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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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4.6 Was the telephone an immediate success?

By the end of 1876 Bell had managed to build an experimental device that could carry a conversation across 2 miles of wire. The following year the first operational telephone line was erected over the 5 miles between Charles Williams’ factory in Boston and his home in Somerville. It was done there because Bell had conducted some of his experimental work in Williams’ electrical workshops a couple of years earlier. These first telephones were still fairly crude devices and arranged in pairs to connect two particular sites – there was no network. The sound they produced was weak and indistinct, and deteriorated with distance.

There was immediate scepticism expressed about the telephone from the telegraph companies and others. It wasn't so much that the telegraph companies saw the telephone as a threat, at least not in the early days. It was more that they had their own well-established technology, employed most of the people with any expertise in this area and saw no need to change.

Furthermore not everyone can appreciate the potential of a very new technology. Even Bell might not have realised the significance of the invention to start with. Later in the same year, after he was granted his patent, he and his financial backer offered to sell the patent to the Telegraph Company, which was the forerunner of Western Union. The offer was turned down, allegedly with the new invention being dismissed as ‘hardly more than a toy’.

New technologies can encounter resistance from people with a stake in established technologies. For a new technology to succeed it must be clear what advantage it has to offer over existing technology, and it has to capture enough users to make itself economically viable. For a decade or more after its invention there was still some uncertainty about the best use for the telephone. A London company offered multiple headsets for connecting telephone subscribers and their friends and family to theatres, concerts and church services. In Paris and Budapest an all-day telephone news service was offered – this actually continued for 30 or 40 years. But any potential for high-quality sound from the telephone had been sacrificed in the interest of maximising the number of conversations that could be carried along a single wire. In other words it was designed for one-to-one conversation and that became its main function.

The first significant users of the telegraph had been the stock market and newspapers who contributed to its widespread diffusion. These two groups were also among the early users of the telephone and Bell's marketing was almost exclusively aimed at commercial users. Even in the USA the telephone was mostly a business tool for the first 50 years of its development. It wasn't until after the Second World War that a majority of US households had a private telephone.

So the telephone was by no means an immediate success but rather experienced a steady growth, starting with a small number of specialised users and gradually diffusing into more general and widespread use.