One of the great blessings the telephone is
destined to confer upon humanity is the equalizations of forces. The delicious
sense of personal security enjoyed by a man of diminutive stature, when he
stands off a few thousand miles and tells an enemy, as big as a tree, just what
he thinks of him.
The Indiana, Pennsylvania Progress
July 12th, 1877
Can You Hear Me Now, Dr. Watson?
By Al Owens
It’s hard to believe that at one time, the telephone wasn’t confused with an
appendage. It had not served as some form of extension of the human ear – during
the 19th Century.
The only way to speak to somebody next door - or in the far reaches of the
planet for that matter was to have visited them, until February of 1876.
That’s when a man known mostly for his work with people who had suffered with
hearing impairments, spoke a few words into a device and that changed the world.
“Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you,” said Alexander Graham Bell to his
fellow scientist in another room. It was a rather curious event, since the
device Bell was using had actually been patented by another scientist (Elisha
Gray) who hardly ever gets any credit for inventing the telephone.
Bell’s experiments with his own device came a few months later, when in his own
words, Dr. Thomas Watson asked him, “Can you hear anything or nothing,” from
That account was part of a “pamphlet” that Bell had sent to the Titusville,
Pennsylvania Morning Herald in early September of 1876. He had no idea that his
experiments would change interpersonal relationships forever.
Although a writer for the Titusville newspaper seemed to be thrilled at the
whole idea. “It is certainly astonishing that a man in Boston can hear the voice
of a friend in London or Paris, and not only distinguish his voice from that of
another but understand fully what he says,” the writer gushed.
NOTE: I’ve always thought it was highly appropriate that the man known as the
inventor of the telephone, Bell, is paid an unspoken tribute every time our
telephones “ring.” But I also wondered what would signal somebody calling you if
his name had been Alexander Graham Belch, or Alexander Graham Sneeze. Just a
The following month, in October of 1876, the Boston Daily Advertiser reported
that, “The discovery of Prof. Bell has lately created a profound sensation
throughout the scientific world.”
There’s an indication that Bell wasn’t only a scientist, but he had a bit of
showman in his blood too. According to the Titusville Morning Herald, in 1877,
he assembled a packed house at the Lyceum Hall in Salem, Massachusetts to give a
lecture on his device. Of course, he and Dr. Watson put on a show.
Bell was in Boston, Watson in Salem. Bell set-up his equipment and Watson simply
spoke the words, “Ladies and Gentleman, it gives me great pleasure to be able to
address you this evening, although I am in Boston and you in Salem.” It was
merely one sentence that could be heard all over the hall and it “brought down
the house with applause.”
That year Bell formed The Bell Telephone Company, and by 1886 there were an
estimated 150,000 people connected to telephones across the country.
Fayette County had, by then, shown great interest in the new invention. Yet, for
many years there was some frustration that the telephone was slower coming to
Fayette County (in widespread use) than to other places.
W.S. Hood of Mt. Pleasant, however, put up a telephone wire between his store,
Frisbees, and his home in Mt. Pleasant – in 1879.
“Even Greene County is getting away with us in telephone enterprise,” wrote the
Connellsville Courier in February of 1888. “We are falling pretty far behind in
And while Fayette County waited for telephone lines and equipment to find their
way to the area, there was still time to poke fun at the use of the primitive
device. “The telephone is an arrangement by which two men can lie to each other
without being confused,” wrote a Connellsville Courier writer in November of
Or, as it was also reported in 1885, one man who ran a “bottling establishment,”
put up a telephone line between his business and his own. According to the local
newspaper, “He could now sit at home and hear the pop and fiz of his refreshing
drinks from a square away.”
But there were already indications that the invention of the telephone would
lead to a wide range of uses - some good, but some not so good.
The Supreme Court of Ohio in 1885 ruled that the use of profanity on a telephone
would lead to “removal of the instrument.”
In 1886, too, there was a foreshadowing of something that may have seemed rather
bold at the moment – but most people make frequent use of today. “The writing
instrument and the telephone can be used over the same wire and at the same
time, without interference to the message,” wrote a Connellsville writer. That’s
I can imagine the day after they tried that form of communication, that somebody
else sent a message selling “male enhancement” products.
In the late 1880’s it was clear that a telephone system that would link
Uniontown and Connellsville would be considered very important. While there were
a few Fayette County companies making use of the telephone, widespread use of it
in homes was still rare.
In 1888, with a comprehensive telephone system still on the County’s “wish
list,” the Connellsville Courier called a proposed line between Uniontown and
Connellsville, an “incalculable convenience,” and concluded one editorial with
the words, “The telephone is a great thing.”
In 1889, there was such eager anticipation of the telephone, that even
individual lines that were set-up in the county, would earn newspaper notice.
The Baltimore & Ohio offices were connected to The Central District Printing &
Telegraph Company offices, thus opening telephone service to fifteen people. The
B & O telephone number, by the way, was “31.”
In Uniontown, in 1890 George Titlow announced that his hotel would soon have
telephone service with an electric bell – making it the “first house in town to
adopt these modern conveniences.”
But there was still no active telephone connection between Fayette County’s two
biggest towns. In fact, there was a report that a telephone had been laid
between Paris and London in 1891, while there were individuals and companies
still wondering what to do to connect Uniontown and Connellsville.
There were, however regional companies eager to connect parts of West Virginia,
Pennsylvania and Maryland.
There was a fascinating front page story in February of 1895. The Connellsville
Courier reported that 60 telephones had been set-up at Smith House for the
purpose of making long-distance telephone calls. Under the headline, SOME LONG
TALKS, it was reported that “The conversation with persons in Chicago and New
York was as distinctly audible as that with persons in another part of
Connellsville would be.”
Of course, the promise of long-distance communications didn’t come without its
pitfalls. In July, of that year – there was a rate increase. It would cost 50
cents to call Pittsburgh, instead of the 30 customers had been paying.
In 1898, the full promise of a well-connected regional telephone system (and
most notably between Uniontown and Connellsville) was rapidly being fulfilled.
During the early months of 1898 there were frequent reports regarding the
progress of the new regional telephone lines that were going up in towns across
Fayette County. And in June, with switchboards being installed in Uniontown and
Connellsville that would serve hundreds of new subscribers, it was clear the
telephone was well on its way toward becoming an essential part of our way of