Hello, Ahoy and Edison

"Hello" or "Ahoy"?


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.

The origin of "hello" for the answering the telephone

Here are the details discovered by my favorite phonograph sleuth Allen Koenigsberg who investigated the origin of 'hello" and the telephone. 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 article by William Grimes titled "The Great 'Hello' Mystery is Solved" about Koenigsberg's discovery.

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and triumphantly, to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company Archives in lower Manhattan, where he found an unpublished letter by Edison.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.



Hello! Hello! Hello! by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, February, 1886, Uncle Sam (4"x5")




Postcard 1909


"Hello! Are you there?" Postcard 1911

For more examples of "Hello" for the Telephone Postcards see "Hello" Postcards.


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." (Grimes, New York Times, Ibid.)


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

Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins

For more examples of Telephone and Hello Sheet Music see "Hello" Sheet Music.


In a 2021 correspondence, Koenigsberg provided more history and thoughts about "Hello" and Edison with the bottom line still that Bell's fight for "Ahoy" was a losing battle, with "Hello" the victor in the USA.(3)

Despite the clear Edison 'hello" triumph, however, I think Bell's 'Ahoy' as a telephone greeting should still be remembered. And it did get a new lease on life when Mr. Burns of The Simpsons started answering his phone "Ahoy-hoy."

My suggestion?

Answer the phone "Ahoy" or "Ahoy-hoy" from time to time.

At the very least use an "Ahoy" each March 3 on Alexander Graham Bell's birthday. You can always explain its significance and in the process add an educational aspect to your call.


"Ahoy-hoy" LISTEN


Frontispiece facing Title-page of St. Nicholas Volume VII Part II, May to November, 1880


Another "Hello" Connection with the Phonograph

As part of the Scientific American article in February 1888 after Edison brought his "New Phonograph" (the "Improved" Phonograph) to their office for a demonstration, Scientific American included a tracing of the phonographic record of the word "Hello" (Fig. 7) and the apparatus used to make the tracing (Fig. 8).


Hello! --- OK!

In 1929 Temple Radio Corporation published a booklet titled "Airy Tales" which explained the ABC's of Radio. One of the sections was about Professor Bell's radio telephone which employed a beam of heat. Said in this booklet to have been first shown at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 "it was exhibited as the Thermophone. But most people who saw it referred to it as a radio-phone." (Note: I have found no information about the thermophone or radio-phone being at the 1893 World's Fair, however, Nikola Tesla introduced a prototype at the fair called the violet ray which would be used as an electrotherapy medical appliance).

The following illustration was used in this booklet to show how the radio telephone worked. The caller says "hello!" The man on the other end acknowledges the hello with "ok!"


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")."

As demonstrated by Mr. Burns, "Ahoy" can also 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"


OK, take care! That is all! OK, talk to you soon!
Au Revoir Ta ta! Arrivederci!
Bye bye!

"Talk to you Later"




That's all folks!

(Looney Tunes)


"And that's the way it is."

(Walter Cronkite) because if that's all there is, there is no more.


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.


What Shall We Call a Telephone Message?

In the St. James Gazette, reprinted in San Francisco's The Daily Examiner, the challenge was being posed to find a substitute for "telephone message" as the author noted that "few of us admire the word telephone."

But the conclusion was that a telephone message was probably better than the alternatives.


The Daily Examiner, San Francisco, July 2, 1889


"I am Here."


One final suggestion for letting the caller know you are on the line after your phone rings would be the simple "I am Here," inspired by the Phonograph's 1891 Phonogram's 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


See Endnote No. 2A for three examples of "Hello" used in 1833 by Col. David Crockett where "Hello" is not used in the sense of greeting someone but rather to get someone's attention, like a 'hey you, I'm talking to you and you need to listen.' When Crockett sees a man walking off with his plate he says "Hello, mister, bring back my plate."



Another "Hello" Connection with the Phonograph

As part of the Scientific American article in February 1888 after Edison brought his "New Phonograph" (the "Improved" Phonograph) to their office for a demonstration, Scientific American included a tracing of the phonographic record of the word "Hello" (Fig. 7) and the apparatus used to make the tracing (Fig. 8).


Scientific American Supplement No. 632, February 11, 1888, 10097. (Courtesy HathiTrust and University of Michigan)


Scientific American Supplement, Ibid.


Scientific American Supplement, Ibid.


For examples of "Hello" Telephone Postcards see "Hello" Postcards.

For examples of Telephone and Hello Sheet Music see "Hello" Sheet Music.



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