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and triumphantly, to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company Archives in lower Manhattan, where he found an unpublished letter by Edison.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 2021 correspondence, Mr. Koenigsberg provided more history and thoughts about "Hello" and Edison with 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. And at the very least, use an "Ahoy" each March 3 on Alexander Graham Bell's birthday. It can add an educational moment to your call.




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"



Have a nice day! "Over and out" Arrivederci!
Bye bye!





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




"Hello" and Phone Calls seen in early postcards


"Hello Girls was first coined for female telephone switchboard operators in the US, and was the common term used for women who would greet callers with "hello" when they rang the switchboard instead of dialling another telephone number directly." Wikipedia

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court written in 1889 is an early example of using the word 'Hello" and "hello-girl" in the context of the telephone: "The humblest hello-girl along ten thousand miles of wire could teach gentleness, patience, modesty, manners, to the highest duchess in Arthur's land." Wikipedia








Earliest sheet music with Telephone on cover & 'Hello' lyrics inside

Kissing Papa through the Telephone, The W.F. Shaw, Co., 1889

Sheet music starts with 'bell ringing," a "Hello! hello! and then the opening lines of the song:

Papa's gone away to be gone all day, And he left me in my bed sleeping all alone.

Now his parting kiss, he'll be sure to miss, So I'll send it to him thro' the Telephone...

Courtesy Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins




"Hello" and Telephone Calls seen on sheet music covers








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.

























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



Postmarked Milton, PA 1909


Hello! 1908




1910 Postmarked "Hello" Girls Valentine's Day card, 1906 Raphael Tuck & Sons Co.







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