The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires - Tim Wu (2010)

Part II. Beneath the All-Seeing Eye

SIX YEARS BEFORE Brave New World, as we have seen, Aldous Huxley could already glimpse where the centralization and mechanization of culture was leading. He foresaw culture’s future dominated by commerce. He also saw the prospect of global standardization. “In 3000 A.D.” wrote Huxley, “one will doubtless be able to travel from Kansas City to Peking in a few hours. But if the civilization of these two places is the same, there will be no object in doing so.”

By the late 1930s every one of the twentieth century’s new information industries was fixed in its centralized imperial form. The glories of the new arrangements were evident. Hollywood film was in its golden age, turning out classics like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. NBC and CBS, with help from New York’s advertising agencies, had perfected the concept of “entertainment that sells,” symbolized by the soap opera and other sponsored programs, like Texaco Star Theater. And the Bell system had become the paragon of a communications monopolist, best captured in the Bell slogan: “The System Is the Solution.”

It was also a fact that each of the new media had at least some sense of public duty encoded, as it were, in its DNA. Bell served as a common carrier offering universal service. The networks ran their “sustaining” programs and news departments, under the watch of the FCC. And Hollywood, while a business, had also been motivated by the concept of film as an art form, and had created itself to produce better entertainment than the Edison Trust had seen fit to offer, more like what was available on the stage.1

Yet amid these glories of progress—perhaps even necessary to achieve them—there had also been created with respect to freedom of expression one of the least hospitable environments in American history. The 1920s, that heyday for small inventors and alternative voices, were decidedly over. “The times are not propitious for the recognition of great, rebellious, or unorthodox talent,” wrote Lawrence Lessing in 1956. “Large impersonal forces are loose in the world, in this country as in more tyrannous parts of the globe, sweeping aside the individual of high merit in pursuit of some new, corporate, collective and conformist destiny.”2

We turn now to what information empires mean for speech and innovation. Most who study these topics are obsessed with government’s role in censorship and providing incentives to innovate. But the state’s role, while significant, cannot compare to the power of industry to censor expression or squelch invention.

While the accomplishments we owe to the structures of the 1930s are undeniable, it is essential to understand what was repressed, blocked, or censored by the new system, if we are to understand what was—and is—really at stake.

Chapter 7. The Foreign Attachment

Henry Tuttle was, for much of his life, president of the Hush-A-Phone Corporation, manufacturer of a telephone silencer. Apart from Tuttle, Hush-A-Phone Inc. employed his secretary. The two of them worked alone out of a small office near Union Square in New York City. Hush-A-Phone’s signature product was shaped like a scoop, and it fit around the speaking end of a receiver, so that no one could hear what the user was saying on the telephone. The company motto emblazoned on its letterhead stated the promise succinctly: “Makes your phone private as a booth.”1

Advertisements for the cup ran frequently, usually in classified sections. This one from the October 14, 1940, edition of The New York Times is typical:


If the Hush-A-Phone never became a household necessity, Tuttle did a decent business, and by 1950 he would claim to have sold 125,000 units. But one day late in the 1940s, Henry Tuttle received alarming news. AT&T had launched a crackdown on the Hush-A-Phone and similar products, like the Jordaphone, a creaky precursor of the modern speakerphone, whose manufacturer had likewise been put on notice. Bell repairmen began warning customers that Hush-A-Phone use was a violation of a federal tariff and that, failing to cease and desist, they risked termination of their telephone service.2

Leo Beranek and the Hush-A-Phone

Was AT&T merely blowing smoke? Not at all: the company was referring to a special rule that was part of their covenant with the federal government. It stated: No equipment, apparatus, circuit or device not furnished by the telephone company shall be attached to or connected with the facilities furnished by the telephone company, whether physically, by induction, or otherwise.

Tuttle hired an attorney, who petitioned the FCC for a modification of the rule and an injunction against AT&T’s threats. In 1950 the FCC decided to hold a trial (officially a “public hearing”) in Washington, D.C., to consider whether AT&T, the nation’s regulated monopolist, could punish its customers for placing a plastic cup over their telephone mouthpiece.

The story of the Hush-A-Phone and its struggle with AT&T, for all its absurdist undertones, offers a window on the mind-set of the monopoly at its height, as well as a picture of the challenges facing even the least innovative innovator at that moment. As such, the case is an object lesson in the advantages and disadvantages of monopoly. For while it may seem a minor matter, the Hush-A-Phone affair raised fundamental questions about innovation in the age of information monopoly.

