The Cambridge Historical Society The Cambridge Historical Society
The history of innovation in Cambridge
Site of first phone call (Image by Laura Benedict)

First Phone Call

685 Main Street

Most of the innovations highlighted throughout Cambridge’s history are noteworthy as sparks of inspiration that have since changed the world. The new ideas represent firsts of their kind, groundbreaking perspectives, or solutions to global questions. The case of telecommunications in Cambridge is different. The first major innovation in telecommunications involved Cambridge by mere chance. However, more than 130 years later, thinkers in Cambridge remain on the cutting edge of telecommunication technology.

Telecommunication simply means the action of transmitting information over a significant distance for the purposes of communication. Telecommunication as we know it today is the result of the work of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Alexander Graham Bell was interested in hearing devices from an early age, enhanced by the fact that his mother and, later, his wife, were deaf. Bell experimented with hearing and speech communication devices for years.

A native of Scotland, Bell came to Boston, in 1871 to teach at the Boston School for the Deaf. Three years later, a chance meeting with Thomas A. Watson, an electrical designer and mechanic, would ultimately lead to one of the most important inventions in history. Bell was racing another inventor Elisha Gray for the first “acoustic telegraph” patent. While it is still somewhat debated as to who actually made it to the patent office first, Bell got the patent. Only a few days later, on March 10, 1876 Bell spoke into his device, and Mr. Watson was able to hear him in the next room.

Both Bell and Watson knew, however, that the true value in this innovation could only be realized if sound could be transmitted over long distances. This success was achieved on October 9, 1876 when the first wire conversation took place between Bell’s Boston laboratory and was received in Cambridge. Bell was on Kilby Street in Boston and Watson was two miles away at the Cambridge office of Walworth Mfg. Co.. The following year the Bell Telephone Company was founded and within a decade, 150,000 people in the United States owned telephones.

Today, telephones are as pervasive as almost any other form of technology. Modern smart phone technology continually adds to the possibilities of what modern phones can do. One company driving the smart phone technology is Google. Arriving a bit late to the smart phone market, Google was part of the Open Handset Alliance, a business alliance, currently consisting of 83 companies, which promotes open source standards for mobile device development. Google bought the start-up Android, Inc. the initial developer of the Android software, in 2005. Since then, the earliest iterations of the Android platform have been developed in Google’s Kendall Square office to become one of the most successful mobile operating systems on the market. Adherents to the Android system will boast of superior browsing, stronger connectivity, a strong app market, personalization options, and the open source transparency of the code to make Android the best modern phone on the market.

Google Cambridge does much more than just work on the Android OS. YouTube, Blogger, Friend Connect, Google books, image search, and other infrastructure projects are all based out of the Kendall Square address. While Cambridge was first part of worldwide telephone news with the first telephone call between two cities, today Google Android is at the forefront of telecommunication technology.