CHAPTER VIII.-THE TELEPHONE IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES
The telephone was nearly a year old before Europe was aware of its existence. It received no public notice of any kind whatever until March 3, 1877, when the London Athenaeum mentioned it in a few careful sentences. It was not welcomed, except by those who wished an evening's entertainment. And to the entire commercial world it was for four or five years a sort of scientific Billiken, that never could be of any service to serious people.
One after another, several American enthusiasts rushed posthaste to Europe, with dreams of eager nations clamoring for telephone systems, and one after another they failed. Frederick A. Gower was the first of these. He was an adventurous chevalier of business who gave up an agent's contract in return for a right to become a roving propagandist. Later he met a prima donna, fell in love with and married her, forsook telephony for ballooning, and lost his life in attempting to fly across the English Channel.
Next went William H. Reynolds, of Providence, who had bought five-eights of the British patent for five thousand dollars, and half the right to Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Italy for two thousand, five hundred dollars. How he was received may be seen from a letter of his which has been preserved. "I have been working in London for four months," he writes; "I have been to the Bank of England and elsewhere; and I have not found one man who will put one shilling into the telephone."
Bell himself hurried to England and Scotland on his wedding tour in 1878, with great expectations of having his invention appreciated in his native land. But from a business point of view, his mission was a total failure. He received dinners a-plenty, but no contracts; and came back to the United States an impoverished and disheartened man. Then the optimistic Gardiner G. Hubbard, Bell's father-in-law, threw himself against the European inertia and organized the International and Oriental Telephone Companies, which came to nothing of any importance. In the same year even Enos M. Barton, the sagacious founder of the Western Electric, went to France and England to establish an export trade in telephones, and failed.
These able men found their plans thwarted by the indifference of the public, and often by open hostility. "The telephone is little better than a toy," said the Saturday Review; "it amazes ignorant people for a moment, but it is inferior to the well-established system of air- tubes." "What will become of the privacy of life?" asked another London editor. "What will become of the sanctity of the domestic hearth?" Writers vied with each other in inventing methods of pooh-poohing Bell and his invention. "It is ridiculously simple," said one. "It is only an electrical speaking-tube," said another. "It is a complicated form of speaking- trumpet," said a third. No British editor could at first conceive of any use for the telephone, except for divers and coal miners. The price, too, created a general outcry. Floods of toy telephones were being sold on the streets at a shilling apiece; and although the Government was charging sixty dollars a year for the use of its printing-telegraphs, people protested loudly against paying half as much for telephones. As late as 1882, Herbert Spencer writes: "The telephone is scarcely used at all in London, and is unknown in the other English cities."
The first man of consequence to befriend the telephone was Lord Kelvin, then an untitled young scientist. He had seen the original telephones at the Centennial in Philadelphia, and was so fascinated with them that the impulsive Bell had thrust them into his hands as a gift. At the next meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Lord Kelvin exhibited these. He did more. He became the champion of the telephone. He staked his reputation upon it. He told the story of the tests made at the Centennial, and assured the sceptical scientists that he had not been deceived. "All this my own ears heard," he said, "spoken to me with unmistakable distinctness by this circular disc of iron."
The scientists and electrical experts were, for the most part, split up into two camps. Some of them said the telephone was impossible, while others said that "nothing could be simpler." Almost all were agreed that what Bell had done was a humorous trifle. But Lord Kelvin persisted. He hammered the truth home that the telephone was "one of the most interesting inventions that has ever been made in the history of science." He gave a demonstration with one end of the wire in a coal mine. He stood side by side with Bell at a public meeting in Glasgow, and declared:
"The things that were called telephones before Bell were as different from Bell's telephone as a series of hand-claps are different from the human voice. They were in fact electrical claps; while Bell conceived the idea--THE WHOLLY ORIGINAL AND NOVEL IDEA--of giving continuity to the shocks, so as to perfectly reproduce the human voice."