AT&T’s crackdown wasn’t the only challenge Tuttle faced in the 1940s. Over the years, as the telephone had assumed its “modern” design, the Hush-A-Phone, first conceived in the 1920s, was obliged to adapt. Tuttle sought solutions to his hurdles in academia, specifically at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. In 1945, he queried Leo Beranek, then a young acoustics expert at MIT. The men would meet in New York, and Beranek, thinking the problem an interesting one, agreed to design an improved telephone silencer.

Tuttle was lucky; though not well known at the time, Beranek would soon emerge as one of his field’s great authorities, going on to design the acoustics for the United Nations complex and Lincoln Center in New York, and for the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, as well as writing the classic textbook Acoustics. Rather more relevant to the Hush-A-Phone challenge, during World War II Beranek had worked with a team of scientists at Harvard on the problem of communications in the din of airborne cockpits. In both cases, as Beranek understood, the key to intelligibility was the middle-range frequencies. The silencer he designed for Tuttle would sacrifice the lower-range sounds—creating a slight boominess—in exchange for privacy and external silence. Once he’d developed a prototype according to these specifications, he applied for a U.S. patent and sent his plans over to Tuttle, who enthusiastically dispatched a contract under which Beranek would be paid twenty cents per unit.

Tuttle and Beranek didn’t exactly consider themselves a threat to the Bell system. Indeed, once when I asked him if he ever viewed himself as a Bell competitor, Beranek just looked at me as if I were crazy. Rather, their modest aim as independent, outside inventors was a minor improvement to the telephone handset, and an ungainly one at that. So why was AT&T determined to run Hush-A-Phone out of business?

Caught in this seemingly trivial battle over a bauxite cup is a debate over the merits of two alternative models of innovation: centralized and decentralized. Representing the decentralized model was Hush-A-Phone, with Beranek operating, in effect, as Tuttle’s system of innovation—a lone inventor of sorts, qualified in acoustics but unaffiliated with Bell. Representing the centralized model was AT&T’s already quasimythical Bell Labs, the entity established to ensure that AT&T, and AT&T alone, moved the phone system along its path into the future.


In early 1934, Clarence Hickman, a Bell Labs engineer, had a secret machine, about six feet tall, standing in his office. It was a device without equal in the world, decades ahead of its time. If you called and there was no answer on the phone line to which Hickman’s invention was connected, the machine would beep and a recording device would come on allowing the caller to leave a message.3

The genius at the heart of Hickman’s secret proto–answering machine was not so much the concept—perceptive of social change as that was—but rather the technical principle that made it work and that would, eventually, transform the world: magnetic recording tape. Recall that before magnetic storage there was no way to store sound other than by pressing a record or making a piano roll. The new technology would not only usher in audiocassettes and videotapes, but when used with the silicon chip, make computer storage a reality. Indeed, from the 1980s onward, firms from Microsoft to Google, and by implication the whole world, would become utterly dependent on magnetic storage, otherwise known as the hard drive.

If any entity could have come up with advanced recording technology by the early 1930s it was Bell Labs. Founded in 1925 for the express purpose of improving telephony, they made good on their mission (saving AT&T billions with inventions as simple as plastic insulation for telephone wires) and then some: by the 1920s the laboratories had effectively developed a mind of their own, carrying their work beyond better telephones and into basic research to become the world’s preeminent corporate-sponsored scientific body. It was a scientific Valhalla, hiring the best men (and later women) they could find and leaving them more or less free to pursue what interested them.

When scientists are given such freedom, they can do amazing things, and soon Bell’s were doing cutting-edge work in fields as diverse as quantum physics and information theory. It was a Bell Labs employee named Clinton Davisson who would win a Nobel Prize in 1937 for demonstrating the wave nature of matter, an insight more typically credited to Einstein than to a telephone company employee. In total, Bell would collect seven Nobel Prizes, more than any other corporate laboratory, including one awarded in 1956 for its most famous invention, the transistor, which made the computer possible. Other, more obscure Bell creations are nevertheless dear to geeks, including Unix and the C programming language.

