Picture it: Boston, 1877.
Trinity Church is finishing construction in Copley Square, while in Washington, Rutherford B. Hayes is set to become the nation’s 19th president (despite losing the popular vote).
The Boston Globe costs 3 cents a copy, and the telephone is a new invention with an unpredictable future.
It was Feb. 12 that year that the Globe and the inventor of “that wonderful instrument,” Alexander Graham Bell, made history.
“SENT BY TELEPHONE: The First Newspaper Despatch Sent by a Human Voice Over the Wires,” a headline trumpeted the next day.
The report that followed breathlessly recounted the excitement in a Salem lecture hall as Bell stood before the crowd of 500 and communicated with his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, in Boston, while representatives from the Globe observed the call from both ends.
The Salem audience were thrilled as they listened over the wire to “Yankee Doodle” and “Auld Lang Syne” played 18 miles away on an electric organ of Bell’s design, according to the Globe article by Henry M. Batchelder, who became the first journalist to file a story by phone.
Then Watson addressed the Salem crowd from Boston, his voice audible to people as far as 35 feet from the telephone as he coughed, sang, and took questions about the events.
“The lecture and experiment were an unqualified success,” Batchelder wrote.
Though highly detailed on some matters, Batchelder’s report is maddeningly vague on others. “Professor Bell closed his lecture by briefly stating the practical uses to which he was confident the telephone could be applied,” he wrote, without elaboration, leaving the modern reader to speculate what Bell might have foreseen.
The call between Salem and Boston was Bell’s first public demonstration of the new technology amid a series of experiments to determine whether Bell’s device worked.
Less than a month earlier, Bell had placed a call to the Boston office of the Boston Rubber Shoe Company from the Malden home of Elisha Slade Converse, a cofounder of the family-run firm and distant cousin to Marquis Mills Converse, who later founded the Converse company famous for its Chuck Taylors.
In an 1897 report remembering the Salem call, a Globe reporter wrote, “Marvelous was it then for a reporter to talk over a wire from Salem, a distance of 18 miles. Today the invention has become such a necessary part of the machinery of journalism, that wonder has ceased even at conversation with Chicago, 1200 miles away.”
The embrace of the telephone wasn’t always a sure thing, though.
A 1911 Globe article recalled “the ridicule with which [the telephone] was received some 35 years ago.” Bell himself, quoted in that report, remarked of those times, “The public generally and the business men [of] the country were very slow to perceive any value in the telephone.”
That all changed, Bell said, after the Globe report.
“That, I think, more than anything else, woke up the press of the world to the advantage of the telephone,” Bell said in 1911. “That article in the Boston Globe was copied all over the world and had great influence in modifying public opinion.”
Less than two months after the Salem call, the world’s first permanent residential telephone line was installed, connecting the Somerville home of Charles Williams Jr. with his office on Court Street in Boston.
“It was a short line,” Bell said, “but it was the first of the hundreds of thousands of miles of telephonic wire that has since been laid.”Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.