Hello or Ahoy?

"Halloo!" "Hello" and Edison


By Doug Boilesen 2020 (with special thanks to Allen Koenigsberg)

The telephone and the invention of the phonograph have a very close relationship (See PBS American Experience's Edison: From the Telephone and the Telegraph Comes the Phonograph).

But how does answering a phone with "hello" have anything to do with the Phonograph?

It turns out that Edison shouted "Halloo!" in the process of discovering the principle of recorded sound in July 1877 and a month later (August 15, 1877), when telephones were getting ready to be introduced into Pittsburgh, Edison suggested using "Hello" to let the other party on the telephone line know that someone was ready to speak.

Here are the details discovered by my favorite phonograph sleuth Allen Koenigsberg who investigated the origin of 'hello." Allen first published his findings in his Antique Phonograph Monthly Issue No. 76 in 1987 and also included a copy of the letter he discovered, never before published, which documents Edison's suggestion to "Friend David."

"I do not think we need a call bell as "Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet way. What do you think?" Edison



Courtesy of APM and AT&T Historical Archives



The following is an extract from the New York Times March 5,1992 about Koenigsberg's discovery in an article by William Grimes titled "The Great 'Hello' Mystery is Solved."

Resolved to sort out the "hello" mystery, Mr. Koenigsberg embarked on a tortuous search five years ago that led him, finally and triumphantly, to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company Archives in lower Manhattan, where he found an unpublished letter by Edison. Dated Aug. 15, 1877, it is addressed to one T.B.A. David, president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh. Mr. David was preparing to introduce the telephone to that city.

At the time, Edison envisioned the telephone as a business device only, with a permanently open line to parties at either end. This setup raised a problem: How would anyone know that the other party wanted to speak? Edison addressed the issue as follows: Friend David, I don't think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON

It was a word of destiny. Over at the laboratories of Edison's rival, Bell was insisting on "Ahoy!" as the correct way to answer the telephone. It was trounced by "hello," which became the standard as the first telephone exchanges, equipped by Edison, were set up across the United States and operating manuals adopted the word. The first public exchange, opened in New Haven on Jan. 28, 1878, wavered between "hello" and the fusty "What is wanted?" in its manual. By 1880, "hello" had won out.


Postcard 1909



"Hello! Are you there?" Postcard 1911


Mr. Koenigsberg's research "enters the area of educated guesswork when it comes to settling the question of why Edison used "hello" in the first place."

When Edison discovered the principle of recorded sound on July 18, 1877, he shouted "Halloo!" into the mouthpiece of the strip phonograph. The word was the traditional call to incite hounds to the chase, and is a close relative of such words as hilla, hillo, halloa and hallo, all used to hail from a distance.

The British "hullo," which dates from the mid-19th century, is deceptive. It was used not as a greeting but as an expression of surprise, as in "Hullo, what have we here?"

It seems likely that Edison, satisfied with the resonant halloo, continued to use it in his experiments, at some point compressing the pronunciation and modifying the spelling, never his strong suit, in any case.

Mr. Koenigsberg said he would still like to know what exactly was going through Edison's mind at the moment of creation. For satisfaction, he will have to turn to one of the first songs to use the Edisonian greeting, "Hello, Central. Give Me Heaven."


Hello Central Give Me Heaven, Chas. K. Harris, New York 1901

Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins


In a correspondence with Mr. Koenigsberg in 2021 he wrote me that over the years he has "pushed back the literal origins of Hello a few years, even before Edison's birth. At last count, it worked out briefly to 1826, in a regional newspaper, but the word seemed almost low-class at first, at least based on the people who were shown using the term, Blacks, rural folk, etc. In a world (back then) where even Purgatory (aka Hell) was always reluctantly hyphenated as H-ll, I wonder if there was some resistance in good company to that spelling, since we often saw common (pre-)variants of Halloo, Hollo, Hullo... generally with a sense of surprise and increased volume, but not as much with HEllo. There was even a religious group which refused (ca 1910) to use "Hello" but failed to promulgate their awkward substitution of "Heaven-o." Nonetheless it would appear that Edison had a lot of influence with making the word socialized and respectable as there were no song titles before ca. 1884. So I was perhaps too generous with Tom in terms of inventing the word itself. But Bell was fighting a losing battle.... "

Indeed, in the USA Edison's "Hello" had clearly won.