In short, Bell Labs has been a great force for good. It is, frankly, just the kind of phenomenon that makes one side with Theodore Vail about the blessings of a monopoly. For while AT&T was never formally required to run Bell Labs as a research laboratory, it did so out of exactly the sort of noblesse oblige that Vail espoused. AT&T ran Bell Labs not just for its corporate good but for the greater good as well. This is not to be naïve about the corporate profit motive: Bell Labs contributed to AT&T’s bottom line far more than plastic wire insulation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how funding theoretical quantum physics research would be of any immediate benefit to shareholder value. More to the point, it is hard to imagine a phone company today hiring someone to be their quantum physicist, with no rules and no boss.

For, in part, the privileges AT&T enjoyed as a government-sanctioned monopoly with government-set prices were understood as being offset by this contribution to basic scientific research, an activity with proportionately more direct government funding in most other countries. Put another way, in the United States, the higher consumer prices resulting from monopoly amounted, in effect, to a tax on Americans used to fund basic research. This unusual insinuation of a corporation between the government and its goal of advancing American science goes a long way to explain how AT&T, as it matured, became in effect almost a branch of government, charged with top-secret work in the national interest.4

For all the undeniable glory of Bell Labs, there emerge little cracks in the resplendent façade of corporatism for the public good. For however many its breakthroughs, there was one way in which the institution was very different from a university: when the interests of AT&T were at odds with the advancement of knowledge, there was no question as to which good prevailed. And so, interspersed between Bell Labs’ public triumphs were its secret discoveries, the skeletons in the imperial closet of AT&T.

Let’s return to Hickman’s magnetic tape and the answering machine. What’s interesting is that Hickman’s invention in the 1930s would not be “discovered” until the 1990s. For soon after Hickman had demonstrated his invention, AT&T ordered the Labs to cease all research into magnetic storage, and Hickman’s research was suppressed and concealed for more than sixty years, coming to light only only when the historian Mark Clark came across Hickman’s laboratory notebook in the Bell archives.

“The impressive technical successes of Bell Labs’ scientists and engineers,” writes Clark, “were hidden by the upper management of both Bell Labs and AT&T.” AT&T “refused to develop magnetic recording for consumer use and actively discouraged its development and use by others.”5 Eventually magnetic tape would come to America via imports of foreign technology, mainly German.

But why would company management bury such an important and commercially valuable discovery? What were they afraid of? The answer, rather surreal, is evident in the corporate memoranda, also unearthed by Clark, imposing the research ban. AT&T firmly believed that the answering machine, and its magnetic tapes, would lead the public to abandon the telephone.

More precisely, in Bell’s imagination, the very knowledge that it was possible to record a conversation would “greatly restrict the use of the telephone,” with catastrophic consequences for its business. Businessmen, for instance, the theory supposed, might fear the potential use of a recorded conversation to undo a written contract. Tape recorders would also inhibit discussing obscene or ethically dubious matters. In sum, the very possibility of magnetic recording, it was feared, would “change the whole nature of telephone conversations” and “render the telephone much less satisfactory and useful in the vast majority of cases in which it is employed.”6

And so we see that the enlightened monopolist can occasionally prove a delusional paranoid. True, once magnetic recording arrived in America, there were a few, from Nixon to Lewinsky, whose sordid secrets would be exposed by it. But, amazingly enough, we all still use telephones. Such are the liabilities of being subject to the whim of even the most high-minded corporation: even the fantasy that the fate of the company could be at stake can have significant consequences. It was safer to shut down a thrilling line of research than to risk the Bell system.

This is the essential weakness of a centralized approach to innovation: the notion that it can be a planned and systematic process, best directed by a kind of central intelligence; that it is simply a matter of assembling all the best minds and putting them to work in unison. Were it so, the future could be planned and executed in a scientific manner.

Yes, Bell Labs was great. But AT&T, as an innovator, bore a serious genetic flaw: it could not originate technologies that might, by the remotest possibility, threaten the Bell system. In the language of innovation theory, the output of the Bell Labs was practically restricted to sustaining inventions; disruptive technologies, those that might even cast a shadow of uncertainty over the business model, were simply out of the question.

The recording machine is only one example of a technology that AT&T, out of such fears, would for years suppress or fail to market: fiber optics, mobile telephones, digital subscriber lines (DSL), facsimile machines, speakerphones—the list goes on and on. These technologies, ranging from novel to revolutionary, were simply too daring for Bell’s comfort. Without a reliable sense of how they might affect the Bell system, AT&T and its heirs would deploy each with painfully slow caution, if at all.

