Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
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Photo: Rodney Smith



It is difficult to shout to Mr. Watson – he is in another room, 20 meters away, even if you shout a lot

What to do to call him softly, and he could hear and come?

The answer is a little later.




It was good for the leader of primitive people – all his subjects were usually within earshot of his cry. You need to order something – roar the appropriate text, and you will be heard. They will come running on tsyrla, express respect, listen to the order and run to fulfill it – where will they go!

And when civilization grew to the first despotism, it became a little more problematic – the territory is large, of course, it is possible to shout an order to the governor of a remote province, but he definitely will not hear. You can, of course, send messengers, but it will take so much time – it’s a shame!

Sometimes quite simple means helped. Here, King Darius, when he went on a campaign against the Scythians, took with him an Egyptian with an unusually loud voice. Things in this campaign at Darius went so-so, it was necessary to return to their homeland – and the bridge on which they crossed the Danube had already been partially destroyed: the detachment that was waiting at the bridge wanted to protect itself.

The Persians approached the Danube at night, but the bridge could not be seen – where is it? And then the loud-voiced Egyptian came in handy – he called the head of the detachment defending the bridge “with all the crow’s throat”, and he heard! The bridge was quickly restored, and the Persians were able to take their feet out of Scythia without great casualties.




Let’s believe Herodotus that it was so: the Egyptians – you know what they came across … But all the same, the limit at which the human voice is still heard is a couple of kilometers, “further – silence.” And what sounds need to be made to increase the distance at which they are heard?

It turns out that there are such sounds! The first conqueror of the Canary Islands, the Norman Jean de Bethencourt, spoke with surprise about the strange manner of communication of the inhabitants of these islands – the mysterious Guanches, whom some still consider to be the surviving inhabitants of the sunken Atlantis.

If you believe him, the Guanches could not only understand the speech of their fellow tribesmen without uttering a word and only moving their lips, but they were also able to communicate with the help of a loud shrill whistle – even in the gorges of Tenerife, it was quite audible at a distance of 15 kilometers.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?

He lied, I suppose – we know these conquistadors of the 15th century … But no, everything is true – moreover, the local unique “whistling language” has survived to this day! Moreover, it turned out that whistling languages ​​similar to the language of the Guanches exist all over the world, and not only in exotic countries like Mexico and Mozambique, but even in some regions of Europe – say, in France.

And on the island of Gomera, which is part of the same Canaries, even the whistling language of silbo homero, which is a dialect of the Spanish language – only not in words, but in a whistle, arose. It is now even taught in schools there. The echo in the mountains distorts the sounds, and the whistle is heard far away and without distortion.




But any sounds made by a person have limits of audibility – on the vast battlefields of the armies of ancient empires, it was unthinkable to transmit an order only by voice, and to be heard immediately. Only musical instruments rescued in this situation.

The formation of the Spartans or the Athenians was helped to move by flutists and joint singing. During the battle with the Phocians, who robbed the treasury of the Delphic oracle, the Macedonians opposing them went into battle to the singing of a hymn to Apollo, offended by this theft, and the Phocians fled in panic.

Other armies had other means of forcing all the soldiers to move in the same rhythm – in China they used gongs, in Turkey drums. And in order to transmit the command over long distances, wind instruments have been used for quite a long time – for example, Roman buccins, three-meter bizarre copper pipes that control legions.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Turkish drums
NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?

In the Middle Ages, and even in modern times, horns, bugles and pipes led cavalry and infantry into battle, and bagpipes led Scottish warriors. The soldiers memorized the main musical signals so that, having heard them in battle, they could perform them without loss of time – if they had an ear for music …

In order to better remember the signals of trumpets and horns, they came up with a text for them – it was also preserved among the pioneers, who memorized horn signals in this way. I still remember the signals in the pioneer camp: “Take a spoon, take bread and sit down for dinner!” or “Sleep, sleep in the wards of the pioneers and counselors!”

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Pioneer with a bugle




But the sounds of trumpets are not heard over long distances. In addition, the speed of sound is much less than the speed of light. And polished metal or shiny mirrors are visible far away. Do you remember, in Bolesław Prus’ Pharaoh, the priests inform the commander about the enemy’s movement at a distance with the help of light signals given by mirrors? Was it really like that?

