On this day in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for the telephone--a significant event in world history with many connections to Somerville.
The laboratory in which Alexander Graham Bell (right) conducted the experiments that led to the invention of the telephone was on the top floor of a Boston office building belonging to Somerville resident Charles Williams. And on April 4, 1877, the first outdoor telephone line was set up, connecting Williams' office to his home on the corner of Arlington and Lincoln Streets. Soon Roswell Downer of Somerville, James Emery of Charlestown, and James R. Osgood of Boston followed Williams' example. They had telephones installed in their homes with connecting lines to telephones in their offices (and in Emery's case, his brother's house).
The telephone was in its early stages so there were some details that still needed settling. For example, how do you know when you're getting a phone call? As Thomas Watson, Bell's assistant, said "It dawned on us that people...couldn't be expected to keep the telephone at their ear all the time waiting for a call" (eventually they came up with the idea of a bell on the telephone ringing to announce an incoming call). And as use of the telephone spread beyond New England, a minor detail of phone usage led to a dispute between two of the greatest technical minds of the nineteenth century. Alexander Graham Bell always said "Ahoy!" or "Ahoy Ahoy!" when he answered the phone. According to some sources, he also sometimes said "Ahoy-hoy," which is how Montgomery Burns (whose age is a matter of some speculation) once answered the phone in an episode of The Simpsons. When the first telephone exchange opened in New Haven in 1878, the operators were trained to answer the phone by saying "Ahoy Ahoy!"
Thomas Edison, however, felt that anyone answering the phone should say "Hello." At the time telephone receivers transmitted the caller's voice into the room automatically whether the recipient picked up or not, and Edison went so far as to argue that if a caller said "hello" in a robust enough manner it would be unnecessary to enable telephones to ring. In late 1877 Edison wrote to T. B. A. David, President of the Central District Printing and Telegraph Company of Pittsburgh, who was planning to introduce the telephone to the city, "Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away."
Edison got his way with "Hello." It soon caught on as a telephone greeting, and "Ahoy ahoy" fell by the wayside. Bell, however, persisted to the end of his life in saying "Ahoy" when he answered the phone.
Of course, Bell and Watson got their way on the question of the "call bell," never dreaming that the idea of a bell announcing phone calls would set us down the long, annoying road that ends in personalized ringtones. The next time you're on a bus or at the movies and hear someone's obnoxious cell ringtone, you have Alexander Graham Bell to thank.
And it's Thomas Edison's fault we don't say "Ahoy-hoy."