Hello – this is your long-forgotten friend

Just putting you through: Sending messages via electricity was suggested 250 years ago.

Is it time to return to the old-fashioned phone call? People trying to keep cheerful during the lockdown are rediscovering the joy of hours spent on the line to friends and relations.

“Mr Watson, come here – I want you.” It was hardly the most exciting sentence ever, but it was one that changed the world.

By summoning his assistant with these words on 10 March 1876, the Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call. Watson was just 100 feet away but, within two years, Bell’s system had a reach of over 100 miles.

To begin with, the telephone was not seen as a serious competitor to the telegram – an already established way of sending written messages over long distances. The idea of someone ringing up and demanding to talk to you in your own home felt like an intrusion. And the postal system was so efficient, with local letters delivered the day they were sent, that many felt the telephone was unnecessary.

But people gradually fell in love with the phone, for both personal calls and business. Teenagers, in particular, became famous for spending every moment they could chatting to their friends. Long-distance connections were often poor, but to hear a loved one’s voice even for a few minutes felt like a precious gift.

Then other types of communication came to the fore.

“Until the pandemic arrived, many of us were finding texting, email, and Whatsapp more suitable to our speeded-up lives,” the psychotherapist Susie Orbach writes in the Guardian. “But now we are coming to reuse the telephone, and to enjoy the sounds in our ears and the rhythm of conversation, instead of feeling rushed and interrupted.”

For many, being able to see the person they are talking to on screen is just a distraction – they would much rather focus on the voice. The mobile network EE reports that the average length of a phone call has doubled since the start of the pandemic, from four minutes to eight.

Phones have played an important part in history. A call from John F Kennedy offering support for Martin Luther King, who had been arrested after a sit-in, is thought to have played a vital role in Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Following the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy had a hotline set up between the White House and the Kremlin so that US and Russian leaders could communicate immediately in times of emergency.

Is it time to return to the old-fashioned phone call?

Crossed wires

No. Some say that the phone is an inefficient means of communication. Conversations last longer than necessary because people feel they have to spend time on niceties, such as asking how the other person is. With a text or email, you can just give or ask for the necessary information. And some health experts believe that holding a mobile to your ear for too long is bad for you.

Yes. Communication is not just about exchanging information – it is also about building relationships. A phone conversation gives you a chance to get to know somebody, and it is precisely by chatting about peripheral things that you can form an idea of them as a human being rather than just a contact. You can often remember someone’s voice more clearly than their physical appearance.

You Decide

  1. If you could phone anyone in the world right now, who would you choose and what would you say to them?
  2. Is it possible to assess someone’s character properly without meeting them in person?

Activities

  1. Make your own telephone. Take two empty tin cans and connect them with a piece of string or wire threaded through a hole in the base. Hold a conversation with someone in your family.
  2. Write a one-act play about two people talking on the phone. Perform it with a friend who is living somewhere else, and get your family to listen.

Some People Say...

“We’re already cyborgs. Your phone and your computer are extensions of you.”

Elon Musk, technology entrepreneur. He is a citizen of South Africa, the US, and Canada

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many artists, writers, and film-makers have been inspired by the telephone. The Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí made a phone in the shape of a lobster. The French writer Jean Cocteau’s play La Voix Humaine consists of one woman talking on the phone; his compatriot Francis Poulenc wrote an opera based on it. Films in which phones play a vital role include Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Chuck Berry’s classic song, Memphis, Tennessee, takes the form of a phone conversation.
What do we not know?
Whether we will need to talk at all in 10 years’ time. The entrepreneur Elon Musk claims that we will soon be able to communicate by sending electronic signals straight from the brain to another person’s. His company Neuralink is developing a microchip to be implanted in the skull, with electrodes connecting to the brain. “You would be able to communicate very quickly,” he says, “and with far more precision” – though people might still speak “for sentimental reasons”.

Word Watch

Alexander Graham Bell
Born in Edinburgh, Bell (1847-1922) was the son of an elocution expert, who fostered his interest in the possibilities of human speech.
Telegram
A message sent via electric wires and delivered as a printed piece of paper. As every word was expensive, making the message as short as possible became an art. A famous joke telegram sent from Venice read, “STREETS FULL OF WATER PLEASE ADVISE”.
Psychotherapist
Someone who treats emotional problems and mental health issues. There are over 1,000 types of psychotherapy.
John F Kennedy
President of the US from 1961 to 1963, when he was shot dead in Dallas. He was the fourth American president to be assassinated; Abraham Lincoln was the first.
Martin Luther King
A black American civil-rights leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated four years later.
Cuban missile crisis
In 1962, the US and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics existed 1922-1991 and was the largest country in the world) came close to war when the Russians tried to set up missile bases in Cuba. They agreed to remove them after the US Navy blockaded the island.
White House
The official residence of the US president, in Washington DC. Burnt by British troops in 1814, it was rebuilt and painted white to hide the smoke stains.
Kremlin
The Russian government’s headquarters, in the centre of Moscow. The name comes from the Russian word for citadel. Its buildings include two cathedrals.
Peripheral
Here, means not the main or important thing.

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