The Hacker's Almanac for Saturday March 3, 2007

3 March, 2007

Welcome to a new little feature I'm trying: The Hacker's Almanac. Inspired by The Writer's Almanac by Garrison Keillor on National Public. Just a few friendly stories from the past to remind you that sitting around, messing with technology, and trying to invent something is neither heroic nor hopeless, but instead wonderfully normal. Subscribe to the podcast feed Enjoy!

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It's the birthday of inventor Alexander Graham Bell born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847. His father, grandfather, and uncle were all professors of elocution. His mother was deaf. After studying at the Universities of Edinurgh and London, Bell followed his parents to Branford, Ontario and became a Canadian citizen. In the early 1870s, he moved to Boston to teach the Visible Speech System invented by his father at Boston University.

By 1874 the telegraph was spreading rapidly across America and many inventors, including Thomas Edison, were trying to figure out how to send multiple messages on a single line in order to reduce the great cost of construction. Bell joined the hunt with his assistant Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical engineer.

After some false starts, Bell and Watson eventually hit on the idea of a water transmitter. They suspended a needle in a mixture of acid and water and spoke into a diaphragm which caused the needle to vibrate, varying the resistance in the circuit connected to the needle. These variations in resistance could be sent down a wire to an amplifier on the other end which would reproduce the original sound. When they first connected the experiment, Bell spoke the words "Mr Watson — Come here — I want to see you" into the transmitter and Watson, listening at the other end, heard him clearly.

Bell and his partners offered to sell the invention to Western Union for $100,000 and were rejected. So, instead they founded the Bell Telephone Company in 1877 and went on to sell 150,000 telephones in the next 10 years. Bell and his partners became millionaires.

A few days after the founding of Bell Telephone, Bell married one of his pupils, Mabel Hubbard who was deaf. He went on to produce a number of other inventions including the metal detector, which he first constructed to find the bullet that killed President James Garfield. The device worked, but didn't find the bullet because the metal bed frame the President's body was lying on confused the signal.

It's the anniversary of the founding of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Begun as a project by American Bell to create a long-distance network, AT&T was officially incorporated in 1885 on Alexander Graham Bell's 38th birthday. Starting in New York, the company's network spread rapidly, reaching Chicago by 1892 and San Francisco by 1915, by which time they had become a monopoly. In 1918, the federal government nationalized the telecommunications industry in the name of national security and AT&T's president, Theodore Vail, was put in charge of the national telephone system.

Customers were required to lease their phones from AT&T for a monthly fee and using non-AT&T hardware was banned by the FCC out of fear that it might crash the telephone network. The company once sued a Midwest undertaker for giving out free plastic phonebook covers, which hid the advertisements on the cover, arguing that the money from the ads helped reduce the cost of telephone service.(Where Wizards Stay Up Late, p.52)

In 1925, AT&T created the legendary research and development unit Bell Labs, which was responsible for a number of important inventions including radio astronomy, the transistor, the photovoltaic cell, the Unix operating system, and the C programming language. But a 1949 Justice Department lawsuit against the company prevented it from selling computers and so it was never able to enter the industry it helped pioneer.

Another Justice Department lawsuit, started in 1974, eventually lead to the breakup of AT&T's telephone monopoly. In exchange for a chance to enter the computer business, AT&T agreed to split its telephone division into seven regional carriers called "Baby Bells". The agreement took effect January 1, 1984.

A sign that hung in many Bell facilities in 1983 read: "There are two giant entities at work in our country, and they both have an amazing influence on our daily lives. . . one has given us radar, sonar, stereo, teletype, the transistor, hearing aids, artificial larynxes, talking movies, and the telephone. The other has given us the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, the Great Depression, the gasoline crisis, and the Watergate fiasco. Guess which one is now trying to tell the other one how to run its business?"

Over the course of the 1990s AT&T purchased a string of cell phone and cable companies and went through a series of mergers and spinoffs including the merger of AT&T Wireless with cellular company Cingular. In 2005 AT&T was acquired by one of those spinoffs, SBC communications.

All information courtesy of Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted.

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