One by one the scientists were forced to take the telephone seriously. At a public test there was one noted professor who still stood in the ranks of the doubters. He was asked to send a message. He went to the instrument with a grin of incredulity, and thinking the whole exhibition a joke, shouted into the mouthpiece: "Hi diddle diddle--follow up that." Then he listened for an answer. The look on his face changed to one of the utmost amazement. "It says--`The cat and the fiddle,'" he gasped, and forthwith he became a convert to telephony. By such tests the men of science were won over, and by the middle of 1877 Bell received a "vociferous welcome" when he addressed them at their annual convention at Plymouth.
Soon afterwards, The London Times surrendered. It whirled right-about-face and praised the telephone to the skies. "Suddenly and quietly the whole human race is brought within speaking and hearing distance," it exclaimed; "scarcely anything was more desired and more impossible." The next paper to quit the mob of scoffers was the Tatler, which said in an editorial peroration, "We cannot but feel im- pressed by the picture of a human child commanding the subtlest and strongest force in Nature to carry, like a slave, some whisper around the world."
Closely after the scientists and editors came the nobility. The Earl of Caithness led the way. He declared in public that "the telephone is the most extraordinary thing I ever saw in my life." And one wintry morning in 1878 Queen Victoria drove to the house of Sir Thomas Biddulph, in London, and for an hour talked and listened by telephone to Kate Field, who sat in a Downing Street office. Miss Field sang "Kathleen Mavourneen," and the Queen thanked her by telephone, saying she was "immensely pleased." She congratulated Bell himself, who was present, and asked if she might be permitted to buy the two telephones; whereupon Bell presented her with a pair done in ivory.
This incident, as may be imagined, did much to establish the reputation of telephony in Great Britain. A wire was at once strung to Windsor Castle. Others were ordered by the Daily News, the Persian Ambassador, and five or six lords and baronets. Then came an order which raised the hopes of the telephone men to the highest heaven, from the banking house of J. S. Morgan & Co. It was the first recognition from the "seats of the mighty" in the business and financial world. A tiny exchange, with ten wires, was promptly started in London; and on April 2d, 1879, Theodore Vail, the young manager of the Bell Company, sent an order to the factory in Boston, "Please make one hundred hand telephones for export trade as early as possible." The foreign trade had begun.
Then there came a thunderbolt out of a blue sky, a wholly unforeseen disaster. Just as a few energetic companies were sprouting up, the Postmaster General suddenly proclaimed that the telephone was a species of telegraph. According to a British law the telegraph was required to be a Government monopoly. This law had been passed six years before the telephone was born, but no matter. The telephone men protested and argued. Tyndall and Lord Kelvin warned the Government that it was making an indefensible mistake. But nothing could be done. Just as the first railways had been called toll-roads, so the telephone was solemnly declared to be a telegraph. Also, to add to the absurd humor of the situation, Judge Stephen, of the High Court of Justice, spoke the final word that compelled the telephone legally to be a telegraph, and sustained his opinion by a quotation from Webster's Dictionary, which was published twenty years before the telephone was invented.
Having captured this new rival, what next? The Postmaster General did not know. He had, of course, no experience in telephony, and neither had any of his officials in the telegraph department. There was no book and no college to instruct him. His telegraph was then, as it is to-day, a business failure. It was not earning its keep. Therefore he did not dare to shoulder the risk of constructing a second system of wires, and at last consented to give licenses to private companies.
But the muddle continued. In order to compel competition, according to the academic theories of the day, licenses were given to thir- teen private companies. As might have been expected, the ablest company quickly swallowed the other twelve. If it had been let alone, this company might have given good service, but it was hobbled and fenced in by jealous regulations. It was compelled to pay one-tenth of its gross earnings to the Post Office. It was to hold itself ready to sell out at six months' notice. And as soon as it had strung a long-distance system of wires, the Postmaster General pounced down upon it and took it away.