At first I did not believe it: Prus is a writer, not a historian of technology. But then I discovered that even Xenophon in 405 BC describes how the ancient Greeks transmitted military signals using polished shields. And the Roman emperor Tiberius, secluded on the island of Capri, every day transmitted his orders with mirrors at a distance of 8 kilometers.

The distance for transmitting messages could become anything if the orders were transmitted by relay race – a pre-arranged chain of signalers. Many people remember the film The Magnificent Seven – according to such a chain, the village boys quickly informed the village about the appearance of bandits, here.


Relay chains could transmit different types of signals, for example, in the old days, among the Slavs, the warning system for steppe raids usually included smoke signals. Seeing the enemies, the sentinel lit a fire, at the next post, noticing the smoke, they did the same – then it’s clear …

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
smoke signal

An optical telegraph based on similar principles was proposed by Newton’s contemporary and colleague Robert Hooke. And in France, the Chappe brothers already at the end of the 18th century implemented an optical communication system, which they called a semaphore. The signal from Paris to Brest went through this system for only 7 minutes. It helped Napoleon win his brilliant victories.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Chapp brothers semaphore


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Nothing moves faster than light. And at the same speed? Well, electricity, of course! And in 1837, the commercial operation of an electric telegraph, capable of spelling text of any complexity, had already started in London. So, is the problem solved?

With the transfer of information – in principle, yes, with the transfer of voice – not yet. Saying a short phrase is much faster than spelling it out. But sound is air vibrations: how to transmit them with an electric current? It turns out that you can – just make it hesitate in the same way, and that’s it!

To do this, only two devices are needed: the first must convert air vibrations into electric current vibrations, the second must perform the reverse conversion. If you make a membrane of magnetic material oscillate in the field of an electromagnet, it can be done.

In the second half of the 19th century, this ceased to be a problem, and the task of transmitting sound over electrical wires became a matter of technology and diligence. Clearly there had to be someone who would solve it. And not just one – it has long been known that when spring comes, all the swallows arrive at once.




An immigrant from Italy, Antonio Meucci, was the first to advance along this path, who studied something completely different – the ability of electric current to heal. One day, Meucci connected the wires to the lips of the patient, and he himself moved to a remote room where the generator was located. When the doctor turned on the device, he heard the patient’s cry as clearly as if he were standing next to him.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Antonio Meucci

He left medicine and began to construct a device called the “telectrone” for the transmission of sounds. In 1860, Meucci described the idea in an article for an Italian newspaper in New York. Only 11 years later, he filed an application for his device with the US Patent Office.

Further information diverges – some write that the businessmen he turned to for help lost his documentation, some say that he simply could not pay $ 250 for the patent fee. He extended his patent application for three years, but never filed one.

Meucci’s health was shaken as a result of the ferry accident, the family became impoverished, and his wife was forced to sell his telephony to a junk dealer in order to earn at least some money for food. In the future, Meucci tried to sue for the rights to this invention, but without success.

In 1889 he died in poverty and obscurity. But many years later, in 2002, the US Congress voted for a resolution in which Antonio Meucci was recognized as the inventor of a device for transmitting voice over wires. Whether it will be easier for him in the next world – I don’t know …




Around the same time, the German Johann Philipp Reis demonstrated his invention – it could transmit both human speech and music over a distance. The device included a microphone of an original design, and Reis called it a then new word – “telephone”.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Philipp Reis

They recall that the first message that the physicist transmitted on his phone was the phrase “The horse does not eat cucumber salad” (Das Pferd frisst Keinen Gurkensalat). The absurdity of this phrase convinced that the words were heard correctly, that is, the transmitter worked as it should.

The invention of a simple teacher Reis did not interest the then scientists – the elderly professor Johann Poggendorf twice rejected his manuscript for publication in a scientific journal. It was believed that it was not only impossible to transmit voice over wires, but no one needed it.

Reis demonstrated his phone models even in the USA, but no one was interested in them. In 1876 Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Royal Mail, when asked if such a device could be useful, replied: “We have enough messenger boys.”




The one who took the plunge, Alexander Bell, was not an easy man. An ethnic Scot, at the time when he made his invention, he was not a US citizen yet, although he already lived there. His profession was quite far from physics – he was a teacher of the deaf, taught the deaf.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Bell at 18

It is interesting and touching that he married one of his students, Mabel Hubbard – despite her deafness, she could speak several languages ​​if she could see the interlocutor’s lips. But for obvious reasons, she never used the main invention of her husband.

