Hello or Ahoy?
"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
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
"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
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unpublished letter by Edison.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.
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
Give Me Heaven, Chas. K. Harris, New
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
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
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.
A few more "ending the
"Over and out"
That's all folks! (Looney Tunes)
"And that's the way it is." (Walter
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
Courtesy Edison National Historic
Site - National Park Service and Antique Phonograph Monthly
Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone,
"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
and Phone Calls in Early Postcards
Postcard by F. Earl Christy, ca.
May 2, 1909 postcard sent to Miss
Eva Saylor, Daykin, Nebr
Postcard ca. 1915