Dawn of the Wireless Phone (1901)

Illustration for article titled Dawn of the Wireless Phone (1901)

William Edward Ayrton (source: Wikimedia)Susan J. Douglas has a fascinating essay about early wireless telegraphy in the book Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology and the American Future, which was edited by Paleo-Future Legend Joe Corn.


Douglas excerpts a prediction by Professor William Edward Ayrton that appeared in a 1901 magazine called The Century. In it, Ayrton said that wireless telegraphy would soon allow people to talk over long distances in a highly targeted manner. The phrasing of the piece is remarkably relevant to the mobile phone as Ayrton describes a person's ability to "call to a friend he knew not where."

In commenting on Mr. Marconi's paper (read before the Society of Arts in May) Professor Ayrton said that we were gradually coming within thinkable distance of the realization of a prophecy he had ventured to make four years before, of a time when, if a person wanted to call to a friend he knew not where, he would call in a very loud electromagnetic voice, heard by him who had the electromagnetic ear, silent to him who had it not. "Where are you?" he would say. A small reply would come, " I am at the bottom of a coalmine, or crossing the Andes, or in the middle of the Atlantic." Or, perhaps in spite of all the calling, no reply would come, and the person would then know that his friend was dead. Think of what this would mean, of the calling which goes on every day from room to room of a house, and then think of that calling extending from pole to pole, not a noisy babble, but a call audible to him who wants to hear, and absolutely silent to all others. It would be almost like dreamland and ghostland, not the ghostland cultivated by a heated imagination, but a real communication from a distance based on true physical laws.

This is the case for this wonderful handmaiden of modern development at the present moment. So much is absolutely assured; so much more is tentatively ascertained; vastly greater things are predicted for the future. That the fullest success may visit the inventor and his system, that this accompaniment to modern progress may be perfected beyond cavil, and that the whole world may soon come to enjoy the great benefits of this splendid exploit, must be the hope of every well-wisher of the progress and enlightenment of the human race.

From The Century Magazine of November 1901 to April 1902, quoting Engineering Magazine of July, 1901.

This post originally appeared at Paleofuture.com.