Bell was carried away by the invention of the multiplex telegraph, through which several messages could be transmitted at once. The work went without much success, but on June 2, 1975, he and his assistant Thomas Watson set up another sample, closed the contacts – and heard the sound!

They quickly built the first telephone, which they later called the “gallows” for its exotic appearance, and began to experiment – at first without much success. But they considered that there was already enough material for a patent application, and filed it on February 14, 1876.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
“Gallows” phone




Was this date important? And how, and not only the date, but also the time! On the same day, Elisha Gray filed an application with the Patent Office for an almost identical device. The drawings of Bell and Gray were so similar to each other that it gave rise to some suspicions.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Elisha Gray

The official who accepted both applications noticed this similarity, and proceedings began. As a result, it was possible to find out that both applications were submitted on the same day, but Bell’s application was a couple of hours earlier than Gray’s application. It was considered sufficient to recognize Bell’s priority.

Ten years later, this official claimed to have received money from Bell and gave him Gray’s application for review. There will be a trial in Denver where this man is horribly drunk every time and claims to be being held as a hostage. The court did not believe him.

Nevertheless on March 7, 1876, Bell received a patent. It will still be challenged by many, including the great Edison himself, who really improved the microphone and knows how to defend his rights in court. But the basic rights to telephones were still assigned to Alexander Bell.

Bell’s phone was still not perfect enough. But three days after receiving the patent, he managed to improve the device so much that a miracle happened. It is said that he and his assistant Watson went to different rooms for another test, and at that moment Bell quite accidentally spilled battery acid on his own trousers. How to call for help?




Bell did not even think that Watson would not hear his call in a rather remote room, and called, “Watson, come here – I need you!”

He probably even had time to think that Watson would not hear him … but the door opened, Watson ran in and exclaimed in surprise, “I heard every word!” He heard from the turned on device, which finally worked perfectly.




Bell and Watson then said that they talked to each other all night, changing places at the devices. Later they could not remember what it was about, except that they admitted that they sang the anthem “God Save the Queen!” Why only a month after the patent? Many people are interested…

On May 10, the phone was shown at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where a successful demonstration was accompanied by thunderous applause. And already on May 25, the phone was presented at the citadel of American science – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Also with success.

On June 25, at an industrial exhibition in Philadelphia, the emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, became interested in the telephone. Hearing the story about the telephone, he said, “It’s impossible!” but invited Lord Kelvin, the great physicist, to the stand. Hearing the words coming from the phone, the emperor exclaimed enthusiastically, “This thing speaks!” The phone became a sensation.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Pedro II

Soon a company was founded to exploit this invention – now it is the world-famous AT&T. Interestingly, Bell got only 10 shares out of 5000, and the Mabel Hubbard family got 2994. Just then, Bell finally married Mabel and presented her with his own 1490 shares as a wedding gift. It’s hard to even say how much it costs now …

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Alexander Bell with wife Mabel Hubbard and daughters

I won’t even talk about the triumphant march of this invention around the planet – everything is clear to everyone. But there was no telephone in Bell’s own house – he himself refused it, saying that “at work this is a useful device, but at home it can turn your family life into hell.”




The human voice can convey something that is practically not transmitted by any letters, signs or symbols – it is important not only what was said, but also how they said it.

Mnemonic phrases that help memorize the signals of trumpets and bugles always distort. Let’s say, instead of “Groomsmen, bring the horses in quickly!” young soldiers usually memorized the phrase: “Here the demon beguiled me, I got to the nun!” And it’s better to remember…

The problem of signal transmission along the chain is that it is enough for one link to transmit or perceive incorrect information – and then it cannot be corrected. Only Lewis Carroll, who invented the game “Broken Phone”, benefited from this.

One of Edison’s most important improvements to the telephone is the word “hello!”. True, the Italians say “pronto” (“ready”), the Greeks – “embros” (“forward”), in Spain – “diga” (“speak”), in Germany – “ya” (“yes”), in Turkey – “efendim” (“sir”), in Armenia – “lsum em” (“listen”), and in Japan “moshi-moshi” (“speak-speak”) …

Who invented the telephone was sued for decades, but eventually agreed. That is why the telephone is so widespread and successful. We must agree!

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to call Mr. Watson from afar?
Monument to Bell in Brantford


All illustrations are from open sources

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