|20 Talking Down a Two-Way Street 1876
THE FIRST TELEPHONE transmission, on March 10, 1876, was a one-way message--"Mr. Watson! Come here! I want you!" But Alexander Graham Bell's invention would change two-way communication forever. A professor of vocal physiology at Boston University, the Scottish-born Bell, 29, had dreamed for a decade of sending speech through wires. He was trying to invent an improved telegraph when he discovered the phenomenon that would make the telephone possible: Sound vibrations caught in a drumlike membrane could be translated into electromagnetic waves. Aided by technical assistant Thomas Watson, Bell found a way to transmit those waves to a receiver and turn them back into sound. The company he cofounded, Bell Telephone, morphed into AT&T, one of the largest corporations anywhere.
For businesses, governments and ordinary people, the telephone represented a quantum leap in efficiency. Instead of composing a letter or telegram and waiting for a reply, one had only to get on the horn. But the phone altered human relations on a deeper level, too. Millions isolated by circumstance could reach out and touch someone, if only figuratively. No longer requiring physical proximity, intimacy became both easier and less intimate.
Today, there are some 750 million telephone subscribers worldwide. Computers, including 10.7 million Internet hosts, share the circuits. And letter-writing is staging a surprise comeback--this time over the phone lines, via E-mail.
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