Posts by: "John F. Ptak"

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1985Follow Me on Pinterest

Telephone 1876 lockyer detail
There are many facets in the history of the future that sound very familiar and true, making it shocking to realize what a long timeline some presumably modern things have. For example, take the issue of the superiority of children to understand newly-arrived technological innovations. It seems as though children need to be shown exactly once how to access a certain segment of a program or how to program the television. It is perhaps a modern conceit that this issue belongs with us in the present and to the children of these children, somewhere in unfolding technological future. But this was certainly the case in 1876, with the (very) new technological breakthrough, the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell was not the first to the invention of the telephone–this is one of those breakthroughs that was 'in the air" (like the electric telegraph, and the hypothesis on the background radiation of the creation of the universe, and television, and Cubism), and in several issues of the standard-keeper scientific journal Nature for 1876 there are several articles discussing the telephone which do not mention Bell. For example Antonio Meucci in 1849, Charles Bourseul in 1854, Johann Philipp Reis in 1860, Elisha Gray in 1874, and Thomas Edison in 1875, all came close to the practical application of the idea of the 'speaking telephone", but it was Bell who ruled the day with the superior design and the patent award. It was Gray who came closest of all to winning the future, beaten in the accounting department at the Patent Office by Bell by only a few hours, both his and Bell's patents received on 12 February 1876. (Gray's patent was actually received earlier in the morning than Bell's, but it was Bell's attorney who insisted on his patent being recorded immediately in the accounting ledger, with Gray's patent entered into the books two hours later, resulting in the awarding of the telephone patent to Bell. Ouch).

The August 24, 1876 issue of Nature contained a compact article (uncredited but written by the editor, the esteemed astronomer/astrophysicist Norman Lockyer) on the recent extravagances in electrical development, and included a long section on the telephone. Bell's name was not mentioned, and Lockyer concentrated on the work of Reuss and Gray. He also wrote about the use of the telephone, which does not yet involve the use of the instrument for voice communication. As in an earlier article in the same journal by J. Munro ("On the Telephone, an Instrument for Transmitting Musical Notes by Means of Electricity".London, Nature: May 11, 1876. Pp 30-32 and concentrating mostly on the Gray telephone), Lockyer discusses one application of the telephone in the transmission of music. (He does mention the remarkable experiments of Bourbouze, who in 1870 attempted to use the Seine as a conductor between two stations, those being two bridges, each outfitted with electric piles, enabling the transmission of information without wires–but that's for another post).

Lockyer writes about "the germ of notable improvements to be made on the electric telegraph", that

"in its present state, the invention is so complete that we can, at a distance, repeat one or more pianos the air played by a similar instrument at the point of departure. There is a possibility here, we must admit, of a curious use of electricity. When we are going to have a dinner party, there will be no need to provide a musician. By paying a subscription to some enterprising individual, who will, no doubt, come forward to work in this vein, we can have from him, a waltz, a quadrille, or a gallop, just as we may desire. Simply turn a bell handle, as we do a cock of a water or gas-pipe, and we shall be supplied with what we want".

Lockyer finishes with this great line: "Perhaps our children may find the thing simple enough".

My initial reaction is great surprise, that this feeling about children coming to understand a new technology quickly/instantly reaches (in evidence) back to 1876. How far back in time does this sentiment or realization reach? Is it ancient? I've never really thought about it, but now that I have, a little, and been presented with hard evidence that the sentiment reaches back into the 19th century, that it might as well reach all the way back, deep into dusty history–even pre-dusty. In any event, even though it is a little difficult for me to ascertain Lockyer's real feelings about the use of the new instrument, his reaction to children and technology seems to be an honest belief.

(I actually have a series of original early papers on the telephone (1876-1878) including the one below, offered on the bookstore section of this blog, here).

Telephone 1876 lockyer

Telephone 1876 munro