Then, in 1900, the Post Office tossed aside all obligations to the licensed company, and threw open the door to a free-for-all competition. It undertook to start a second system in London, and in two years discovered its blunder and proposed to cooperate. It granted licenses to five cities that demanded municipal ownership. These cities set out bravely, with loud beating of drums, plunged from one mishap to another, and finally quit. Even Glasgow, the premier city of municipal ownership, met its Waterloo in the telephone. It spent one million, eight hundred thousand dollars on a plant that was obsolete when it was new, ran it for a time at a loss, and then sold it to the Post Office in 1906 for one million, five hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.
So, from first to last, the story of the telephone in Great Britain has been a "comedy of errors." There are now, in the two islands, not six hundred thousand telephones in use. London, with its six hundred and forty square miles of houses, has one-quarter of these, and is gaining at the rate of ten thousand a year. No large improvements are under way, as the Post Office has given notice that it will take over and operate all private companies on New Year's Day, 1912. The bureaucratic muddle, so it seems, is to continue indefinitely.
In Germany there has been the same burden of bureaucracy, but less backing and filling. There is a complete government monopoly. Whoever commits the crime of leasing telephone service to his neighbors may be sent to jail for six months. Here, too, the Postmaster General has been supreme. He has forced the telephone business into a postal mould. The man in a small city must pay as high a rate for a small service, as the man in a large city pays for a large service. There is a fair degree of efficiency, but no high speed or record-breaking. The German engineers have not kept in close touch with the progress of telephony in the United States. They have preferred to devise methods of their own, and so have created a miscellaneous assortment of systems, good, bad, and indifferent. All told, there is probably an investment of seventy-five million dollars and a total of nine hundred thousand telephones.
Telephony has always been in high favor with the Kaiser. It is his custom, when planning a hunting party, to have a special wire strung to the forest headquarters, so that he can converse every morning with his Cabinet. He has conferred degrees and honors by telephone. Even his former Chancellor, Von Buelow, received his title of Count in this informal way. But the first friend of the telephone in Germany was Bismarck. The old Unifier saw instantly its value in holding a nation together, and ordered a line between his palace in Berlin and his farm at Varzin, which lay two hundred and thirty miles apart. This was as early as the Fall of 1877, and was thus the first long-distance line in Europe.
In France, as in England, the Government seized upon the telephone business as soon as the pioneer work had been done by private citizens. In 1889 it practically confiscated the Paris system, and after nine years of litigation paid five million francs to its owners. With this reckless beginning, it floundered from bad to worse. It assembled the most complete assortment of other nations' mistakes, and invented several of its own. Almost every known evil of bureaucracy was developed. The system of rates was turned upside down; the flat rate, which can be profitably permitted in small cities only, was put in force in the large cities, and the message rate, which is applicable only to large cities, was put in force in small places. The girl operators were entangled in a maze of civil service rules. They were not allowed to marry without the permission of the Postmaster General; and on no account might they dare to marry a mayor, a policeman, a cashier, or a foreigner, lest they betray the secrets of the switchboard.
There was no national plan, no standardization, no staff of inventors and improvers. Every user was required to buy his own telephone. As George Ade has said, "Anything attached to a wall is liable to be a telephone in Paris." And so, what with poor equipment and red tape, the French system became what it remains to-day, the most conspicuous example of what NOT to do in telephony.
There are barely as many telephones in the whole of France as ought normally to be in the city of Paris. There are not as many as are now in use in Chicago. The exasperated Parisians have protested. They have presented a petition with thirty-two thousand names. They have even organized a "Kickers' League"--the only body of its kind in any country--to demand good service at a fair price. The daily loss from bureaucratic telephony has become enormous. "One blundering girl in a telephone exchange cost me five thousand dollars on the day of the panic in 1907," said George Kessler. But the Government clears a net profit of three million dollars a year from its telephone monopoly; and until 1910, when a committee of betterment was appointed, it showed no concern at the discomfort of the public.
