TBA David

T.B.A. David, Part 4

Taking Edison’s Call

This is the final post in a series on T.B.A. David, a Pittsburgher I call the Forrest Gump of the 1800s. He seemed to be wherever something historic was happening. In this segment, he sets up the city’s first telephone near where a Giant Eagle parking lot is today, he introduces Pittsburgh to the word “hello, and he’s with Thomas Edison the first time sound doesn’t die — it’s recorded. (This segment stands on its own, but see menu for other posts in the series.)

So, T.B.A. David found himself in league with Thomas Edison to develop a telegraph machine that could automatically copy messages and send them elsewhere.

He had already set up a telegraph exchange for local businesses to communicate with each other.

A desire to improve on that system led to world-changing inventions. They came to be called the telephone and the phonograph.

T.B.A. David explains in some detail how Edison came to those inventions. I’ll boil it down, as follows:

The first experiments that were made with the Telephone in Pittsburgh were between my house on Shady Avenue and a building on the rear of the lot. Soon after, I had a wire strung from my office in the First National Bank Building to the Iron Exchange on Fourth Avenue for public exhibition.

His house was where Shadyside and East Liberty meet, just north of Ellsworth Avenue, according to an 1877 city directory. The bank building was at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street downtown. Both house and building are long gone.

It was generally looked upon as scarcely more than a wonderful toy. What is now known as the “Receiver” was then used both for speaking and hearing. The results were not very satisfactory, nor promising.

Pittsburgh’s first telephone line was strung up near this Giant Eagle parking lot. It would have been somewhere to the left. This is on the border of East Liberty and Shadyside, in the midst of community re-gentrification projects. A large apartment/market complex is to soon rise on this site.

Hindsighted Investors

It was not until the “Transmitter” had been invented that the Telephone took on practical form.

At this stage of its development, capital was very shy of it. Many men who possess the gift of “hindsightedness” have told me in these later years (early 1900s) what they would have done had they had the opportunity.

But, he gave the opportunity to many. They looked at him like he was crazy.

. . . I spent much time with Mr. Edison, at Menio Park, in developing his “Transmitter,” and he was kind enough to make public acknowledgment of the help I gave him.

The following note from him indicates a stage of progress in his invention immediately following some experiments which we had made some days before at his laboratory. “Your pair ” was for further experimenting at Pittsburgh:

MENLO PARK, N. J., Aug. 27, 1877.


Just finished our new set of telephones, two receivers and two senders. They are now as small as Bell’s and much louder than you have ever heard, and the articulation is so perfect that everybody gets what is said without any effort. The strain on the ears appears to have departed, at least in my case. You know I have only Batch and Kreusi that can work, so you see that it will be a few days before I can send you your pair.



Batch and Kreusi were the top prototype builders at the Menlo Park, N.J., operation. It was by all accounts a fun place for creative, ambitious people to engage in what later became known as team research and development.

. . . As it so happened, the telephone question became of supreme importance a few days later, and Edison was unable to proceed with the modification of the automatic telegraph.

No matter. T.B.A. David then became one of the inventive people behind getting telephones to work, and be of practical use in Pittsburgh.

The Trouble With Telephones

Did he win the admiration of fellow Pittsburghers? Did he get rich? That would make a nice story, but no.

In establishing the system of the Telephone Exchange, every feature had to be invented, and I may fairly lay claim to having contributed a considerable share.

At this time (1908), when the Telephone is as common as any of the other indispensable things, it can hardly be believed that there could have been opposition to its speedy adoption, but there was.

When its usefulness became evident, after a short trial (usually for free) complaints became as numerous as flakes of snow in a storm

It turned out, the last thing you want to do is invent something that people can then easily use to complain. Keep in mind that telephones initially were solely for businesses.

Early telephone operator, also called a “hello girl,” with the contraption worn to do her job. Someone wanting to make a call would “ring” her, tell her who they wanted, she would “ring” them, and then connect their lines. It didn’t always work. Actually, in the beginning, it usually didn’t. This photo is from a 1951 Bell Telephone dramatization. It’s link is below. It’s worth watching just for a take on 1951, if nothing else.

I was “called up” all through the day to answer some question about improving the service, and the questioner generally wound up with telling me that “the thing was a fraud and a humbug.”

It was hard for men who had sold sugar and flour all their lives to comprehend that in so new and complicated a business, covering so much, every part required no end of thought and experimenting.

Consequently the inference was that I was making no effort to improve the service. Why! I could not sleep, pursued as I was by the difficulties to be overcome.

Some of our patrons would even lie in wait for me on the street as I came from the (train) station in the morning, to complain and abuse, so that I frequently came to my office by way of Spring Alley, in order to avoid them.

At that time, people in the suburbs could commute downtown by train.

