Telephone of 1896
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discovery / science

Want to Guess When the First Telephone Appeared in Literature?

It's probably further back than you think.
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Never mind the work by Motorola and Bell on wireless telephony well before 1976—what is the earliest reference to a portable phone in literature? It is probably the earliest literary reference to a telephone of any kind, and it sinks the HMS Pinafore by two months, appearing in Mark Twain’s short story for the Atlantic Monthly in March 1878, “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton.”

At that point, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent was only 24 months old, but Twain ran with the possibilities. He tells the story of Alonzo Fitz Clarence, “in his snug and elegant little parlor,” on a “venomously cold” night in Eastport, Maine, wearing “a lovely blue silk dressing-gown.” Frustrated by a balky clock and wanting to know the time, Alonzo “sat down at a rose-wood desk, leaned his chin on the left-hand edge of it, and spoke, as if to the floor.”

He begins chatting with his Aunt Susan, and Twain, without mentioning a telephone, gradually reveals that she is elsewhere—there is three hours’ difference between them, and Aunt Susan reports that the weather is “warm and rainy and melancholy.” Alonzo hears in the background a young woman singing “In the Sweet By and By.” He “listened a moment,” Twain writes, “and said in a guarded, confidential voice, ‘Aunty, who is this divine singer?’”

Alonzo and Rosannah Ethelton, who is staying with his aunt for a month, talk deep into the night. Only after the conversation ends do we learn where she is, when Alonzo says (cue Tony Bennett): “How wonderful it is! Two little hours ago I was a free man, and now my heart’s in San Francisco!”

The first coast-to-coast phone call wouldn’t actually be placed until 1915, but the transcontinental connection was hardly Twain’s only tech vision in the story. Music piracy, wiretapping and encryption come up when one Sidney Algernon Burley, also in love with Rosannah, assumes a false identity and travels from San Francisco to Maine intent on wrecking the blossoming romance. Posing as a clergyman visiting Eastport, Burley calls on Alonzo and mentions in passing that he has invented an improved telephone.
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