The Americans have need of the telephone, but we [the British] do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.
– William Preece
Today (15 February) marks the birthday of one William Henry Preece, born in Caernarfon, Wales on 15 February 1834 who later went on to become Engineer-in-Chief of the British Post Office. Little known today, Preece was a prominent Victorian and electrical engineer who held a key role in the development of telegraphy and introduction to telephony and wireless telegraphy in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through his three-decade long service with the British Post Office and previous work in private electrical telegraph companies.
Where he is known today, it is perhaps in his early support of the young Guglielmo Marconi and his wireless system when both arrived in Britain in early 1896 with Preece providing a platform and technical expertise from which Marconi could promote his wireless system to scientists, engineers, and the general public.
But it was perhaps a casually made comment by Preece with regards to the telephone, a comment considered one “worst one of the worst tech predictions of all time” and a “top 10 bad tech prediction” (and many more along these lines) for which he is best known today.
The quote is generally presented as being a response to a question about the future potential of the telephone with the question being sometimes falsely attributed as being a response to a question from Alexander Graham Bell no less! In this blog post, I will attempt to answer the following questions:
- What was the actual context, source, and form of the original quotation?
- Is it documented as actually being said by Preece?
- If so, what is the context – historic and personal – for the quotation?
- How was the quotation popularised, particularly in terms of technological predictions?
The original quotation and documented evidence
The quotation at the beginning of this post has appeared in various forms and with various dates attached over the years. After much searching, one of the oldest versions of the quotation I was able to find was in an article entitled “Entertaining Varieties” in Popular Science Monthly from August 1882, which is most probably quoting and summarising content from Blackwood’s Magazine. The Popular Science Monthly article quotes (unnamed) “one of the most able and experienced electricians of the day” as saying before a Select Committee hearing in 1879 and with regard to the future of the telephone in Britain:
But there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more there than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind. In America they are wanted.
This quotation and the key phrase “superabundance of messengers” leads to the 1879 Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity where Preece was called, in his role as Post Office electrician (electrical engineer), to give evidence on 2 May and where he was questioned extensively by Select Committee member Lord Lindsay and others on electric lighting. Lord Lindsay’s questions included those about the electric currents induced by powerful exterior electric lighting and relatedly how the new telephone lines and instruments were especially sensitive to these induced currents. About halfway through Preece’s evidence, Lord Lindsay almost as an aside asked Preece the fateful question: “whether the telephone will be an instrument for the future which will be largely adopted by the public?”
In answer to this question, Preece replied: “I think not.” When further questioned by Lord Lindsay as to whether “[The telephone] will not take the same position in [Britain] as it has already done in America?”, Preece replied in more detail:
I fancy that the descriptions we get of its use in America are a little exaggerated; but there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more there than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind. In America they are wanted, and one of the most striking things to an English-man there is to see how the Americans have adopted in their houses call bells and telegraphs, and telephones, and all kinds of aids to their domestic arrangements, which have been forced upon them by necessity.
Lyon Sir Playfair, “Report from the Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix,” in Document type: HOUSE OF COMMONS PAPERS; REPORTS OF COMMITTEES (London: House of Commons, 1879), 69.
So here we have the quotation in its original form and context, documented and attributed to Preece himself in 1879 but does this accurately reflect the context – historic and personal – of Preece and his personal opinion of the potential and development of the telephone?
Historic and personal context
To better understand this quotation, we have to look more closely at Preece’s background and interest in telecommunications, particularly in the electrical telegraph and the telephone. Preece’s interest in electrical engineering was sparked (so to speak) by attending public lectures given by pioneers in the field such as Michael Faraday and John Tyndall. In 1852 Preece began working at the Electric Telegraph Company (ETC), a company he worked at for the first fifteen years of his career.
Preece began at ETC as an unpaid apprentice working for Edwin Clark, then Engineer-in-Chief of the company, and a year later in 1853, Preece was taken on as a clerk at ETC and was employed in ordinary electrical work with a focus on submarine cable manufacture and cable laying. Preece also briefly assisted Michael Faraday with telegraphic experiments in 1853 but his later claim to have learnt everything he knew about electrical engineering at “the feet of Faraday” is more rhetoric than reality. In 1854 Preece became an assistant to Latimer Clark and in 1856, three years after joining the company, Preece was promoted to superintendent of their southern district with headquarters at Southampton.
In 1870, Preece entered the employment of the Post Office in 1870, shortly after the 1868 and 1869 Telegraph Acts nationalised the domestic telegraph network – including the parts of the network belonging to Preece’s employer ETC – and brought it under the control of the Post Office. Preece was a dedicated, loyal, and prolific man, both professional and personally. Preece worked for the Post Office for over thirty years, eventually retiring as Engineer-in-Chief and Electrician (the latter part of the title by request of Preece himself) in February 1899.
