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Soft Sell, Post-Graham Bell

By Rushworth M. Kidder / January 5, 1989



THE Great Telephone Revolution. Some say it's all for the best - that it's liberated us from such nuisances as writing letters or going shopping. Others complain, noting that it's undermined literacy and imprisoned us indoors. Not for me such high-flown discussions. I will content myself with a small theory I've developed concerning a neglected corner of this revolution: the Demise of the Telephone Bell. Time was, of course, that a call announced itself by an unmistakable ring. Sharp-edged, distinctive, stentorian, it commanded entry into the household with all the brash authority of a police sergeant serving a warrant.``Here I am,'' it declared, ``answer me!'' There was no mistaking it, no ignoring it, and no avoiding it.

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Today's telephones, sad to say, don't ring. They peep. They mew. They hum and burr; they buzz, chirp, or cluck. They positively simper.

Far from commanding attention, they wheedle it - insinuating themselves into consciousness and cajoling a response. They creep in like the neighbor's cat on a rainy night - poor, pitiful things, barely able to make themselves heard above the din of daily household life.

It has not, of course, always been thus. When I was a boy out in western Massachusetts, the telephone was no mean thing. Most houses had just one, a black, triangular lump of metal squatting on four felt feet, heavy enough to hold open the kitchen door in a gale or drive a ten-ten-penny spike through a two-by-four. It customarily sat in the hallway, where its ring could penetrate to every room.

And so, of course, could every word spoken into it. Not that that mattered much: Telephones, in those days, were meant for making appointments, not for holding conversations. Few people, after all, could afford a ``one-party line'' - a term that nicely maintained the fiction that no one, not even the operator, would ever dream of being a third party to one's discussions. Since it was widely acknowledged, however, that privacy was out of the question, no one worried that the telephone sat squarely in the center of the house. When it spoke, you listened; and when you spoke, everyone else listened.

But I digress. Simply put, here's my proposition about the telephone bell: that the history of the telephone, and hence the world, would have been very different had it been invented by someone else. Its inventor was, of course, a certain Alexander Graham Bell, and as long ago as 1889 the symbol for the Bell System was a bell. Surprising? No. Just a wonderful fit between inventor and invention.

But alas for progress! When the once-mighty Bell System was broken up a few years ago, the emergent bits were called ``Baby Bells.'' And look what happened: No sooner had that sorry nomenclature taken hold than the phones themselves began to follow suit. Exit that characteristic, square-shouldered ring. Enter the whimpering coo, the petty jingle - the silly baby-bell sounds of today's phones.

Not yet convinced? Then test my hypothesis further. Suppose that the good Mr. Bell had been born Alexander Graham Buzzer. Can you doubt for a moment that his invention would have had a different sound - like a horsefly in a bottle, perhaps, or a dentist's drill? Or suppose the venerable Scotsman had instead been German, with a name like Klanke - or an Indian called Ghong, or a Frenchman known as Rattelle. Or imagine that a certain Alexander G. Crow had placed the first call. ``Excuse me,'' we'd have grown up saying, ``My phone is cawing.''

Idle speculation? Not at all. I have it on good authority that, given the capabilities of the electronic synthesizer and of digital recording techniques, there will soon be a phone for every personality. Some will thunder or whine. Others will chuckle or sob. We'll have phones that splat like mud patties or drip like leaky faucets or creak like the shutters of a haunted house. There will be phones with bird calls - a different one for each day, perhaps, so if it's a magpie it must be Tuesday. For the truck driver who has everything, a phone that grinds gears; for the cat burglar, one that sounds like shattering glass; for the jogger, one that pants.

And that, of course, will usher in a whole line of phones that ring according to the character, not of the owner, but of the caller. ``If the phone pocks, darling, it'll be Eudora calling back about tennis,'' we'll find ourselves saying. Or, ``Must be Bozzo's Gulf, dear. The phone just backfired.''

Where ever will it end? My theory doesn't predict. Off the record, however, I'm told that a man named Shriek may be developing a new doorbell....