There was one striking lesson in telephone efficiency which Paris received in 1908, when its main exchange was totally destroyed by fire. "To build a new switchboard," said European manufacturers, "will require four or five months." A hustling young Chicagoan appeared on the scene. "We 'll put in a new switchboard in sixty days," he said; "and agree to forfeit six hundred dollars a day for delay." Such quick work had never been known. But it was Chicago's chance to show what she could do. Paris and Chicago are four thousand, five hundred miles apart, a twelve days' journey. The switchboard was to be a hundred and eighty feet in length, with ten thousand wires. Yet the Western Electric finished it in three weeks. It was rushed on six freight-cars to New York, loaded on the French steamer La Provence, and deposited at Paris in thirty-six days; so that by the time the sixty days had expired, it was running full speed with a staff of ninety operators.
Russia and Austria-Hungary have now about one hundred and twenty-five thousand telephones apiece. They are neck and neck in a race that has not at any time been a fast one. In each country the Government has been a neglectful stepmother to the telephone. It has starved the business with a lack of capital and used no enterprise in expanding it. Outside of Vienna, Budapest, St. Petersburg, and Moscow there are no wire-systems of any consequence. The political deadlock between Austria and Hungary shuts out any immediate hope of a happier life for the telephone in those countries; but in Russia there has recently been a change in policy that may open up a new era. Permits are now being offered to one private company in each city, in return for three per cent of the revenue. By this step Russia has unexpectedly swept to the front and is now, to telephone men, the freest country in Europe.
In tiny Switzerland there has been government ownership from the first, but with less detriment to the business than elsewhere. Here the officials have actually jilted the telegraph for the telephone. They have seen the value of the talking wire to hold their valley villages together; and so have cries-crossed the Alps with a cheap and somewhat flimsy system of telephony that carries sixty million conversations a year. Even the monks of St. Bernard, who rescue snowbound travellers, have now equipped their mountain with a series of telephone booths.
The highest telephone in the world is on the peak of Monte Rosa, in the Italian Alps, very nearly three miles above the level of the sea. It is linked to a line that runs to Rome, in order that a queen may talk to a professor. In this case the Queen is Margherita of Italy and the professor is Signor Mosso, the astronomer, who studies the heavens from an observatory on Monte Rosa. At her own expense, the Queen had this wire strung by a crew of linemen, who slipped and floundered on the mountain for six years before they had it pegged in place. The general situation in Italy is like that in Great Britain. The Government has always monop- olized the long-distance lines, and is now about to buy out all private companies. There are only fifty-five thousand telephones to thirty-two million people--as many as in Norway and less than in Denmark. And in many of the southern and Sicilian provinces the jingle of the telephone bell is still an unfamiliar sound.
The main peculiarity in Holland is that there is no national plan, but rather a patchwork, that resembles Joseph's coat of many colors. Each city engineer has designed his own type of apparatus and had it made to order. Also, each company is fenced in by law within a six-mile circle, so that Holland is dotted with thumb-nail systems, no two of which are alike. In Belgium there has been a government system since 1893, hence there is unity, but no enterprise. The plant is old-fashioned and too small. Spain has private companies, which give fairly good service to twenty thousand people. Roumania has half as many. Portugal has two small companies in Lisbon and Oporto. Greece, Servia, and Bulgaria have a scanty two thousand apiece. The frozen little isle of Iceland has one-quarter as many; and even into Turkey, which was a forbidden land under the regime of the old Sultan, the Young Turks are importing boxes of telephones and coils of copper wire.
There is one European country, and only one, which has caught the telephone spirit--Sweden. Here telephony had a free swinging start. It was let alone by the Post Office; and better still, it had a Man, a business-builder of remarkable force and ability, named Henry Cedergren. Had this man been made the Telephone-Master of Europe, there would have been a different story to tell. By his insistent enterprise he made Stockholm the best telephoned city outside of the United States. He pushed his country forward until, having one hundred and sixty-five thousand telephones, it stood fourth among the European nations. Since his death the Government has entered the field with a duplicate system, and a war has been begun which grows yearly more costly and absurd.
