Positive / Negative

Before the telephone was invented people communicated in many ways. "They sent letters. ... It took forever to deliver one letter. Some used drums to beat out a message. Some used fire to communicate - they sent smoke signals. ... They sent messages from one hilltop to another by raising or lowering a semaphore tower's arms. If it was foggy, no one could see the message. People would put a message into a little container on a carrier pigeon's leg. The bird would fly to the person receiving the message. People would write messages will quill pens and send them by a postal system. Some went by stagecoach. Pony Express riders galloped thousands of miles from one side of the United States to the other (to deliver mail). Lanterns were used to flash out a message in a code called Morse code. Morse code was also sent by wires through the telegraph. You had to be able to read the code to use it." (Summary of Humphrey, 1995)

At first, the telephone was seen as a toy. "People were (also) suspicious of telephones. (The 1800's were) a time when few people had firsthand experience of electrical machines, even telegraphs. There were fears that other people could also listen in on the telephone conversations, or that the sounds from telephones could make you deaf or crazy. ... Even telegraph companies encouraged false rumors that the telephone had bad effects because they were afraid of the competition." (Parker, 1995, p. 21)

Positive Aspect of the Phone

Lily Tomlin as
Ernestine the Operator
About 1970
(Web Site, 2000)

More information

"Before the telephone, information had to come to people from books and newspapers. People also had to rely on other people's memories and travel patterns. Now, people can find out anything anytime just by picking up the phone and dialing a number. If people did not know a telephone number, they could dial an operator to help them connect the call." (G. Schoelles, 2001)

Originally there was one operator - now there are four to provide different services: local directory assistance, long distance directory assistance, 1-800 directory assistance, and dial-around directory assistance.

"I think the phone is a wonderful timesaving device. I have used it thousands of times to do things in a few minutes that would have taken my grandmother days to finish. People can purchase goods, make travel arrangements, research school projects, send mail, leave messages, and get information that was only available to a few people a few years ago. ... Our small town has become a global town." (D. Schoelles, 2001)

Emergency Services
The very first telephone call was Bell calling his assistant to ask for help. In 1937, Britain put in a public emergency system where people could call for help by dialing 9-9-9. New Zealand's 1-1-1 emergency system began in 1958. In America, AT&T decided to use 9-1-1 for its emergency system in 1968 and the first emergency call was placed in Alabama that same year. 9-1-1 went nationwide in 1973. The Enhanced Emergency System now directs a call to a trained emergency technician who gets the proper help and tells people what to do.

Homer Simpson
Matt Groenig, 1980
(, 2000)

A common advertisement from 1915
showing the social aspects of the telephone
Telephone Pioneer Communications Museum
(Fischer, 1992, p. 160)

Connecting with More People

Telephone companies promoted the telephone to businesses to increase efficiency, save time, and impress customers. A handbook for telephone salesmen from 1904 suggests reasons for residential customers to put in a telephone:

"While residential telephone service may not directly save money for the household, yet, in an indirect way, it accomplishes the same thing by saving time, labor, and drudgery, and in making the whole household run more smoothly. It is always on duty, shops in all weather, corrects mistakes, and hastens deliveries. It save letter writing, orders the dinner, invites the guests, reserves the tickets, and calls the carriage. It makes appointments, changes the time, cancels them altogether and renews them. It calls the expressman, calls the cab, and instructs the office. It invites one's friends, asks them to stay away, asks them to hurry and enables them to invite in return ... " (Fischer, 1992, p. 67)

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Negative Aspects of the Telephone

A 1929 comic of the problems created by combining the telephone
and the television.
(Pierce, 1990, p. 235)

No Secrets
When telephones first became available to the public, many people were afraid that other people could listen in on their conversations. This actually did happen on party lines where more than one household shared a line with other households. Also some operators in small communities listened in on conversations because they were nosey or had a lot of time on their hands with nothing else to do. Telephones also allowed people to spread the news quicker, but the news was sometimes just gossip.

