Joseph Cramer, M.D.: What if Mr. Watson had just stayed put?
Most people know that the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Fewer people know that he came to America to work as a teacher in a deaf school. Still fewer — in fact, no one until this very moment — knew that he, in his spare time, created a personality test. He asked me to tell you about it.
After inventing his device of speaking with electricity, he came up with the idea of measuring humans’ response to his creation.
He was ecstatic when he said the first words, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want to see you.” Watson came immediately. However, when he tried to use his talking-over-wire gadget to call his two daughters, Elsie and Daisy, they were often on the phone themselves. Bell had not yet invented call waiting. Then, finally, when he asked them to “Come here, I want to see you,” they would pretend the newfangled equipment failed.
When they finally came downstairs, they would feign innocence: “We didn’t hear the phone ring.” Other times when Daddy called, they would respond, “We will be right there,” but it would be forever before they came to dinner.
Moments like these made Bell regret inventing the telephone.
What does it mean when we say to a friend in need, “Call me if I can help?" By saying “call me,” people feel good about themselves. Rarely does the friend call, so we get points without work, all because of the telephone. Now when a person is in trouble, we wait for a phone call. Without the connecting wires, would we have just shown up?
In a conversation with a live person, do we stop just at the instance of the most intimate exchange to answer the phone?
How many people sit around waiting for someone to call before they do anything?
Another character trait is revealed by those who inform others, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”
Bell did not invent the answering machine. However, he did notice most people would electronically say, “Leave a message, and I will call you right back.” The individual variation came in the interpretation of what constitutes “right back.” For some it was truly right back, and for others it was never.
Bell's test goes on to ask, “How do you respond to phone solicitations or robot calls?” Apparently, that was a problem even back during the days of discovery in 1876.
Along those same lines, there was a question about a person’s feelings on calling for technical service or train reservations. Based on this, Alexander was the first to initiate endless music while a person wasted hours waiting. He also thought of “Your call is important to us.” His favorite was “Listen carefully because the options have recently changed” when the changes occurred nine years ago.
Bell was perceptive. He knew different people with different temperaments would use his invention in their own ways. Some men and women would be on the phone constantly. Others were afraid of the changes the telephone could bring.
He studied the impact of his device that would simultaneously bring people closer together and drive them further apart. He could not comprehend the idea of two people sitting at the same table while was each on a mobile phone chatting with someone else. Unfortunately, he was still working on that contradiction when he died in Canada in 1922.
There was also a section on Bell’s test about kids taking messages.
23. Do your children take messages?
a. You mean to say some kids take messages?
b. They know how, but they don’t answer the phone unless they magically know it is for them.
c. 50 percent of the time when your job depends on it.
d. 51 percent of the time when the call is a matter of life and death.
Bell became world famous and extremely successful by inventing the telephone. Yet there were times he wondered what life would be like if he had just told Mr. Watson to stay put.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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