Timing is everything.
In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of one of the greatest inventions of the last millennium, arrived at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington to register his invention. They say he was a mere four hours ahead of a competing inventor who showed up to register a similar invention.
Imagine if Mr. Bell had first sent a telegraph message to the patent office to inquire about its hours, or some other information. He probably would have gotten the 19th-century equivalent of an annoying computerized voice mail.
I imagine he would have gotten a return telegraph message saying, "Hello, Mr. Bell. Thank you for your telegram. Your telegraph message is very important to us here at the patent office; however all our telegraph associates are presently busy deciphering other telegraph messages. Your telegraph will be deciphered in the order in which it was received. To serve you better, we ask that you choose from the following dizzying menu of obnoxious telegraph options to use in your next telegraph message:
"For information on our hours, please push the telegraph key once; for patents, please telegraph one dot and one dash. For new inventions, please press one dash, and maybe another dash for good measure. At any time you can just give up trying to telegraph us and come down to the office and maybe someone, somewhere, at some time will get around to helping you. Maybe."
After registering his patent, they say Bell tried to sell the rights to his telephone to the Western Union Telegraph Co. The asking price for his brilliant invention was reportedly $100,000. The geniuses running Western Union laughed him out of the office. Since the telephone was not in use yet, the Western Union people couldn't refuse to take his phone calls, they just ignored him and lived to regret it. Ol' Alex had the last laugh.
History tells us that Charles Williams of Somerville, Mass., was the first person to have a telephone installed in his place of business. I don't imagine it was very useful, at first. Being as how his telephone was the first, he couldn't call anyone and, of course, no one called him. At least he didn't need call waiting. No calls were waiting.
Williams soon had the bright idea of having a phone installed in his house. His wife was then able to call him during the day.
She's thought to be the first wife in history to call and ask her husband to stop for a few things on his way home from work.
A woman with the unlikely name of Emma Nutt became the first female telephone operator in America. You think she'd have changed her name if she knew she'd one day end up in the telephone Hall of Fame?
I was reminded of this story of the telephone while wasting precious time trying to find a new cell phone company. I punched in an easy-to-remember 800 number and a machine answered. Trying to sound as chirpy as a dumb machine can, it said it was glad I called and it was tickled to talk to me. I was denied the opportunity of telling the machine how annoyed I was that the phone company forced me to listen to a machine in the first place because the machine wouldn't shut up. It told me how important I was to the company and how everyone there was thrilled-to-death that I called and how they couldn't wait to help me.
While listening to the machine drone, it occurred to me that there ought to be a law. I'd be in favor of a law allowing all customers to bill their phone company for the minutes wasted while on hold, listening to machines that are even number than the average telephone executive.
Let's pass a law to let customers bill for all the time spent trying to go over the wall from the voice-mail prison where "valued" customers are detained. Think of the satisfaction of watching the clock while calculating your own minute-by-minute invoice for the phone company as the Muzak drones on. The phone company bills us for every minute spent on their phone line. Who knows more about the value of "time" than they do?
Timing is everything.