An 1883 drawing of the future showing a
woman socializing by air-car despite
the large number of telephone lines.
(Pierce, 1990, p. 224)

Environmental Concerns

Users of cell phones today have been warned that the amount of microwaves being beamed through their heads may be damaging nerves. Telephone poles with hundreds of wires became common in large cities and were very ugly to look at. Governments and telephone companies often fought about burying cables under the street. Cities wanted the lines out of sight, but did not want the streets torn up. Telephone companies did not want to bury cables because it was easier to repair a cable if it were on a pole. Many old phones were buried in wells, but some of the metals in these telephones leaked into the water supply and poisoned the water.

A businessman listening to an "Automated Answering System".
Companies try to make the caller choose who they want to speak
with to save the receptionist or operator time.
Many times, the Automated System is too complicated or confusing.
(, 2000)

Complicating Life

"I think the telephone has actually made life more complicated, also. It used to be that you could just pick up the phone and make a call and be connected. Now, you might get a telephone system that asks you to press numbers to get to an extension, which has more numbers to press to get to another department, which has more numbers to press to get to a person, who usually isn't there and you have to leave a voice message. You can get lost in phone system hell. Phones also do more things. You need to know how to program your phone's numbers into the address book in the phone; how to work the games if you want to play them; how to dial up the internet to get your voice mails; how to keep your calendar. All very convenient, but all very confusing. The phone has saved many hours of time and made it possible to do many things at the same time. This is called 'multi-tasking.' You can eat your lunch, make a telephone call, type an e-mail into the computer, and carry on a meeting all at the same time. This also means that you are also expected to do four times the work that you would have been able to do 40 years ago. Many people get burned out by how much they need to know and how fast they need to work just to keep up with the changes. This is especially true for people who were born before the invention of many of the telephone off-shoots, like facsimile machines, teletype machines, cell phones and computer systems. All of these save time, but make life harder because special skills need to be learned to use the equipment. ... (The telephone) interrupts you when you want to be alone (like when you're trying to sleep, take a shower, or relax). Salesmen and telemarketing companies use the phone to sell items that they would have had to sell door-to-door about 30 years ago, and they call at all times of the day and night. There are now laws that state when companies call sell over the phone, and that they have to take you off their list if you ask to be taken off. Many people I know put an answering machine on their telephone lines so they can listen to who is calling before they decide to pick up the telephone. Telephone companies also offer services for a telephone to display the telephone number of the incoming call (Caller ID). A person can just look at the telephone display, decide whether that ID is someone they know and want to talk to, then decide whether they want to answer the call." (D. Schoelles, 2001)

Even "Alexander Graham Bell refused to have a telephone in his workroom so he would not be interrupted." (Eber, 1982, p. 80)

Mark Twain sent a Chrismas greeting in 1890, which many people have grown to agree with:

"It is my heart-warmed and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone."

A 1930's survey conclusion is still valid today:

"... Most people saw telephoning as accelerating social life, which is another way of saying that telephoning broke isolation and augmented social contacts. A minority felt that telephones served this function too well. These people complained about too much gossip, about unwanted calls, or, as did some family patriarchs, about wives and children chatting too much. Most probably sensed that the telephone bell, besides disrupting their activities, could also bring bad news or bothersome requests. Yet only a few seemed to live in a heightened state of alertness, ears cocked for the telephone's ring - no more, perhaps, than sat anxiously alert for a knock on the door. Some Americans not only disliked talking on the telephone but also found having it around disturbing, but they were apparently a small minority. Perhaps a few of the oldest felt anxious around the telephone, but most people ... seemed to feel comfortable or even joyful around it. ... Sociologist Sidney Aronson may have captured the feelings of most Americans when he suggested that having the telephone led, in net, to a 'reduction of loneliness and anxiety, and increased feeling of psychological and even physical security'." (Fischer, 1992, p. 247)

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