Perhaps the response seems less neurotic if we consider how deep-seated can be the apprehension of the Kronos effect. Not for nothing would the Bell system prove itself among the best defended and most secure monopolies in corporate history. Whatever the opportunity inherent in new technology, there was always also a threat, one that prudence demanded be devoured at birth. Bell’s own genesis had proved that bit of wisdom. In 1876, Alexander Bell had patented the machine that eventually dethroned and replaced what was then the nation’s greatest corporation, Western Union. What charm of the new can possibly rival the instinct for self-preservation? Certainly not a plastic cup.


Thus did AT&T in deadly earnest go about hushing the Hush-A-Phone. At the two-week trial (technically a hearing), the company showed up with dozens of attorneys, including a top litigator from New York City, and no few expert witnesses. Legal representatives of each of the twenty-one regional Bells came as well, necessitating that extra seats be installed in the hearing room—bleachers for AT&T’s lawyers. On Hush-A-Phone’s side were Harry Tuttle, his lawyer, the acoustics professor Leo Beranek, and one expert witness, a man named J.C.R. Licklider.7

Bell’s lawyers mounted a powerful assault against the cup and the cup-bearing company itself. The argument was that the Hush-A-Phone posed substantial harm to telephone service, and at the same time, that the company by that same name, in selling a useless device, was essentially perpetrating a fraud on the public. Bell led with a Bell Labs engineer, W. H. Martin, who set out to show that the Hush-A-Phone impaired telephone service. According to his tests, it created a “transmission loss” of 13 decibels and “receiving loss” of 20 decibels. The loss, he said, was greater “than the total of all the improvements which have been incorporated in the Bell System handsets and the accompanying station apparatus for a period of over 20 years.”

The next Bell witness, AT&T vice president John Hanselman, testified more broadly in favor of Bell’s ban on “foreign attachments,” justifying it in terms of the public good and AT&T’s stewardship of the telephone system. It was among the firm’s duties to protect the consumer from such useless gimmicks, he maintained. And if there was any use to a Hush-A-Phone, he suggested, unembarrassed by his own casuistry, AT&T would have invented and marketed it. Nor was uselessness the gravest threat. Foreign attachments created outside Bell’s design and control standards posed all manner of hazard, including power surges up the phone lines that might electrocute Bell repairmen and send them falling to their deaths. On cross-examination by Tuttle’s lawyer, Hanselman finally conceded that such a calamity had never occurred. But, he insisted, there is always a first time.

Like the next Bell witness, Hanselman also testified that there was no demand for a voice silencer in any case. If there were, as a reporter summarized his perfect corporate smugness, “it would clearly be brought to his attention.” The proof was that hardly anyone was actually using the Hush-A-Phone, and so the consequences of banning it were furthermore negligible. That there might be some good in the operation of the free market per se simply did not figure in his conceptual universe: “It would not be feasible,” he told the FCC, “to allow customers to buy devices on the open market.”

AT&T’s counsel left no stone unturned, subsequent witnesses reaffirming the same points made by earlier ones, until finally, one made the startling charge that the Hush-A-Phone was unhygienic. As related in Telecommunications Reports, “Mr. Burden [stated] that he had sufficient experience as a plant man cleaning the cone-shaped transmitters formerly used by operators to realize that a receptacle such as the Hush-A-Phone would collect food particles, odors, and whatnot over a period of time.”

With that, AT&T rested its case.

The theory of Hush-A-Phone’s case was, in bald contradiction to AT&T’s claims, that the phone silencer was indeed an effective and useful device, and one that AT&T didn’t offer. As such, it was of no potential harm to consumers or to the telephone system or its representatives. Testifying first, Henry Tuttle presented the FCC with a list of reasons why customers might want a telephone silencer. Sanity was one, the reduction of office noise being “important to the mental health of employees,” in his view. Privacy was another, a necessity for many professionals and businessmen, which claim he supported with a list of Hush-A-Phones in use in Washington, D.C., including a number in congressional committee rooms. In addition, Tuttle distributed a collection of testimonials called “Phone Conversations Overheard,” a compilation of cautionary tales was included the woeful story of one man who’d been disinherited when his uncle overheard his nephew making unflattering remarks about him on the telephone. If only he’d had a Hush-A-Phone …

But the strongest part of Hush-A-Phone’s case was the technical aspect. In addition to Beranek, who already enjoyed some eminence, Tuttle brought in, on his designer’s advice, a friend of Beranek’s from army days who was now a professor at Harvard, one J.C.R. Licklider. The pair of academics, who will reappear later in their better-known identities as the founders of the Internet, “gave the hearing,” according to one reporter, “a somewhat ivy-covered atmosphere, taking the spectators and participants back to their college days.”8 But more importantly, they lent an air of unimpeachable authority. Beranek and Licklider, also an expert on acoustics, had run a battery of tests on the silencer, demonstrating that conversations conducted with it remained satisfactorily audible while effectively free from eavesdroppers. This proof did not prevent Bell’s lawyers from launching a fierce and lengthy cross-examination, resulting in numbingly complex disagreements about the means of testing word articulation quality. Still, Licklider’s report had provided actual data bearing on the question of intelligibility, whereas the counterargument depended on some abstract claim of “transmission loss.”

