Benjamin H. Cheever
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 fathers
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
wasnt 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 Ebenezers 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, thats similar to the function of the telephone, you say,
enabling communication where it had not previously been possible. I dont 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. Hed have something reasonable, perhaps the cod. Then home and to bed.
Its 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 mans 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: Im cold!
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. Ive
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 isnt a Bell, it
isnt 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, Ive spilled on myself. I may be in grave
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 dont 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
No, said Watson.
Bad dreams? asked Bell.
No, said Watson, shaking off his
mentors gloom. No dreams at all. I stayed up all night. Look what Ive
done! The prototype he thrust now into his colleagues hands was identical to
the one they had labored on together the night before, with one exception: it featured a
keypad, with 12 digits. Weve 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. Whats the
pound sign for? he asked. Besides I cant read those letters at all!
Theyre, well, theyre tiny!
Well 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 hes 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
assistants side and put an arm around the younger man.
You know what, Tom, Ive got a bad feeling
about this, he said. Lets scrap the whole damn thing. Lets stick
with the deaf.
©1998 Benjamin H. Cheever.