The Atlantic

Mark Twain, Tech Prophet

A short story published in The Atlantic in 1878 may contain the first literary reference to a telephone—along with striking insights into modern dating.
Source: Jim Bourg / Reuters

Mark Twain’s reputation for spotting trends in technology is not great. His most famous foray ended poorly, after the great man of letters fancied himself a man of letterpress as well, and invested heavily in the Paige Compositor, a typesetting machine that bankrupted him.

But what if Twain was, in fact, a prescient scout for new innovations? The Times Literary Supplement’s always amusing NB column—which also unearthed this image of Proust playing air guitar on a tennis racket—has been searching for literary firsts, such as the earliest mention of a telephone. readers came up with Gilbert and Sullivan’s , which premiered in May 1878. : Twain’s “,” a short story that published in its March 1878 issue. As Lasswell notes, that makes it just 24 months after Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first patent for a telephone.

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