Subject: Socratic Method – Dialogue
Event: Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone, 1876
Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus. -Alexander Graham Bell
On this day in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words ever spoken on the telephone.
Born in Scotland, Bell immigrated first to Canada and then to Boston, Massachusetts, where he opened a school for teachers of the deaf. Long-distance communication became a reality in the 1830s with the invention of the telegraph, but messages could only be transmitted in Morse code. Bell’s vision was to transmit the human voice over a wire. To help make his vision a reality, Bell hired Thomas Watson, an electrical designer and mechanic.
While working on a transmitter in his laboratory on March 10, 1876, Bell spilled battery acid on his clothes. He called out: “Mr. Watson, come here! I want you!” Watson rushed excitedly from the other room, reporting that he heard Bell’s voice coming from the transmitter. Without realizing it, Bell had just made the first telephone call.
Bell offered to sell his invention to Western Union for $100,000. Western Union’s president, however, failed to see how Bell’s invention could ever become more popular than the telegraph. Within two years the telephone was worth more than $25 million, and Alexander launched his Bell Telephone Company, which would become one of the world’s largest corporations (1).
Today when we make a telephone call, we take for granted that the person on the other end of the line will answer with “hello.” The truth is, however, that when the first telephones were put into service, people were not sure what to say to initiate the conversation. Bell suggested the nautical greeting “Ahoy,” the word he used for the rest of his life. His rival, Thomas Edison, who made improvements on Bell’s invention, suggested “hello,” a word that previously had been used more as an exclamation of surprise rather than a synonym for “hi.” Edison won the war of words in the long run, primarily because the first telephone books suggested “hello” as the officially sanctioned greeting (2).
In addition to the telephone, Bell is also credited with another noteworthy invention, the metal detector. After President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, Bell invented a metal detector to help doctors locate the bullet. Unfortunately, the bullet was never found because the metal springs from Garfield’s bed rendered Bell’s metal detector useless. Garfield died from infection from his wound on September 19, 1881.
The invention of the telephone for the first time in history allowed two people who were not in the same location to hold a spoken conversation. Dialogue, dating back to Socrates, has been an essential method for employing reason to discover the truth. The Socratic method — also known as the ‘method of elenchus’ or ‘method of interrogation’ — is a process where people come together, not for small talk, but to discuss big issues and to cooperatively exchange views and objections with the purpose of reasoning together to arrive at the truth.
Rather than argue with people, Socrates’ approach was to ask probing questions, the kind of questions that forced his interlocutor to examine and test his or her own beliefs. Socrates was not afraid of asking questions that made people uncomfortable, nor was he condescending or arrogant; his main interest was finding the truth. Socrates’ mother had been a midwife, and he used this profession as a metaphor for his style of teaching: rather than fill others with ideas, his goal was to draw them out of his students.
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the Socratic method, and how does it differ from traditional debate?
Challenge – Dial-Up the Dialectic: Socrates’ method of dialogue is alive and well in the 21st century. Many have begun to practice Street Epistemology, reasoned conversations that help people reflect and reexamine their deeply-held beliefs. Do a bit of research on Street Epistemology to see who is doing it and how it works.
1-“10th March 1876 – Alexander Graham Bell makes the first ever phone call.” This Day Then Blog.
2-Krulwich, Robert. “A (Shockingly) Short History Of ‘Hello‘” NPR 17 Feb. 2011.