It is worth pausing to observe that as Bell’s lawyers squared off against Licklider and Beranek over technology, the world was witnessing, unbeknownst to anyone, even the combatants, the first of many engagements between AT&T and the Internet’s founders—in effect, the Fort Sumter, so to speak, in the epic fight between those later to be called the “Net-heads” (backers of the Internet) and the “Bellheads.” Never mind that it was 1950 and they were arguing over a plastic cup sold in classified ads.

To close their case, the Hush-A-Phone team offered dramatic demonstration to rival O.J.’s bloody glove. Tuttle called his secretary and asked her to speak into a telephone receiver, first with, then without the Hush-A-Phone attached. In accordance with Licklider’s findings, the device did indeed alter the acoustics of the telephone transmission, making it sound more “boomy.” Yet, as was evident to all, the speech remained intelligible. The Hush-A-Phone, in other words, indubitably worked.


Bell was right about one thing at least: the Hush-A-Phone wasn’t terribly popular, and it showed few signs of catching on. To understand AT&T’s all-out response as more than merely neurotic, then, one must see the device not for what it was but for what it represented: a threat to the system, and by extension to a sanctified method of innovation. The device itself did not so much effect as foreshadow an intolerable loss of control. It might have failed per se and yet encouraged people to attach all manner of other devices to the telephone, thus coming to see Bell’s technological holy of holies as something anyone could tamper with. It might even lead to a future in which people purchased their own telephones!

Here, then, we come to the second weakness that afflicts centralized systems of innovation: the necessity, by definition, of placing all control in a few hands. This is not to say that doing so holds no benefit. To be sure, there is less “waste”: instead of ten companies competing to develop a better telephone—reinventing the wheel, as it were, every time—society’s resources can be synchronized in their pursuit of the common goal. There is no duplication of research, with many laboratories chasing the same invention. (That avoidance of redundancy in applying brain capital should sound familiar from Vail’s philosophy of industrial organization: centralized innovation is the R&D sibling of monopoly, with the same type of claim to efficiency.) Yet if all resources for solving any problem are directed by a single, centralized intelligence, that mastermind has to be right in predicting the future if innovation is to proceed effectively. And that’s the problem: monopoly presumes a prescience that humans are seldom capable of.

AT&T and other proponents of centralized innovation assumed the future of the telephone system to be not only knowable, but indeed known. As Beranek put it, “Bell had created the best telephone system in the world. They had the big laboratory. Their attitude was, we don’t need you.” Bell never missed a chance to assert its need to control every single working part of the system. As it enunciated the need in its legal briefs:

It would be extremely difficult to furnish “good” telephone service if telephone users were free to attach to the equipment, or use with it, all of the numerous kinds of foreign attachments that are marketed by persons who have no responsibility for the quality of telephone service but are primarily interested in exploiting their products.9

Quality control, by such lights, depended on control of every other kind.

Unfortunately, it would be decades before innovation theorists challenged this Bell orthodoxy. In the 1980s, the economists Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter examined the record of human innovation and devised what is now called the “evolutionary” model of innovation. Their thesis implied that in fact innovation is much more a process of trial and error than theretofore imagined. General human ignorance about the future leads to a great many human errors. Furthermore, the human element always introduces an irrationality, even to the point of such paranoia as Bell evinced concerning magnetic recording. Thus if everything is entrusted to a single mind, its inevitable subjective distortions will distort, if not altogether disable, the innovation process. By contrast, Nelson and Winter argued, the most rapid or efficient innovation typically results when the widest range of variations are proposed and the invisible hand of competition, as proxy of the future, picks among them. It is rather like Darwin’s idea of the relative fitness of individuals in determining the evolution of species, and like natural selection it depends on the power of accidents.10

Hush-A-Phone was a forerunner in this latter-day approach to innovation. Looking at the telephone and AT&T’s network, Tuttle saw what we today would call an innovation platform. In other words, the Bell system was something that people could and should try to improve, with add-ons and new features. The innovation Tuttle envisioned was privacy, but other outsiders would imagine devices that could answer the phone and transmit images or other forms of data. But AT&T believed that if phone subscribers wanted privacy, they could cup their hands over the receiver.

