Technology: it’s in the air

We’re probably not that far away from wireless implants that will replace PDAs, cell phones, and Bluetooth headsets. In fact, you get the impression that some people while driving are in the midst of performing such implants.

The side-trip question is, when did it all start? When did someone send the first wireless phone message?

This isn’t a trick question; the caller wasn’t Marconi or Samuel Finley Breese Morse, let alone Leonardo da Vinci or Archimedes. If you wrote down a year for the first wireless phone call, what would that year be?

Okay, so write it down, then see how you did…

Were you close to 1880?

Me, neither.

A few years ago, I was walking through Franklin Square in Washington, DC, which faces the Frankin School (built in 1869) at 13th and K Streets NW. I happened to notice this plaque on the wall of the school. (I’ve repeated the inscription below the photo.)

Plaque on the Franklin School, Washington DC, commemorating the first wireless telephone call on June 3, 1880

From the top floor of this building
was sent on June 3, 1880
over a beam of light to 1325 L Street,
the first wireless telephone message
in the history of the world.
The apparatus used in sending the message
was the photophone invented by
inventor of the telephone.

This plaque was place here by
Alexander Graham Bell Chapter
Telephone Pioneers of America
March 3, 1947,
the centennial of Dr. Bell’s birth.

The distance was about 200 yards, and the technology required line-of-sight (and also favorable weather).
The AT&T history site describes a number of advances in telecommunications as astonishing in their time as current ones seem to us, especially considering that Bell had invented the telephone in 1876.

Alexander Graham Bell making the first long-distance phone call, Oct. 18, 1892

  • 1886: the first long-distance line opens, connecting New York City and Philadelphia. Initial bandwidth: one call.
  • 1892: long-distance service opens between New York and Chicago, with Bell himself (in the photo) placing the ceremonial first call. Initial bandwidth: one call. Cost: $9 for the first five minutes.

That 950-mile New York-Chicago connection, according to the history site, was about the technological limit, but within seven years, so-called loading coils permitted longer and longer connections.

  • 1915: the first transcontinental telephone connection. “Service is available to all telephone customers, but at an initial price of $20.70 for the first three minutes between New York and San Francisco, volume is low.”

Alan Kay was right: technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.