But I think Bell's 'Ahoy' as a telephone greeting should be remembered. And it did get a new lease on life when Mr. Burns of The Simpsons started answering his phone "Ahoy-hoy..."

So my suggestion? Answer the phone "Ahoy" or "Ahoy-hoy" from time to time. Or at the very least, use an "Ahoy" each March 3 on Alexander Graham Bell's birthday.




What about ending a call? "That is all!"

Ammon Shea's book "The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everybody Uses But No One Reads" informs us that the first phonebook's recommended Way To End A Phone Conversation was "That is all." (1)

"Says Ammon Shea: This strikes me as an eminently more honest and forthright way to end a phone call than "good-bye." "Good-bye," "bye-bye," and all the other variants are ultimately contractions of the phrase "God Be with you" (or "with ye")."

Or as demonstrated by Mr. Burns, "Ahoy" can be used to end a call (watch the following "telephone machine" scene of The Simpson's where Burns answers the call with an "Ahoy-hoy" and then uses an "Ahoy" to end the call and hang up.


"Ahoy-hoy" and "Ahoy"



A few more "ending the call" options:


"Over and out"


That's all folks! (Looney Tunes)



"And that's the way it is." (Walter Cronkite)


Have a good day!

Bon voyage! (because isn't everyday a journey?)

For myself, if I use "Ahoy-hoy" as my beginning (alpha greeting) then my omega must be "That is all" because if that's all there is then there is no more and it must be the end.



Edison on the telephone, August 31, 1914

Courtesy Edison National Historic Site - National Park Service and Antique Phonograph Monthly



Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone, 1892

"Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago," 1892. Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-G9-Z2-28608-B




"Hello" and Phone Calls in Early Postcards

Postcard 1909




Postcard by F. Earl Christy, ca. 1910's



May 2, 1909 postcard sent to Miss Eva Saylor, Daykin, Nebr



Postcard ca. 1915






Postcard 1909









"Hello" and Telephone Calls Seen on Early Sheet Music Covers

Hello Ma Baby, T. B. Harms & Co., New York 1899

Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins





Hello All right Good-bye Mr. Witmark & Sons, New York 1905

Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins






Hello Hawaii How Are You Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co., New York 1915

Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins




Hello Wisconsin Kalmar, Puck and Abrahams, Consolidated, Inc., ©Canada, 1917 (Library of Congress)




Hello America Hello McCarthy & Fisher Music Publ. (Inc), New York 1917

Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins






Hello Central! Give Me No Man's Land Waterson Berlin & Snyder, Co., New York City, 1918

(Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins)





Hello Central, Give Me Heaven Calumet Music Co., Chicago, 1937







Telephone Calls and Record Albums

Nancy Listen, Laugh & Learn LP 1982 (backside of album cover)






Telephone Line, Electric Light Orchestra, 1977

The phone rings, no one answers, but the caller nevertheless asks "Hello, How are You? Have you been alright? That's what I'd like to say....let it ring for ever more..."







"Hello" single released by Adele, October 23, 2015








"I am Here."


One final suggestion for acknowledging that you are available to talk when your phone rings would be the simple "I am Here," inspired by the Phonograph's 1891 Phonogram periodical banner: "Can'st thou send lightnings, That they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?"

"I am Here."

"That is all."



"Ahoy!" as a greeting makes an appearance during COVID-19, April 17, 2020 (Courtesy Stephen Pastis - Pearls Before Swine)





"I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello"

I don't know why you say goodbye, I say "That is all."







Illustration courtesy of Adam Cole, intern with NPR's Science Desk, 2011





"That's all there is. There is no more."


That is all.