Hello or Ahoy?
Memories of the Phonograph
- "Halloo!" "Hello" and Edison
By Doug Boilesen
The telephone and the invention of the phonograph
have a very close relationship (See PBS American Experience's
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, 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" with the results then published in the New
York Times March 5,1992 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unpublished letter by Edison.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.
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
In short, in the USA "Hello" won out.
But I think Bell's 'Ahoy'
as a telephone greeting should be remembered
and even used. And it did get a new lease
on life when Mr. Burns of The
Simpsons started answering his phone "Ahoy-hoy..."
So I say go ahead and answer the phone "Ahoy-hoy"
(or at least do it on Alexander Graham Bell's birthday, March 3, 1847).
What about ending a call?
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
So if you don't want to use good-bye then "That
is all" has the historic support of the first telephone book.
Or how about "I don't want to talk anymore"
courtesy of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé in Telephone
and their "Stop calling, stop calling I don't want to talk anymore..."
'Over and out?"
For myself, when I use "Ahoy" (as the
alpha) I'll end with the omega -- "That is all."
"I don't know why you say
goodbye, I say hello" or
I don't know why you say goodbye,
I say "That is all."