It was the fall of 1876 in the sleepy town of Brantford, Ontario. The town was not known for much yet — Wayne Gretzky would not be born here for another 85 years. However, something even bigger than the ‘Great One’ was imminent.
Alexander Graham Bell, a professor at Boston University, had been developing a system for sending harmonic frequencies over a wire for several years. After studying the problem, he had an idea: instead of just sending tones, he could send whole sounds or voice over telegraph wires. After looking into how it might work, he filed patent 174465 in February 1876. The next month he sent his assistant to listen at a speaker in the next room. Bell barked into a microphone, “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you”. To his surprise, it worked! He had successfully sent voice over a wire. He scrambled to set up several more tests, culminating in the most impressive demo his audience had ever seen.
To show the world the power of his vision, he purchased every shred of stovepipe wire in Brantford and set to work. He installed four hundred metres of it on fence posts from his parent’s house to a telegraph junction point. Finally, he arranged a large dinner party at the house to show off what he had done. When guests arrived, they saw a glimpse of the future: they were able to exchange speeches, recitations, songs, and instrumentals with the excited telegraph office several kilometers away.
At the time, Bell’s technology was referred to as a “speaking telegraph”. Everyone, including Bell, thought this new technology was an incremental improvement to the classic telegraph. An inventor and businessman, Bell did the logical thing, approaching Western Union to sell his patent for $100,000. In 1874, Western Union was at the cutting edge of telegraphs; it created the first transcontinental telegraph system, had undersea cables and even the world’s first stock ticker. President William Orton called the telegraph system “the nervous system of commerce”.
$100,000 would have been a bargain, recouping the costs of research. Surprisingly, Orton declined, asking, “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?” In his mind, normal telegraphs were made for business and speaking telegraphs were novelties.
Only two years later, Orton realized his mistake, admitting that if he could get Bell’s patent for even $25 million, it would be a bargain. While Western Union continued to thrive for many years after, it would be forever locked out of the telephone business. One hundred years later, they would monopolize telegrams, an insignificant industry. It was an extraordinary oversight, one that almost certainly cost Western Union millions, even billions of dollars. Meanwhile, telephones would come to be one of the most significant communication technologies ever invented.
Today, smartphones have done to the telephone what the telephone did to the telegraph. Even the arguments against the technology are the same:
- “That’s not the way we do things around here.”
- “It’s just a toy — it can’t be used for real work.”
- “It doesn’t have the exact same features we used to have”
None of us want to make the same mistake as William Orton, but it is human to reject the new and unfamiliar. However, it is of paramount importance that we fight this impulse and understand technology for what it is, not what we impute it to be based on past experience. By expecting new technology to fit into old ways of thinking, we constrain our future to incremental improvements over the past.
William Orton asked the wrong question. He asked whether the speaking telegraph could serve the task of the normal telegraph, better. The right question was what a speaking telegraph could do that a normal telegraph could not. What Orton missed was that once everyone had a telephone in their own home, it would change the way people communicated. People did not need to or want to go to the telegraph office to send and receive messages, which became a fundamental change in behaviour.
Smartphones are powerful because they unlock completely new workflows. Instantaneous notifications, proximity sensors, cameras, and portability create profound opportunity. This makes them revolutionary. That they can also do the same tasks we have always done is uninteresting and distracting, as William Orton figured out when he passed on Bell. Mobile is best-suited for powerful, brilliant, new ideas – not a rehash of old ones. Keep this in mind when building your first few mobile apps. If you need help thinking this way, our ideation process is a great way to start.