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A history lesson in a commercial?  Yes, it’s true!  One of the latest GEICO commercials features Alexander Graham Bell answering the phone, “Ahoy hoy!”  He goes on to tell the caller that it’s a wrong number, “No, no. My number is one. You must want two.”

Haven’t seen the commercial yet?  Watch it now.

A phone history lesson

Who actually invented the telephone is a point of contention.  Credit for the invention is claimed by Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, and Antonio Meucci.

Who started the first commercial phone exchange is not controversial though. The District Telephone Company of New Haven was founded in 1877 by George Coy, Walter Lewis, and Herrick Frost.  They got only one subscriber from their first 1,000 solicitations.  After hiring salesmen who earned $1.50 for each subscriber they signed up, the number of customers grew by 20 more.  Coy opened the first commercial telephone exchange in January 1878.  The District Telephone Company had the first commercial exchange, the first phone book (February 1878), the first phone booth (April 1878), the first coin-operated phone (1879), and the first school for commercial phone operators (1907).

The first phone book wasn’t really a book.  It was just a list of the fifty subscribers and addresses where a phone was located so that other subscribers would know who they could call.  No phone numbers were listed or used.  Phone numbers came much later in the development of the telephone communication industry.

The first phone books included authoritative How To sections for using the new invention.  Users were to restrict calls to three minutes or less, no more often than twice an hour.  Profanity was frowned upon and should be reported to the company office. Finally, there were instructions on what to say to the other caller when making a call.  According to this book, the way to begin a call is with a cheery “hello!”  How to end a call?  Simply declare “That is all.”

So if the first phone book directs us to use the phrase “hello”, where does “ahoy hoy” come from?  It was the preferred phrase of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.  So how did hello come to be our greeting?  It turns out that Bell’s rival, Thomas Edison, preferred the phrase hello.  Considering I had never heard of the phrase ahoy hoy as a phone greeting until Ryan came home from school with this tidbit of trivia he had learned (in psychology class of all places!), it is clear that Edison won that argument.

Phone History Podcast Episodes

Here are a couple of short podcast episodes about different bits of phone history.

History Daily – Alexander Graham Bell Makes the First Telephone Call

This Day in History Class – Thomas Edison Suggests Using the Word Hello as a Telephone Greeting

The First – Thomas Watson and the First Telephone

Phone greeting trivia

The word ahoy was in use 100 years before the word hello.

The character, Mr. Burns, in The Simpsons uses the phone greeting ahoy hoy.

Now I’m not sure if this is actually true or not because I don’t speak Spanish nor do I have any first-hand knowledge of the culture referenced here but I read the following in an online comment (by RadioMax1):

In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries we ask “¿Bueno?” which means “is it good?” and the most common answer is “Si, bueno” (“yes, is good). The fact comes from the time of the first telephonic lines in the region, the quality of the signal wasn’t quite constant and the service was expensive, so the people used to make sure about the quality of the call even before exchange greetings, if the answer was “no bueno” (“isn’t good”) or it doesn’t arrive the call was aborted.

Which in turn makes me think of the Verizon commercial, “Can you hear me now?”.

Other greetings

I listen to the Harry Potter series on audiobook every day when I walk the dog (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to the series).  One thing that always sticks out to me is when Hagrid greets Harry by saying “Alright, Harry.”  Alright is a British informal greeting, a way to say hi.  But to me, as an American English speaker, it always sounds like he’s asking Harry if he is, in fact, alright.

Looking for some other fun ways to greet the world?  Check out this list of 45 Funny Ways to Say Hello.  I’d like to point out that one of my favorites is listed – Good morning, Vietnam!!!  And remember, you’ll be happier and live a longer life if you remember to say hello to people around you.

First Female Telephone Operator, Emma Nutt

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia… The first female telephone operator, Emma Nutt, started work on September 1, 1878.

The September 1, 2021 podcast episode from This Day in History Class tells why the phone companies decided to switch from teen boys to women operators as well as some other fun history of telephone operators.

Even more…

This video from Today I Found Out gives even more background and information about ahoy-hoy, hello, and more.  Definitely worth watching in my opinion.

That is all.

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Who invented the telephone? Was it Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, or Antonia Meucci? How many numbers were listed in the first phone book? How did people decide the proper greeting when answering the telephone? Why didn't ahoy hoy win out over hello? These answers and more plus a geico commercial. Can you hear me now?
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Ahoy hoy? Hello! Either way you say it, just spread the news – pin it!

Websites visited:

Books referenced:

Shea, Ammon. The Phone Book: the Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses but No One Reads. Perigee Book, 2010.

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