Bell’s revolutionary invention

One of the great marvels of the modern era was unveiled over 130 years ago this month.

Alexander Graham Bell received a U.S. patent on March 7, 1876, for “Improvement in Telegraphy,” covering "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically ... by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.”

But it wasn’t until three days later that the first successful telephone transmission was made, when Bell spoke into his device, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Thomas A. Watson, his assistant in a room 20 feet away, distinctly heard each word spoken by Bell.

Bell had successfully proven that: “A telephone converts sound, typically and most efficiently the human voice, into electronic signals suitable for transmission via cables or other transmission media over long distances, and replays such signals simultaneously in audible form to its user” (Wikipedia).

The simple message via telephone to Watson was the harbinger of a new world order, whereby people could communicate by voice over great distances. In fact, telephone is Greek for the English, “distant voice.”

The subsequent commercial success of Bell’s invention came when it was demonstrated at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia on June 25, 1876. The exposition judges were hungry and tired as the evening drew onward and were hurrying through the educational exhibits.

One of the judges picked up Bell’s device and declared it nothing more than a “thread telegraph,”comparing it to a child’s toy of two cans connected by a string. 

“Suddenly there was a movement in the crowd. A  big blonde man with a great yellow beard came striding forward.” The man was Dom Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil, a scientist of renown and one of the judges, who had happened to have previously met Bell in Boston (Times Herald, Olean, New York, June 26, 1926).

It was Harry C. Hilborn, of the New York Telephone Company, who witnessed this encounter. 

“What are you doing here?” asked Dom Pedro.

Bell told him that the crude device on the table was his invention.

“Let’s try it,” said the emperor.

“He took up the receiver. Bell went to the transmitter, which had been placed in another room, some distance away. The emperor put the receiver to his ear. The judges looked on, rather amused. And then with a look of wonder on his face Dom Pedro cried, ‘My God, the thing speaks.’ Sir William Thompson (a British scientist and also a judge) took the receiver from him and echoed his cry. One by one the judges listened. The telephone had come into its own.”

With the judges unanimously awarding the gold prize to Bell in recognition of his landmark invention, the telephone that had been initially dismissed as a “child’s toy,” rose to its proper place in history as the device that made person-to-person voice communication possible.

When Bell came to Winnipeg for the first time in 1910, after being asked how he created the first telephone line, the inventor told a Winnipeg Tribune reporter on May 13: “The line by which I demonstrated the success of the invention was a stove pipe wire tacked to the fence posts from my father’s house at Brantford (Ontario) to the Paris road, about a quarter mile away. Shortly after that we had a circuit that took in Paris and Toronto, and the practical utility of the telephone was assured.”

In Winnipeg, Horace McDougall also recognized the practical utility of Bell’s device, purchasing two telephones which he connected between his office in the Northwest Telegraph Company and his home on the same property at 152 Garry St.

“Another importation of telephones was received by Mr. McDougall of the telegraph office, yesterday,” was the brief mention in the Manitoba Free Press on March 6, 1878. At the time, few in Winnipeg fully recognized the utility of the telephone, merely regarding it as a novelty item.

The far-seeing McDougall, knew the telephone was the device of the future so he obtained a licence as the sole agent to install and make use of the Bell patent in Western Canada’s three Prairie Provinces.

McDougall, a telegraphic operator and electrician, set the price of renting his telephones at the then stiff price of $60 a year. He acted as the manager of his telephone company, as well as linesman and exchange operator.

“These early telephones were an awkward device,” wrote Gilbert A. Muir in the article, A History of the Telephone in Manitoba (MHS Transactions, 1964-65 Season). “They were sometimes referred to as ‘Butter Stamps.’ They resembled the receivers of modern desk telephones, but were used for talking as well as listening. Users had to shift the instrument from mouth to ear and back again. There was no way of signalling the person at the other end of the line, a caller had to tap on the mouthpiece with a pencil to attract attention.

“Within six months the Custom House, the Manitoba Free Press and the Railway office were proud to have interconnecting telephones in their offices.

“Three years later, the city boasted of having 10 telephones on one line, which was assuredly more than any other city at that time. In addition, Winnipeg had 26 subscribers.”

Bell purchased McDougall’s telephone exchange in Winnipeg in 1881, and began expanding its network to Portage la Prairie and Brandon. Within two years, there were 340 telephone subscribers in Winnipeg, 17 in Portage and 51 in Brandon. 

The end of the Bell monopoly brought about anarchy to the telephone service in Winnipeg and Manitoba. Companies used brutal tactics against each other to usurp customers. In some instances, a company would put up telephone poles only to later have the poles hacked down by a rival. The arrival of new competitors also meant that lines used by one company were not interconnected with another, resulting in customers having to purchase more than one phone to readily communicate with the outside world.

High rates, poor service and the failure to penetrated into rural areas lead to a plebiscite that overwhelming supported the Manitoba government’s takeover of the provincial telephone system in 1908. Public ownership of the utility lasted until 1999, when the company was sold to private shareholders.

Bell, the inventor of the telephone, died on August 2, 1922, in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. He is claimed by three countries — Scotland where he was born on March 3, 1847, the U.S. where he taught the deaf in Boston and Canada where spent time at his father’s home in Paris, Ontario, and carried on his inventive genius at Baddeck.

What some had first called a “toy” or “novelty” has since evolved into the cellphone, the world’s ubiquitous, multi-platform communication device.