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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....
Friday, December 31, 2021
Science Night - Bell and the Telephone
The original objective was to produce a telegraph system that would allow several communications on the same wire. This was what got Alexander Bell started. But actually, it was before that—I guess you’d have to say that it started when he became a teacher for the deaf. That’s what got him pondering the idea of visible speech.
As an interesting aside, Bell was the one who helped Captain Keller get a tutor for his daughter. Little Helen adored Bell and later in life she dedicated her autobiography to him. He was a very compassionate man, but also a curious man, who could not let an idea die, once it had staked its place in his imagination.
In 1872 he read a newspaper article about the Western Union Company paying a hefty sum to the inventor of a telegraph system that could transmit two messages at the same time over one wire. That was not his passion, but it was a start. But he had to convince his future father-in-law, who was financing his research, to allow him to work on both the idea of a telegraph that could carry more than one conversation on the same wire, and Bell’s first love, which was a telephone—a device that could actually carry speech signals on a wire, and reproduce them in a receiver on the other end.
The video at the bottom of this page tells the story. The first sentence spoken over the telephone was the result of an accident. Bell called for his assistant without realizing that he has already created a telephone, and his voice is transported across the device.
That’s the way it happens sometimes. Years ago, when I was teaching at a software university in Arizona, I was assigned the task of getting the Oracle server up to speed, because the person who had been responsible for it had left the company. I didn’t know anything about Oracle at the time, but I plowed into the project eagerly, because I was determined to learn this new system. It was a frustrating process, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember onc day I came to work and happened to see Dan the Oracle instructor on my way to the IT department. I said, “I’ll get right on that, Dan.”
He immediately said, “No, don’t touch it! It’s never worked better.” Looking back now, I think it is because there are a couple scripts that need to be run after installation, and the guy in charge of it before had carelessly left that part out, which meant that the database would not run the PL/SQL language (Oracle’s proprietary programming language) properly. Anyway, I had fixed it without knowing it.
Voice communication has experienced many innovations since then to become the miracle it is today. In my grandparents’ time, everybody in a given telephone exchange would hear everyone else’s phone ring. But each party on the line had a distinct ring. Two shorts and a long; a short two longs; a long, a short, and another long; or whatever. So what was to stop anyone on the line from picking up the phone when they heard someone else’s ring and listening in on the conversation? Nothing, and it happened quite often. That’s how my immigrant grandmother learned English.
When I was a kid, every phone was a land line. I remember when the first cell phones became available for public purchase in the eighties, they were huge by today’s standards. It was given that they would gradually become smaller and smaller, and more and more removed from what we originally thought of when we heard the word “telephone.” In addition to this, with the development of 3 and eventually 4 G technology, cell phones began to be used for stuff that had little to do with basic voice communication. I purchased my first cell phone in Arizona back in the early noughties. It was basically a portable phone—much smaller than the original Motorola pictured above, but not fundamentally different in terms of it’s basic function. It was used for making phone calls. This was also true of the first cell phone I had in China. In fact, my first mobile phone was not actually a cell phone. It was called a “Little Smartie,” and used a technology first developed by the Japanese, whereby the phone would tie into local phone connections, and functioned basically as a roving wireless phone very much like the cordless receivers that became popular in America right before cell phones came into common use. The main difference was that with a cordless, you could walk out into the back yard and keep talking on the phone, but you were actually connected not to a cell tower, but to your own phone system. The Little Smartie had a way of allowing you to connect to each local phone system as you walked by it. It was clever technology, but was abandoned by the Japanese and had a relatively short life in China because it was so dependant on local phone systems rather than cell towers. With 3 and 4G phones came the development of cell phones that facilitated social networking. In today’s China, I have maybe a handful of conversations that use the regular phone system, and most of those are calls from people I know outside of China. Within China, I don’t know any of my friends’ phone numbers, and I never use the regular phone system to communicate with them. It is giant leap from Bell’s original invention, yet tied to it by history.
I once heard that the Bell telephone company had some 400 law suits defending Bell’s invention. They won every one of them. Why? Because patents work. It was his invention, and he had a right to profit from it.
What is the future of phone conversation? What is the next great communication innovation? I suppose it would be universal mobile connection to the Internet, particularly if low orbit satellites become the standard. When this happens, countries like China, where the government believes it has the right and responsibility to govern what people are allowed to see, will no longer be able to restrict access to the Internet. That is the future—not sure if I like it or not. I have often said that the two most ignorant groups of young people I encounter are Chinese young people and American young people. Chinese young people are ignorant because they always have only half the story (if that)—the half the Party wants them to have. And Americans are ignorant because they have very independent ideas, but precious little truly important information. So American young people are drowning in information, but not better informed.
Labels: Communication, Technology