buttons. The engine that had starred in his nightmare had had 12 buttons, including a pound sign and a star. “Ridiculous,” he thought. “What would a pound button be for? Must have been the cod.”
       The next morning, Bell ate a hurried breakfast and rushed off to the laboratory. Watson met him at the door. The young assistant looked much the worse for wear himself, his hair a wreck, his eyes bloodshot.
       “Dinner at the Ye Olde?” asked the inventor, solicitously.
       “No,” said Watson.
       “Bad dreams?” asked Bell.
       “No,” said Watson, shaking off his mentor’s gloom. “No dreams at all. I stayed up all night. Look what I’ve done!” The prototype he thrust now into his colleague’s hands was identical to the one they had labored on together the night before, with one exception: it featured a keypad, with 12 digits. “We’ve licked the problem of addresses,” the young man boasted. “Each telephone owner will have his own numerical identification. Then we can put the letters of the alphabet beside the numbers, so that, for instance, 2 also stands for ABC and 3 for DEF. This will also make it easier to remember the numbers. In some cases you will be able to simply dial the name of the person or business. For instance, a bedding store might have the number 62887377, or was it 62887737? In any case it spells mattress.”
       Bell was not enthusiastic.“ What’s the pound sign for?” he asked. “Besides I can’t read those letters at all! They’re, well, they’re tiny!”
       “We’ll buy you stronger glasses,” said Watson. “The invention is going to take off. Teenagers will love it. I know this is far in the future, but someday there will be little mechanical operators built in to answer the phone if the owner is busy, or not home. At first businesses will have them, finally even private residences. If you call someone up, and he’s not available that instant, why, you can listen to a symphony, or leave a message, or even - and this sounds too good to be true, but it might happen - ask and answer rudimentary questions, by simply pushing the buttons in response to prerecorded prompts. Think of the man-hours that will be saved. Nobody will ever be in a hurry again!”
       Bell looked terribly sad. He moved to his assistant’s side and put an arm around the younger man.
       “You know what, Tom, I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he said. “Let’s scrap the whole damn thing. Let’s stick with the deaf.”

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   1998 Benjamin H. Cheever.

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