Bell and Watson
There were a lot of posts on social media this week commemorating the anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call. I saw an article on Twitter about Ten things to know [about the telephone], and a friend on Facebook posted about the anniversary of the first call, ending with a little-known piece of trivia: “As for the greeting, Bell did not favor the now ubiquitous ‘hello’ but rather ‘ahoy’.” (I have no source on this other than the Facebook post, but I do consider the poster to be trustworthy in his trivia.)
My immediate reaction was, “Where’s the mention of Salem?” We all know that Alexander Graham Bell placed the first call from The Lyceum Hall, what today is Turner’s Seafood. But there was no mention of Salem, which led me to quickly realize our superlatives are all about their qualifiers. So I turned to Jim McAllister and his book, Salem: From Naumkeag to Witch City. I knew he would hold the key.
On February 12, 1877, nearly a year after placing the call to Watson in the next room, Alexander Graham Bell “demonstrated his telephone apparatus to the public for the first time.” There was a crowd of more than 500 paying customers in the Lyceum to hear Professor Bell’s presentation. McAllister writes, “Bell began with a tribute to Salem’s own Charles Grafton Page, whose experiments in sending musical sounds by electric currents in the 1830s had pioneered the field of telephony. Bell went on to describe briefly his own experiments and the workings of his new invention. Then he used the telephone to instruct his assistant Thomas Watson, who was stationed in their Exeter Street laboratory in Boston, to send an interrupted current followed by the alphabet in Morse code. The crowd was thrilled by the sounds coming through the telephone receiver on the stage, which could be heard even in the back of the hall thirty-five feet away.”
The program continued with Watson playing telephonic organ music, singing, and speaking to the audience at the Lyceum in Salem. A few select members of the audience were even invited to speak into the new invention.
At the end of the evening, “The telephone at Salem was… turned over to Henry Batchelder, a friend of Watson and a stringer for the Boston Globe. Batchelder used the device to dictate is account of what had just transpired at the Lyceum to a Globe reporter, A.B. Fletcher, who was with Watson in Boston. This was the first time Bell’s new invention had been used to transmit a news story.”
So, there you have it. The first telephone call may have been made on March 10, 1867, but the first long distance call was placed from the Lyceum in Salem on February 12, 1877, and it was followed by the first time a telephone was used to transmit a news story.
Want to read more? There’s a story on Poynter.comabout Alexander Graham Bell’s call to the Boston Globe.