Mark Twain on technology

Mark Twain had a lifelong fascination with technology. He was eager to investigate—and invest in—new technologies of his time, from the early typewriter to the telephone.

He also was an inventor himself, receiving three patents in his lifetime: in 1871 for an adjustable garment strap, in 1873 for a scrapbook with pre-gummed pages, and in 1885 for a board game to teach historical dates and facts. (Read more on the outcome of these inventions here).

Twain in Tesla Lab, 1894
Mark Twain in the lab of Nikola Tesla, 1894. He is holding Tesla’s experimental vacuum lamp, powered by a loop of wire which is receiving electromagnetic energy from a Tesla coil (not visible). Tesla’s face is visible in the background.

As with much of Mark Twain’s writings, while certainly of the time period, the below dictation from Volume 3 of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, reflects topics and themes that remain markedly relevant today.


from the Autobiographical Dictation of Wednesday, March, 27 1907

There is a new invention. Apparently it is a wireless telephone. Everybody can have the machine in his house, and it has one or two advantages over the telephone that uses a wire. For instance: it records the messages which it receives, and it is able to do this when no one is present; therefore you can call up a friend, deliver your message into his house with none to receive it but the machine; when he returns home he can reverse the spool and listen to the message; also it keeps its secrets; they do not pass through a central station to be listened to by the telephone girl and distributed abroad. Some of the Company’s circulars and other advertisements reached me yesterday by mail. I found that I could get a hundred shares of the stock at ten dollars a share, if I wanted it, but that I was not privileged to take any more than that. … Instantly I wanted a hundred of those shares; then I thought, no, I should have to conceal the matter from Mr. Rogers; then, later, I could not keep my secret; I should be sure to reveal it to him, and then there would be sarcasms. However, at this point in my reflections I picked up one of the advertisements which had thitherto escaped me. It was a facsimiled letter from a man of high fame in science, and of acknowledged and unassailable probity. In this letter he asked for a hundred shares, and said that he wanted to use them in rectification of a mistake which he made twenty-eight years ago when twenty-five hundred shares of Bell Telephone stock were offered to him for five hundred dollars and he didn’t take them. Dear me, I knew how that poor wise ass was feeling! His wail brought back to me my own experience of twenty-nine years ago with Bell Telephone stock—an experience which I have already recorded, with many pangs, in one of the early chapters of this Autobiography. He remarked in his letter that if he had taken the twenty-five hundred shares it would have paid him twenty million dollars before this. It hurt me to the marrow to hear this man go into these quite unnecessary particulars, for it called back to my memory, out of that distant past, how in 1877 or ’78 I had twenty-three thousand dollars in my pocket which I had no particular use for, and the Bell Telephone people tried to trade me a couple of tons of stock for it. I was fully as wise as this other smarty, and they did not succeed; but if they had succeeded I would pay off our national debt now, and let the country take a fresh start.

Upon reflection, I sent a thousand dollars this morning and captured a hundred shares of this gamble. I was not going to be caught out again. I shall not live to pay the national debt, but in my dying moments I shall instruct Clara and Jean to attend to it.

Below is the explanatory note from the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3 regarding the above dictation. Also note that today the terms “cell phone” and “wireless phone” are synonymous, but where “cell” implies orbiting satellites, “wireless” is just the old word for radio, which is what’s in question here.

wireless telephone . . . records the messages which it receives] Clemens refers to the Telegraphone, invented in 1898 by Valdemar Poulsen (1869–1942) of Denmark. It was not itself a telephone, but rather a device that could be attached to a telephone to record messages; it could also be used for dictation (see also the note at 3.18). Clemens’s confusion is understandable. In late 1906 and early 1907 the newspapers printed numerous articles about the invention and development of wireless transmission of the voice. The technology, however, was still impractical for widespread use because of its limited range. In 1903 Poulsen had patented an arc-transmitter that could increase the range, and he licensed the rights to several companies that made premature claims of commercial success to attract investors. Within about ten years the arc-transmitter was made obsolete by vacuum-tube technology (“American Telegraphone Company Introduces Wonderful Invention,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 Mar 1907, 32; “May Telephone Across Ocean,” Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb 1907, 14; Thomas H. White 2012).