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Did Charles E Alden Invent The Mobile Phone In 1906?

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The first public mobile phone call took place 40 years ago today, in New York City, by an engineer at Motorola. But a strange - albeit dubious - footnote in the history of the mobile phone might just put its origins much further back than that.

Almost 70 years further.

According to a notice buried away on page 7 of the Los Angeles Herald of May 21 1906, the mobile telephone was actually invented by a man named Charles E. Alden in the town of Cottage City, Massachusetts.

The piece claims that the pocket telephone was demonstrated 67 years before Motorola made its famous call in 1973.

According to the piece, it took Alden just a few months to come up with the idea and a working prototype.

The inventor had been "pursuing experiments here since last fall in wireless telephoning" it says, "and the result is so simple it is likely to create a sensation in the business world, as well as in scientific circles".

While the true form - and functionality - of whatever Alden invented is lost in the mist of time, the Herald was impressed. The device was reportedly "so small that it can be put into a vest pocket" and was apparently powered by a "wireless battery such as is used by the Marconi system".

The device was supposed to be able to catch conversations carried along ordinary telephone wires - and as such was perhaps more of a way to hack telephones than call them. But Alden also envisioned a "sending" system too, to enable users to hold true phone calls with the wirelessly-powered device.

The article goes on to explain - in wonderfully arch style - that "it was a stormy night a few weeks ago, when Mr Alden had perfected his little receiver and set it up in his studio here on Martha's Vineyard island".

The Herald describes the scene as Alden sets up his machine, and apparently unexpectedly catches snatches of conversation, of neighbourhood gossip and grocery orders.

"He sat smoking his after dinner pope and wondering where he had better set up his sending apparatus, that he was startled by the sound of a voice in the room...

"Outside the storm howled along the coast and beat the waves against the rocks of the island."

"Hello! Hello! Is that Mrs Smith? …" Mr Alden sat bolt upright, Then he got up and went to the door. There was no one there… Like a flash Mr Alden realised the situation. His little instrument was not waiting for his sending instrument to be set up, but was pilfering messages from the New England Telephone company's wire…

Wild with delight Mr Alden rushed across lots and got some of his friends to come in and witness the success of his discovery. When they arrived the little apparatus was still busy disclosing neighbourhood gossip."

Alden explained to the Herald's reported how "the voices of the night came to him unsolicited, like the talk of spirits."

Alden also told the Herald that his system is "like that of the wireless telegraph" but is complemented by a small invention that he "does not make public".

"The possibilities are almost limitless," the piece concludes.

"With the new invention one may yet be able to carry around in his pocket a private telephone, with which he can call up his house and talk with his family wherever he may be. Persons sitting in the grand stand at the race track may telephone to their friends in the city the results of races undetected."

So did Alden really invent the mobile phone?

Well... Probably not.

While Alden is not exactly unknown - his invention, and that of a remote control boat armed with an automatic gun, are noted on Wikipedia - he registered no patents, and while some internet conspiracy theorists have proposed time travel as a possible explanation for his disappearance, it's (ahem) more likely he was either unsuccessful or simply an attention-seeker.

Indeed, the story next to Alden's in the same edition - that of an English clergyman predicting the doom of the Earth in 1931 - suggests the paper didn't have the highest standards when selecting its sources.

But all that said it's an intriguing little idea - maybe the history of mobile telephony, of a sort, is longer than we think.

At least it proves that the idea of the mobile phone - if not the actual invention - was in peoples' minds for much longer than 40 years.