The irony of the Hush-A-Phone affair is that no company should have understood the importance of outside invention better than Bell, whose eponymous founder was the very archetype of the outsider bearing long-shot ideas that turn out to shape the future. Yet by the 1950s AT&T had left the spirit of Alexander Bell behind. Or perhaps, more ominously, Bell understood that its inevitable downfall would come at the hands of one exactly like its founder, and the only strategy was to temporize. Eventually, a meal gets away even from Kronos.


Bernard Strassburg, chief counsel to the FCC during the Hush-A-Phone trial, considered the result of the proceedings to be preordained. “In my view, Tuttle’s prospects of winning his case before the FCC were, from the start and without court intervention, virtually nil,” he would write. “It was the conviction of the FCC and its staff that they shared with the telephone company a common responsibility for efficient and economic public telephone service and that this responsibility could only be discharged by the carrier’s control of all facilities that made up the network supplying that service.”11

After the hearing in 1950, the FCC sat on the Hush-A-Phone case for five years. Federal agencies have some discretion about when they will decide things, and the FCC elected to stall, allowing AT&T to continue its ban on foreign attachments. It was not until late in 1955 that the FCC issued a brief decision.

AT&T, the federal agency decided, had been right: the Hush-A-Phone was indeed a danger to the telephone system and a nuisance to consumers—“deleterious to the telephone system and injures the service rendered by it,” in the words of the report. More generally, the FCC held that “the unrestricted use of foreign attachments … may result in impairment to the quality and efficiency of telephone service, damage to telephone plant and facilities, or injury to telephone company personnel.”12 The preposterous image of the electrified repairman had apparently sunk in.

The decision was painful and expensive for Tuttle, who had financed the lawsuit himself and devoted years to the case to no avail. When he heard the news Beranek contacted Tuttle and forswore any further royalties due him for inventing the silencer. “I just felt bad for him.” With little left to lose, Tuttle decided to go for broke and appeal the FCC’s decision, again at his own expense. Arguments were heard, and one year later, in 1956, eight years after Tuttle’s initial FCC filing, the D.C. court of appeals released its decision. The panel of federal judges, headed by David Bazelon, reversed the commission and vindicated Tuttle and the Hush-A-Phone.

In a scene reminiscent of the conclusion of Lord of the Flies, the D.C. court administered the judicial version of a reality check on Bell’s tortured logic: “To say that a telephone subscriber may produce the result in question by cupping his hand and speaking into it,” wrote Judge Bazelon, “but may not do so by using a device … is neither just nor reasonable.”13 The court also admonished the FCC for delaying its decision for five years. Finally, in one crucial phrase—one that in time would unravel AT&T, the phrase, in fact, that would result in its eventual breakup—Judge Bazelon affirmed that the subscriber has the “right reasonably to use his telephone in ways which are privately beneficial without being publicly detrimental.”14

With Hush-A-Phone’s modest victory, the door was cracked not only to every manner of ancillary device in the 1970s, but, as we shall see, to the collapse of Bell’s once indomitable empire. Though not without a battle royal: if AT&T was willing to launch a thousand ships to ward off a plastic cup, one can imagine the force that would be brought to bear against a genuine rival in the form of MCI. But in 1956 that eventuality was as yet in the distant future.

Having won its case, Hush-A-Phone ran a series of advertisements proclaiming its device newly approved for use by federal tariff. Unfortunately, it could not keep up with Bell’s own stately pace of product design, and when the phone company began to sell new handsets again, sometime in the 1960s, Hush-A-Phone folded. Such are the wages of stifling innovation: to this day, while the annoyance of mobile phone chatter, the banality of overheard conversations, has become a cliché, there is not a Hush-A-Phone or its equivalent to be found.

Hush-A-Phone’s valiant founder died sometime in the 1970s, to be forgotten, apart from one great cultural reference. In the 1985 film Brazil, Robert De Niro plays a maverick repairman who does unauthorized repairs and leads a resistance movement against a totalitarian state. The hero and hope of that dystopia is named Harry Tuttle.