by James Graham
Published: March 7, 2018
On this day in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell reputedly spoke to his assistant Thomas A. Watson with the first recognizable sentence transmitted by phone: “Mr. Watson come here, I want you.” It was the briefest of conversations, but it proved to be a pioneering moment in telecoms history.
Scottish-born Bell made the call over 100ft of wire during trials in his Boston laboratory in the US, summoning his electrician assistant from the adjoining room.
In his journal for that day, Bell writes: “To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.”
The two men changed places and Bell listened as Watson read passages from a book over the device. Bell records: “It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from the speaker. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled.”
Just three days earlier, Bell had been granted a US patent for his invention. But it wasn’t an instant success. Communications company Western Union rejected the opportunity to buy the rights for $100,000, believing it wasn’t a rival to the telegraph. A decision it later regretted.
In September that year, a non-working model of Bell’s phone was exhibited at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Glasgow by physicist and engineer Sir William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin. He dubbed it: “The greatest by far of all the marvels of the electric telegraph.” Three months later, Bell was awarded his UK patent. The first pair of practical telephones seen in Great Britain arrived in July 1877, brought by Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer and Electrician of the Post Office.
The first telephone service in the UK was offered by The Telephone Company set up in 1878 to market Bell’s telephone, a predecessor of today's BT.
David Hay, head of heritage and archives for BT, said: "Although today there is controversy over the true inventor of the telephone, there is no doubt that Bell was the most significant pioneer who made the commercial opportunity of the telephone a reality, both in the USA and in the UK. And BT is directly descended from the company that first commercialized Bell’s telephone patent in the UK."