Friday, August 15, 2008

Ahoy, Ahoy: Happy Birthday to - Hello?

Interesting story from wired magazine, detailing the first use of the word hello to initiate a phone conversation. Really scary that Bell proposed using "ahoy, ahoy." Try for a week not using the word hello and instead ahoy.

Aug. 15, 1877: 'Hello. Can You Hear Me Now?'
1877: Thomas Edison suggests using the word hello as a telephone greeting. The idea catches on.

Edison invented a lot of things, for sure, but one thing he didn't invent was the telephone. The brass ring for that one goes to Alexander Graham Bell, although Elisha Gray filed his patent for a similar device the same day. But they never called it Ma Gray, did they?

Edison's contribution to the "improvement in telegraphy" was giving us the salutation now used the world over, in one form or another. Bell's famous first words spoken over what we now call the telephone -- "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." -- were delivered without any greeting at all.

When he did weigh in on the subject, Bell proposed using "ahoy, ahoy," the age-old seafarer's hail. And, in fact, ahoy was the first greeting used, until Edison suggested hello.

At the time, the phone was conceived of as a business machine that would connect two offices with a permanently open line. Some people toyed with the idea of an alarm bell at each end to alert one office that the other office wanted to speak. On Aug. 15, 1877, Edison wrote to a friend who was setting up a phone system in Pittsburgh: "I don't think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think?"

Contrary to some accounts, Edison did not coin the word. Halloo and variants had been used for ages to urge on hunting hounds and to shout to people at a distance. Edison was tinkering with a prototype phonograph in 1877 and used a shouted halloo! for testing. Early gramophones and telephones alike had pretty low signal-to-noise ratios.

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