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The First 3,000 Telephones (updated)


Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!

-Alexander Graham Bell, March 10, 1876 (the world’s first phone call)

inviting coworkers

-Jack Dorsey, March 21, 2006 (the world’s first tweet)

Shortly after a new communications medium arrives, side doors of access are created by the confluence of low adoption and technological immaturity. These side doors do not last forever. The excitement and the mutual opportunity that initially pass through them eventually become costly—and sometimes a liability. The fortunate few who discover these doors get in early and make out like bandits before the rest of the world finds out. Side doors soon become crowded and unreliable, while the people who originally left them open see no choice but to seal them against the oncoming crowds.

Social media has created an incredible array of side doors, and all of them remain open—if you know where to look. Right now, social media is the telephone before there were secretaries and voice mail. It’s e-mail before spam and autoreplies. History tells us that this degree of access is not sustainable, and side doors don’t stay open. Sometime soon, we’ll be telling “remember-when” stories. It’s up to you: do you want to be the storyteller, recalling how good the social media side doors were for you, or do you want to be the audience, wishing you had known—and acted?

One year after Bell invented the telephone, the world had 3,000 working telephones. Think about the calls placed to and from those first 3,000 telephones, the excitement with which they were placed and received, and the elite circle that one instantly entered just by placing one of them. A person could connect with those who were all but unreachable by other means, an exclusive channel of access that opened up for these early adopters alone—a technological side door.

The normal rules of polite society would, of course, apply to early telephone communication—no foul language, no harassment or violations of privacy. But outside these limitations, one would have free rein to explore a brand-new communications channel. The voices on the other end were no doubt tinged with the excitement of early adoption. Most calls were between familiar parties, and the tele- phone was a new way for existing contacts to connect. For the most part, it helped maintain and build relationships, not start them.

Doubters, Evangelists, and Opportunists

There were certainly a lot of doubters of the telephone’s potential. Among them was Western Union, which dismissed the technology in an 1876 internal memo: “The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” On the other end of the spectrum, there were early evangelists, who trumpeted the telephone’s invention without much evidence of its eventual success—some of history’s lucky guessers. In between the two extremes were the early adopters, who focused on the telephone’s utility at the time and stayed out of the predictions business.

This is where we find the opportunists throughout history. They’re busy putting the technology of the day to work for them. Whoever made the world’s first sales call was among this group. I imagine this person taking a deep breath as the operator connected him to his intended prospect. The recipient answers, expecting a familiar voice, only to find a stranger on the other end. An exchange of greetings and then the moment of truth. Does the prospect hang up or cut the conversation short? Or does the prospect sit and listen to what the stranger has to say? I suspect it’s the latter. The recipient has no concept of phone solicitation. It probably hasn’t yet dawned on the listener that this new network could even be used to conduct business between people or firms. To the prospect, the person on the other end of the call is not a nuisance but a member of a limited circle in which having access to a connected telephone is the sole qualification. And people do business with those in their circle, even if the circle was entered through a side door.

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© 2016 Ian Greenleigh