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Alex Bell should take a bow

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Alex Bell should take a bow

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

The eve of Independence Day in the good old U.S. of A. is a good time to think of the telephone.

Alex Bell isn't around to share in our celebration, but the father of the telephone should be honored tomorrow for his historic part in transforming the life of nearly everyone on the planet. His invention has done more than any other device to give us independence from the things that would otherwise tie us down.

The telephone makes it possible for us to extend our reach to any place that wires—and now, cellular-phone radio waves—can penetrate. The phone is, of course, faster, cheaper and easier than traveling to some distant place in person.

But technology owes a debt to the inventor of the telephone that goes far beyond this. It is fair to say that the telephone is the main force behind nearly every advance in modern data communication. It's helped bring us from the early computer-to-computer hookups known as bulletin boards of the 1970s to the info-pop revolution of the Information Superhighway.

The Internet itself, that now-famous driving lane on the Infobahn, lives on a daily diet of a million phone calls to and from computers all over the world.

Oddly, for a device that is so universally employed these days, the telephone was born more than 100 years ago into a skeptical society. At first, it was considered an ideal one-way broadcasting device, like radio and TV are these days. You'd pick up the phone at 8 o'clock on a Friday evening and listen to a live performance of the opera, that kind of thing.

A quirk of human nature changed the telephone from a precursor of radio to the device we all know today. For decades, all telephone operators were young men, hired as much for their endurance—and surliness—as for their talent in handling the heavy plugs and cables that were used before switchboards became more manageable.

Callers often had to argue with these male operators just to get a line. A report from those early days tells of operators who bragged to each other about how they cut off callers.

But a labor shortage brought in the first women operators, and everything changed. Callers were treated courteously, and calling someone else on the telephone became a pleasant experience—something you did because you enjoyed it, not something you did because it had to be done.

The rest, as they say, is history. The telephone is just another appliance these days. You dial it or your fax machine uses it or your computer modem connects into its network of wires and cables, and you think nothing more or it.

I suppose that's the way it should be. But where would we be without it?

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