It was not until years after I had quit the business, and experience had taught her lesson, that (telephone) service became satisfactory.

The pressure at times made me painfully conscious of a near approach to the condition of health that Dr. Brown-Sequard had warned me against, and it did finally compel me to give up and ever after devote myself to less-trying pursuits.

As covered in the previous post, T.B.A. David suffered a “nervous breakdown,” was treated by burning portions of his body with white-hot irons, and was warned to stay away from stressful jobs. He didn’t.

It was with regret that I had to abandon the business which I had originated, and the foundation of which I laid . . .

The First Recording

But, hold the line, please.

Let’s go back. Let’s return to the automatic telegraph. Edison stopped working on it to focus on the telephone. But, after a few years, he again sought to record Morse code characters with indentations on paper. He noticed it created an odd humming noise.

Edison, in some ways, is quite hard of hearing, but to other sounds, he is extraordinarily susceptible, and one of these is Morse.

It seemed to him, he since has said, that the humming noise sounded like Morse heard indistinctly. The multiplication of small sounds to great ones has always been a pet hobby of Edison’s. It occurred to him that this humming could be intensified. . .The inventor sent for Krusei, the best of his early model-makers, gave him a rough sketch of the idea, and told him to make one.

It is of interest to know that the price Krusei charged was eight dollars and that it took him thirty hours without sleep to build it. . . a clumsy-looking affair.

T.B.A. David just happened to be at Menlo Park the day Krusei carried the world’s first recording device into the shop.

Carman, the foreman of the machine shop, was present when Krusei brought in the model. On being told what it was for, he declared it impossible, and bluntly bet Edison a box of cigars that it wouldn’t work.

With a slow smile, Edison took the bet; then, sliding the model along the table in front of him, he turned the crank slowly, speaking into the receiver . . .

Let’s listen ourselves. Play the following video.

Of course, our Forest Gump of the 1800s was there to witness it.

. . . maybe he’s getting tired of Mary Had a Little Lamb

You Say Ahoy, and I Say Hello

Much later, when The Beatles recorded “Hello, Goodbye,” they likely knew they could thank Edison for their ability to record, but they probably had no idea the same man invented the word “hello.”

If not for Edison, they may have sung, “Ahoy, ahoy . . . you say goodbye, and I say ahoy.”

“Ahoy,” was what Alexander Graham Bell thought people should say when using his telephone invention. The word was commonly used when hailing someone.

Like T.B.A. David and Edison, Bell saw it as a talking telegraph for business. The line would always be open. One would shout “Ahoy!” into the transmitter, hoping to gain the attention of someone near the device at the other end.

So, how did Edison instead come up with “hello,” a word that did not yet exist?

The New York Times investigated it in 1992.

It declared the Hello mystery solved after seeing a letter Edison sent to T.B.A. David in Pittsburgh. The letter was included in the first post of this series. It was found in AT&T archives in lower Manhattan. Of course, they could have just read T.B.A. David’s memoirs. (See link to the Times story is below).

A little Googling turns up several other letters in the Library of Congress between T.B.A. David and prominent 19th Century inventors/businessmen.

It also turns up records of business interests he doesn’t mention in his memoirs.

For instance, he apparently manufactured glass telegraph insulators. People now collect them, and place them in lighted display cases. What would he make of that?

He also operated a lead smelting company, probably to make telegraph batteries. That East Liberty site was checked not too long ago by federal Superfund inspectors. It was determined to be not particularly dangerous.

Well, it’s time to say goodbye to the man who brought us “hello.”

He died early one morning in 1918 at his home on Rippey Street in East Liberty. He was 82.

It is a great thing to have lived through the period when nearly . . . all of the important discoveries of modern times have been made, and to have had a part in their development, however small . . .

to have traveled by stagecoach, canal boat, steamboat, and by rail before the day of the parlor and sleeping car;

. . . to have seen the un-enveloped letter with its 12 1/2 cents postage charge written upon it (postage was only one cent when he wrote that);

and the line of Telegraph poles with the wire yet unstrung . . . on down to the Long Distance Telephone and Wireless Telegraph;

from the “tallow dip” candle . . . to . . . the oil lamp and the gas jet, to the brilliant electric light;

from the lumbering omnibus and the horse-car to the trolley car and the automobile;

and the other innumerable wonders that the age has produced, is an experience not many have had. . .


T.B.A. David, the Forrest Gump of the 1800s, was buried in Allegheny Cemetery.

In photo below, his gravestone sits askew on its base, like a telephone off the hook.

He’s not taking any more calls.

New York Times declares “hello mystery” solved.

Complete Reminisces by T.B.A. David

1951 Bell Telephone Dramatization

Make Sure the Past Is in Your Future

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