Meanwhile in September 1876, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and Preece introduced Bell’s telephone before the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) held that year in Glasgow. Less than eighteen months after Bell filed his controversial US patent, 1878 marked a series of firsts in relation to the telephony in Britain with all of these events taking place. In June 1878 Bell established the Telephone Company Ltd in order to exploit his British patents. A few months later, Preece made the first practical demonstration of a pair of telephones before the annual meeting of the BAAS in Plymouth and later that same year, the Post Office provided its first telephones – a pair of Bell telephones – on rental to a firm in Manchester.
From this, we can see that Preece was supportive of the development telephone, both in a personal capacity as well as in his role as a Post Office engineer so from where did his Select Committee answer originate?
For further clarification, we can look forward to 1880, a mere two years after Preece first introduced Bell’s telephone to Britain and just over a year after his much-quoted Select Committee hearing comments on the future development of the telephone
From November to December 1880, the legal case of The Attorney General v The Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd was heard in the Exchequer Division of the Hugh Court of Justice. This legal case referred to a dispute between the Edison Company and the Post Office on the rights of the Post Office over telephone systems and would have a long-term effect upon the development of the telephony in Britain. In a landmark ruling the court decided in favour of the state, in this case the Post Office. The judgement concluded that the telephone was a “speaking telegraph” and a telephone conversation was a de facto telegram and therefore came under the state licensing for telecommunications, then managed by the Post Office.
Based on this judgement as well as Preece’s 1877 notes (right), we can see that Preece (as well as the British state through the legal judgement listed above) viewed the telephone as a “speaking telegraph”, and hence Preece’s judgement of the future usage and potential of the telephone in Britain was very much informed by his background in electrical telegraphy as well as his naturally cautious personality.
And so, in his 1879 comments on the future of the telephone, Preece most likely viewed the development of the telephone in Britain as following that of his beloved electric telegraph: a technological system which was widely developed and carefully licensed and controlled by the state via the General Post Office but a system which would not enter the domestic sphere in the way that it had in America. Rather, access would be, as it had for the telegraph, via commercially operated lines and offices with the last mile or so to the domestic sphere being provided by the messengers and errand boys mentioned in Preece’s comment to the Select Committee hearing. The telephone would have been a “speaking telegraph” and operated in a similar commercial rather than domestic sphere with access through necessity and cost being only to the government, business, military, and some private wealthy individuals.
While his quotation may indeed have been an inaccurate prediction of where telephones would be used (in the domestic sphere), it is not the damning verdict of non-development and hindrance that limited quoting / mis-quoting would suggestion. It is also important to remember the context:
- It was an opinion somewhat casually asked and made in the midst of evidence being gathered before a Select Committee about electric lighting, a naturally conservative and limited forum
- It was also a comment made in the more general context of Preece’s personal and professional context of electric telegraphy – in predicting the future, Preece looked both to the past (specifically his electrical telegraphy past) as well as the differences between Britain and America at the time. In the late 1870s, British cities were closer together and more densely populated than American ones and British society did not have such a large and prosperous middle class as that of America. In addition, British society was a more cautious adopter of domestic electrical devices than America society. For these reasons and more including the problems of electrical interference mentioned in his original Select Committee hearing, Preece preferred a vision of British developments in telephony as being akin to the “speaking telegraph” accessed through telegraph officers rather than the busy-ness of electrical devices in the domestic sphere, as it was in America
With this in mind, Preece’s comment reads like a historically and personally sensible comment rather than the outlandish technological prediction it is made to be today. He did not believe in a limited development of telephony but rather expressed a desire for the limited development of telephony in the domestic sphere.
Popularisation of Preece’s quotation
So how did this quotation come to be popularised and mis-quoted in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? After languishing in relative obscurity with a plethora of mentions in periodicals and journals in the late nineteenth century, the quotation was mentioned in passing in Marion May Dilts’ The Telephone In A Changing World, published in New York and Toronto in 1941 but it was not until the mid-1960s that the quotation was given its current understanding, emphasis and ridicule.
One of the earliest popularisers of Preece’s quotation was Harold Sharlin’s “The making of the electrical age; from the telegraph to automation.” which was published in Britain in 1963/1964. It was also around this time that the quotation was further popularised by Tony Benn, very possibly in his capacity as Postmaster General between 1964 and 1966, and who then allegedly passed the quotation on to Arthur C. Clarke who then published and popularised it further in his essay ‘Communications in the Second Century of The Telephone’ in The Telephone’s First Century — And Beyond: Essays on the Occasion of the 100th anniversary of Telephone Communication by Arthur C. Clarke et al (1977). Hence, the quotation appeared in various forms with regularity and ridicule in print and now online through to the present day.
This quotation is regularly included in lists of “worst technological predictions” in print and online, ridiculing Preece (when attributed) and his under-estimation of the popular development of the telephone in Britain and how messengers and errands boys would be more satisfactory and suitable – messengers and errand boys, how quaint, we say! But, as explored above, the full context of the quotation including Preece’s personal and professional capacities demonstrates that the quotation in full is not an under-estimation of the future but rather a mis-understanding and under-estimation of the past and an uncontextualised one at that.
By Elizabeth Bruton.