Asia, as yet, with her eight hundred and fifty million people, has fewer telephones than Philadelphia, and three-fourths of them are in the tiny island of Japan. The Japanese were enthusiastic telephonists from the first. They had a busy exchange in Tokio in 1883. This has now grown to have twenty-five thousand users, and might have more, if it had not been stunted by the peculiar policy of the Government. The public officials who operate the system are able men. They charge a fair price and make ten per cent profit for the State. But they do not keep pace with the demand. It is one of the oddest vagaries of public ownership that there is now in Tokio a WAITING LIST of eight thousand citizens, who are offering to pay for telephones and cannot get them. And when a Tokian dies, his franchise to a telephone, if he has one, is usually itemized in his will as a four-hundred- dollar property.
India, which is second on the Asiatic list, has no more than nine thousand telephones--one to every thirty-three thousand of her population! Not quite so many, in fact, as there are in five of the skyscrapers of New York. The Dutch East Indies and China have only seven thousand apiece, but in China there has recently come a forward movement. A fund of twenty million dollars is to be spent in constructing a national system of telephone and telegraph. Peking is now pointing with wonder and delight to a new exchange, spick and span, with a couple of ten-thousand-wire switchboards. Others are being built in Canton, Hankow, and Tien-Tsin. Ultimately, the telephone will flourish in China, as it has done in the Chinese quarter in San Francisco. The Empress of China, after the siege of Peking, commanded that a telephone should be hung in her palace, within reach of her dragon throne; and she was very friendly with any representative of the "Speaking Lightning Sounds" business, as the Chinese term telephony.
In Persia the telephone made its entry recently in true comic-opera fashion. A new Shah, in an outburst of confidence, set up a wire between his palace and the market-place in Teheran, and invited his people to talk to him whenever they had grievances. And they talked! They talked so freely and used such language, that the Shah ordered out his soldiers and attacked them. He fired upon the new Parliament, and was at once chased out of Persia by the enraged people. From this it would appear that the telephone ought to be popular in Persia, although at present there are not more than twenty in use.
South America, outside of Buenos Ayres, has few telephones, probably not more than thirty thousand. Dom Pedro of Brazil, who befriended Bell at the Centennial, introduced telephony into his country in 1881; but it has not in thirty years been able to obtain ten thousand users. Canada has exactly the same number as Sweden--one hundred and sixty-five thousand. Mexico has perhaps ten thousand; New Zealand twenty-six thousand; and Australia fifty- five thousand.
Far down in the list of continents stands Africa. Egypt and Algeria have twelve thousand at the north; British South Africa has as many at the south; and in the vast stretches between there are barely a thousand more. Whoever pushes into Central Africa will still hear the beat of the wooden drum, which is the clattering sign-language of the natives. One strand of copper wire there is, through the Congo region, placed there by order of the late King of Belgium. To string it was probably the most adventurous piece of work in the history of telephone linemen. There was one seven hundred and fifty mile stretch of the central jungle. There were white ants that ate the wooden poles, and wild elephants that pulled up the iron poles. There were monkeys that played tag on the lines, and savages that stole the wire for arrow- heads. But the line was carried through, and to-day is alive with conversations concerning rubber and ivory.
So, we may almost say of the telephone that "there is no speech nor language where its voice is not heard." There are even a thousand miles of its wire in Abyssinia and one hundred and fifty miles in the Fiji Islands. Roughly speaking, there are now ten million telephones in all countries, employing two hundred and fifty thousand people, requiring twenty-one million miles of wire, representing a cost of fifteen hundred million dollars, and carrying fourteen thousand million conversations a year. All this, and yet the men who heard the first feeble cry of the in- fant telephone are still alive, and not by any means old.
