On July 18, 1877, Thomas Alva Edison shouted “Halloo!” into the mouthpiece of his newly invented strip phonograph, a word commonly used to incite hounds to the chase. It’s linguistic cousins, hilla, hillo, and halloa, served the same purpose for hailing someone or something from a distance. The British “hullo,” which also dates from the mid-19th century, was likewise not used as a greeting but as an expression of surprise, as in “Hullo, what have we here?”
As hard as it is to imagine, before the invention of the telephone in 1876, “hello” wasn’t a proper or even casual greeting whatsoever!
Although Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, it was Thomas Edison’s company that equipped the device and supplied the first operating manuals across the United States. For its early subscribers, the telephone was nothing more than a permanently open line without even a “call bell” to request engagement. In a standoff between the two inventors, Mr. Bell insisted the nautical address “Ahoy” was the correct way a “caller” should get the attention of a person on the other end of the line. Mr. Edison preferred “Hello” be put in the instructions along with “That is all” for ending an exchange. Edison reasoned that “Hello” could be heard from a distance of 10-20 feet and was better than calling out “Are you there?” or the receiver simply asking, “What is it that you want?”
By the time of the National Convention of Telephone Companies in 1880, “Hello” had won out. Minutes from the meeting record the president as saying, “The shortest speech that I could make to you and that would express a great deal to you, probably would be the one that is on all your badges – Hello!”