What Hath Bell Wrought?
The first words ever spoken on a telephone were those of inventor Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, Thomas Watson, on March 10, 1876: “Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you.” This not only marked the beginning of telephone history, it is also the first documented example of poor telephone manners. No hello. No please. No “Am I getting you at a bad time?”
I suppose we can forgive Bell. He must have been terribly excited, what with inventing the gizmo that would revolutionize communication and make it possible to win radio call-in contests. And Watson was probably thrilled he wouldn’t have to order pizza by mail anymore.
But these days, we should be more mindful of telephone etiquette. While telephones have evolved to the point they can do everything but shine shoes, telephone manners began badly and went down line from there. And I’m not suggesting I’m above bad manners myself. If I were old enough to have listened in on a party line, I assure you I would have.
Had Bell’s telephone been on a party line, his first words might have been, “Watson, come here. I don’t want Mrs. Johnson to hear.”
party lines disappeared and the only people who could listen in on calls were
family. (I know because I did it.) There was one telephone in every home and it
rang at all hours. Watson might have answered that first historic phone call
with, “Mr. Bell, I told you not to call during dinner.”
Eventually phone booths popped up everywhere, paving the way for Superman comics and creating new issues. If he’d built one of those right away, Bell would have had to borrow a quarter to make his first call.
Then along came the answering machine. “Mr. Watson, pick up. I know you’re there.” Then the cordless phone, which my family calls the “walk-around phone” when we can find it and the “walk-away phone” when we can’t. Had Bell invented that, he would have had to ask for help before he could make his first call. “Mr. Watson, where’s the telephone?”
“The what, sir?”
We’re lucky Bell didn’t start with call waiting. Watson would have spoiled the first momentous telephone conversation with, “Let me put you on hold. There’s another call coming in. Kidding!”
Or what if Bell’s first telephone had caller ID, allowing Watson to screen his calls? “I’m not answering that. Bell is bossy and has no manners!”
Then there was the cell phone and a return to eavesdropping. Fortunately Bell could have kept his message private by texting, “Watson, come here.” And Watson would have texted back, “No need to text, sir. I'm right here.”
Had Bell’s first phone been a smartphone, Watson would have been too busy playing Candy Crush to answer. Bell would have stomped down the hall, taken one look at his once loyal assistant, and said, “Oh, Watson! What have I done?”
“Who cares, Bell? Time for a selfie!”