No foreign country has reached the high American level of telephony. The United States has eight telephones per hundred of population, while no other country has one-half as many. Canada stands second, with almost four per hundred; and Sweden is third. Germany has as many telephones as the State of New York; and Great Britain as many as Ohio. Chicago has more than London; and Boston twice as many as Paris. In the whole of Europe, with her twenty nations, there are one- third as many telephones as in the United States. In proportion to her population, Europe has only one-thirteenth as many.
The United States writes half as many letters as Europe, sends one-third as many telegrams, and talks twice as much at the telephone. The average European family sends three telegrams a year, and three letters and one telephone message a week; while the average American family sends five telegrams a year, and seven letters and eleven telephone messages a week. This one na- tion, which owns six per cent of the earth and is five per cent of the human race, has SEVENTY per cent of the telephones. And fifty per cent, or one-half, of the telephony of the world, is now comprised in the Bell System of this country.
There are only six nations in Europe that make a fair showing--the Germans, British, Swedish, Danes, Norwegians, and Swiss. The others have less than one telephone per hundred. Little Denmark has more than Austria. Little Finland has better service than France. The Belgian telephones have cost the most--two hundred and seventy-three dollars apiece; and the Finnish telephones the least--eighty-one dollars. But a telephone in Belgium earns three times as much as one in Norway. In general, the lesson in Europe is this, that the telephone is what a nation makes it. Its usefulness depends upon the sense and enterprise with which it is handled. It may be either an invaluable asset or a nuisance.
Too much government! That has been the basic reason for failure in most countries. Before the telephone was invented, the telegraph had been made a State monopoly; and the tele- phone was regarded as a species of telegraph. The public officials did not see that a telephone system is a highly complex and technical problem, much more like a piano factory or a steel- mill. And so, wherever a group of citizens established a telephone service, the government officials looked upon it with jealous eyes, and usually snatched it away. The telephone thus became a part of the telegraph, which is a part of the post office, which is a part of the government. It is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction --a mere twig of bureaucracy. Under such conditions the telephone could not prosper. The wonder is that it survived.
Handled on the American plan, the telephone abroad may be raised to American levels. There is no racial reason for failure. The slow service and the bungling are the natural results of treating the telephone as though it were a road or a fire department; and any nation that rises to a proper conception of the telephone, that dares to put it into competent hands and to strengthen it with enough capital, can secure as alert and brisk a service as heart can wish. Some nations are already on the way. China, Japan, and France have sent delegations to New York City --"the Mecca of telephone men," to learn the art of telephony in its highest development. Even Russia has rescued the telephone from her bureaucrats and is now offering it freely to men of enterprise.
In most foreign countries telephone service is being steadily geared up to a faster pace. The craze for "cheap and nasty" telephony is passing; and the idea that the telephone is above all else a SPEED instrument, is gaining ground. A faster long-distance service, at double rates, is being well patronized. Slow-moving races are learning the value of time, which is the first lesson in telephony. Our reapers and mowers now go to seventy-five nations. Our street cars run in all great cities. Morocco is importing our dollar watches; Korea is learning the waste of allowing nine men to dig with one spade. And all this means telephones.
In thirty years, the Western Electric has sold sixty-seven million dollars' worth of telephonic apparatus to foreign countries. But this is no more than a fair beginning. To put one telephone in China to every hundred people will mean an outlay of three hundred million dollars. To give Europe as fit an equipment as the United States now has, will mean thirty million telephones, with proper wire and switchboards to match. And while telephony for the masses is not yet a live question in many countries, sooner or later, in the relentless push of civilization, it must come.
Possibly, in that far future of peace and goodwill among nations, when each country does for all the others what it can do best, the United States may be generally recognized as the source of skill and authority on telephony. It may be called in to rebuild or operate the telephone systems of other countries, in the same way that it is now supplying oil and steel rails and farm machinery. Just as the wise buyer of to-day asks France for champagne, Germany for toys, England for cottons, and the Orient for rugs, so he will learn to look upon the United States as the natural home and headquarters of the telephone.Next