Unless it turns out that Alexander Graham Bell didn't really want to see Watson - that he was just goofing on the guy - then the first documented prank phone call would appear to have occurred about eight years after that famous 1876 exchange ... and at the expense of an undertaker in Providence, R.I.
This little-known nugget of telecommunications history comes from the Feb. 2, 1884 edition of The Electrical World, via Google Books, and was unearthed by Paul Collins, an associate professor of English at Portland State University, who is perhaps better known as The Literary Detective. The image above is difficult to read, so here's what it says:
"A GRAVE JOKE ON UNDERTAKERS -- Some malicious wag at Providence R.I. has been playing a grave practical joke on the undertakers there, by summoning them over the telephone to bring freezers, candlesticks and coffin for persons alleged to be dead. In each case the denoument was highly farcical, and the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lively manner for that telephonist."
Think about that: All it took was eight years for some 19th Century Bart Simpson to cast aside any respect or wonderment there may have been for this technological marvel and transform the telephone into an instrument of tomfoolery. By way of comparison, it was fully twice that long after the launch of the World Wide Web before someone executed the first Rickroll.
When I first stumbled across the "Grave Joke on Undertakers" picture, and traced it back to Collins, I couldn't help but notice that his biography described him as a teacher of "creative non-fiction writing." Already suspicious of the prank report's authenticity, I wrote to Collins and asked him outright if he was pulling the Internet's leg. His reply:
"I have a pretty uncreative notion of the line between fact and fiction; what I write might use narrative technique, but I stick to the facts. The find in that (photo) wound up becoming a piece for the online journal Defunct, which covers some other early examples of prank-call history. ... There's not any question of authenticity."
Sure enough, you can read the prank-call history story - headlined "Prince Albert in a Can" -- in the November 2011 edition of Defunct. And Google Books has the 1884 item from The Electrical World here.
So has anyone stepped forward to claim an older example?
"As far as I know," says Collins, "nobody's found one yet."
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