Mark Twain and the Telephone

One of the first private citizens to have a telephone was Mark Twain. He was a consummate early adopter and he loved innovation. Twain was among the first writers to use a typewriter and in fact, he claimed that Tom Sawyer was the first manuscript ever typed on a typewriter. He also boasted that he was the first person in the world to have a telephone in his house in 1877.

Twain lost more than a half million dollars in his lifetime from the failed inventions in which he invested, including the Paige typesetter. But the invention that cost Twain the most was one in which he did not invest in: Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. When Bell personally offered Twain a chance to invest in his telephone, Twain responding by telling him that he wasn’t interested because he had been burnt once too often on inventions.

Here is Twain’s personal account of the story:

"... General Hawley sent for me to come to the Courant office. I went there with my check in my pocket. There was a young fellow there [who] was with Graham Bell and was agent for a new invention called the telephone. He believed there was great fortune in store for it and wanted me to take some stock. I declined. I said I didn't want anything more to do with wildcat speculation. Then he offered the stock to me at twenty-five. I said I didn't want it at any price. [The price kept coming down until the man] said I could have a whole hatful for five hundred dollars. But I was the burnt child and I resisted all these temptations, resisted them easily, went off with my check intact, and next day lent five thousand of it on an unendorsed note to my friend who was going to go bankrupt three days later.

"About the end of the year (or possibly in the beginning of 1878) I put up a telephone wire from my house down to the Courant office, the only telephone wire in town and the first one that was ever used in a private house in the world. {emphasis Twain's}

"The young man couldn't sell me any stock but he sold a few hatfuls of it to an old dry-goods clerk in Hartford for five thousand dollars. That was that clerk's whole fortune. He had been half a lifetime saving it. It is strange how foolish people can be and what ruinous risks they can take....

"We sailed for Europe on the 10th of April, 1878. We were gone fourteen months and when we got back one of the first things we saw was that clerk driving around in a sumptuous barouche with liveried servants all over it -- and his telephone stock was emptying greenbacks into his premises at such a rate that he had to handle them with a shovel. It is strange the way the ignorant and inexperienced so often and so undeservedly succeed when the informed and the experienced fail."

Mark Twain was also one of the first writers to include the telephone in a casual essay written in 1880 entitled "A Telephonic Conversation." He actually was one of the first Americans to have a phone installed. In regard to the event, he commented,

"If Bell had invented a muffler or gag, he would have done a real service. The human voice carries entirely too far as it is. Here we have been hollering "shut up" to our neighbors for centuries, and now you fellows come along and seek to complicate matters".

The comments may seem playful, but Twain quite clearly at times stated his disgust for the telephone. In a Christmas piece for the New York World, he wrote:

"It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us . . . may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss-- except the inventor of the telephone”.