While the 100th anniversary of Alexander Bell's death on August 2nd might not strike a chord with everyone, for one County Mayo author, the remembrance of the famous telephone inventor is a personal one.
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In 2019, Michael Larkin wrote about Bell and his successful invention in “Making the Right Connections.”
The book traces the story of his granduncle Thomas Larkin, born in rural County Mayo in 1874 and who later became one of the Telephone Pioneers of America.
It is also a story about the power of connectivity and how both men did their part to advance that connectivity for people across the United States and ultimately, the world.
Of course, it was Bell who made it all happen through his genius invention, which he patented in 1876.
But as Larkin points out, it came close to not becoming a reality when Bell, desperately trying to convince the American public of the merits of his invention, seriously contemplated selling his patent rights to the Western Union Telegraph Company, which at the time held a monopoly over telegraph and telegram services in America.
“Luckily, for Bell, (and unluckily for the Western Union), the telephone gradually became the new, first-choice method of communication amongst the American people,” Larkin says.
Bell’s Invention in Ireland
In 1880, the first telephone exchange was opened in an exchange on Dame Street in Dublin.
It was operated by the United Telecom Company. In its first year of operation, it had five customers.
Several years later, the number of subscribers had jumped to 271, prompting the creation of the first telephone directory in Ireland.
The first public telephone box was erected on College Green, Dublin, on May 1, 1925.
Of course, the telephone did not make its appearance in County Mayo homes or those in any other part of rural Ireland for a long time after that.
Most people relied on the local post office phone to make an urgent call to a relative in America or elsewhere.
Making a phone call to America, however, was a complicated process.
Typically, village telephone exchanges were connected to the main telephone exchange somewhere else in Ireland and then on to the exchange in the other country.
The telephone was a long way from becoming a reality for most ordinary Irish people, especially given that electricity did not come into many homes until the 1950s through the Rural Electrification Programme, and even after that, it was expensive to get a phone installed.
New customers often had to pay to have the telegraph poles erected from the main road to their homes, which in many cases was a good distance away.
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Thomas Larkin’s Journey in America
When Thomas Larkin arrived in America in the early 1900s, he did not use the telephone to contact family members back in Mayo.
More than likely, he wrote letters home to his parents, like so many other immigrants before him.
Bad news was often relayed to relatives in Ireland by means of a telegram, as Michael Larkin explains in his book.
As life unfolded for the Mayo man, who was initially hired as a lineman and eventually became a senior manager for the Bell Telephone Company (now known as AT&T), the other connections he was able to make through sheer hard work and determination were just as important as Bell’s invention.
While Bell is indeed credited with inventing the telephone, Larkin reminds us in his book that the network would not have expanded throughout the United States were it not for the work that his granduncle and other telephone pioneers put into it.
Their job was to make sure that enough linemen, telephone operators, installers, fixers, and others were employed to make the dream a reality.
It’s clear that Thomas Larkin was dedicated to his job but more importantly, to the belief that Bell’s invention could truly change the lives of so many people.
And for that dedication, he was eventually conferred with Life Membership of the Telephone Pioneers of America, an accolade that Larkin says is like receiving an honorary degree today.
So great was Thomas Larkin’s devotion to connectivity that he also met with Bell on a few occasions.
“Surprisingly, their conversation did not focus on the marvel of the telephone,” writes Larkin, “it focused instead on the similarities between Ireland’s western coastline, the ruggedness of the Scottish Highlands, and Bell’s adopted homeland of Nova Scotia!”
The Importance of Connectivity in a Hurried World
As Larkin reflected on his granduncle’s achievements, he also remembered the times when Thomas Larkin lost his own connection to family in Ireland.
The senior Larkin eventually retired in Ireland during the 1930s but found it a very different place to the fast-growing United States with all of its emerging technology and opportunities.
Today, Bell’s invention is taken for granted as we turn to our cell phones for the latest news and the chance to quickly communicate with family members across the world in the form of a text message or video chat.
Larkin reminds us that the deep human connection with family and community is still as important as it was for the early Irish immigrants and that it is something that will surely stand the test of time.
You can purchase Larkin’s book, “Making the Right Connections,” (hardback) published by Bookhub Publishing. Copies of the book are available from Castle Bookshop in Castlebar and other outlets or also online at www.mayobooks.ie