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Category:  General History
Published:  May, 2008

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 another room.

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 thought.

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 the procession.”

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 1885.

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 email.

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 life.