Today, we take telephones for granted. You probably have a telephone within arm’s reach as you read this. But just over 100 years ago, the idea of instantly chatting to someone anywhere in the world seemed impossible.
How did someone figure out the technology that makes the telephone possible? Where could telephones take us in the future? Today, we’re going to explain the history of the telephone.
You may already know that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the 1880s. But Bell didn’t invent this device out of thin air: early telephones had started being developed as early as the 1660s.
Yes, these telephones were incredibly primitive compared to Bell’s telephone, but they still deserve to be mentioned.
Mechanical Acoustic Devices
Early telephones are more accurately called “mechanical acoustic devices”. Instead of transforming audio energy into electrical energy, these devices simply transmitted voice data mechanically – like through pipes and other media.
Using these basic devices, users could transmit speech and music over distances greater than you would be able to transmit if you were speaking (or yelling).
One of the best-known examples of this technology is called the tin can telephone, also known as the lover’s phone. It’s the same types of “phones” you created in elementary school when you were younger: you connect two tin cans (or “diaphragms”) using a taut string or wire. The mechanical vibrations from your voice travel down the wire before being converted back into sound energy at the other end of the line.
British physicist Robert Hooke was credited as the first person to invent one of these devices. Between 1664 and 1685, Hooke conducted numerous experiments with these devices. The first telephone-like device, an acoustic string phone, is credited to him in 1667.
1700s: Scientist Theorizes You Can Transmit Messages Through Electricity
In 1753, one Scottish scientist named Charles Morrison proposed an important theory: you could transmit messages through electricity by using different wires for each letter.
Morrison is credited as the first person to theorize that an electric telegraph could exist.
Before We Had Electrical Telephones, We First Needed Electrical Telegraphs
Mechanical devices faced some obvious restrictions. You couldn’t transmit sound over long distances. The sound didn’t come out perfectly. You couldn’t transmit through certain media. And you needed to be physically connected to the other “telephone”.
Inventors knew there had to be a better way. Starting in the 1800s, inventors like Francisco Salva Campillo and Alexander Graham Bell started trying to develop electrical telephones.
Electrical telephones sought to combine the audio transmission technology of mechanical acoustic devices with the long-distance electrical data transmission of the electrical telegraph.
But first, inventors had to create better electrical telegraphs.
In 1804, Catalan scientist and inventor Francisco Salva Campillo created an electrochemical telegraph. In 1832, Baron Schilling improved upon the device. Two German inventors created their own electromagnetic telegraph in 1833. The first working electrical telegraph, however, wasn’t put into place until April 1839 when it was constructed on the Great Western Railway in England.
In 1837, Samuel Morse independently developed his own electrical telegraph and patented the invention in America. His assistant, Alfred Vail, created a Morse code signaling alphabet that could be used to transmit messages electronically. By 1838, Morse had sent America’s first telegram.
Why did we need electrical telegraphs before the telephone? Well, both the telephone and the telegraph are wire-based electrical systems. The telegraph also paved the way for later telephone inventors. As About.com explains, “Alexander Graham Bell’s success with the telephone came as a direct result of his attempts to improve the telegraph.”
By the time Bell began experimenting with using electrical signals to send audio data, the telegraph has been an established means of communication for nearly three decades.
Limitations of the Telegraph: Why Did We Need a Telephone?
One of the more puzzling parts parts about the invention of the telephone (at least to our modern way of thinking) is that when Bell first showed off his telephone, many people argued that we didn’t actually need such a device. Why would you want to hear someone’s voice when you could just send them a telegram instead?
The truth is, the telegraph was an extremely limited system. The telegraph was only popular because it was the only way to transmit messages over long distances at this point in time.
The two biggest problems with the telegraph were its dot and dash Morse code system, which limited the device to only receiving and sending one message at a time, as well as its reliance on physical lines. A break anywhere in the line – including in undersea intercontinental cables – would disable the system.
Telegraphs were also limited by their reliance on repeaters, which needed to be placed along the telegraph line to ensure the signal could reach long distances. Repeaters weren’t just automatic relay stations: they were stations where a technician had to receive the signal, then re-transmit that signal down the line.
Understandably, the world needed a telephone to improve global communications.
Who Invented the Telephone?
If someone asked you who invented the telephone, you’d probably answer Alexander Graham Bell. But just like schoolkids used to learn that Edison invented electricity, this invention story isn’t always true.
The truth is: there were six different inventors working on electrical telephones around this time with high levels of success. As Wikipedia describes it, “The early history of the telephone became and still remains a confusing morass of claims and counterclaims.”
This history is confounded further by the fact that these inventors would later file lawsuits against each other. Claims led to counterclaims and lawsuits failed to clarify who exactly invented what.
Nevertheless, thanks to US patents, we know who invented the telephone from a practical standpoint: the Bell and Edison patents were commercially decisive because they dominated telephone technology. Over the years, these patents would hold up in numerous court decisions across America.
The six inventors typically credited with invented some type of electrical telephony device include:
- Alexander Graham Bell: Bell received the first US patent for the invention of the telephone in 1876. Bell used his own musical or harmony approach as a practical solution to the telegraph’s problems – Bell’s harmonic telegraph was based on the idea that several notes could be sent along the way simultaneously as long as the notes or signals had different pitches.
- Thomas Edison: Edison is credited with inventing the carbon microphone, which “produced a strong telephone signal.”
- Antonio Meucci: In 1854, he constructed telephone-like devices.
- Johann Philipp Reis: In 1860, Reis constructed “Reis” telephones, but stopped just short of making these telephones practical, working devices.
- Elisha Gray: In 1876, Gray used a water microphone to create a telephone in Highland Park, Illinois. Gray and Bell developed their inventions simultaneously and independently, which is why these two would fight a vicious legal battle over who actually invented the telephone (see below).
- Tivadar Puskas: This Hungarian invented the telephone switchboard exchange in 1876.
Out of all the inventors listed above, the biggest contention is whether Bell or Gray invented the telephone. These two were the closest to creating what we know as modern, working telephones.
There has been a significant amount of controversy over the years over whether Bell or Gray invented the phone. The controversy actually went before the Canadian Parliament and United States House of Representatives at one point. I’m not going to go into huge detail here because it’s outside the scope of this article, but you can read up on the Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell telephone controversy here.
Ultimately, we can safely say the telephone is the work of many people. Bell, however, is credited with inventing the first practical, patented telephone – mostly because Bell won the famous legal battle instead of Gray.
Bell Invents the Telephone
Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father and grandfather were considered authorities in elocution and the correction of speech. Bell originally intended to follow in the footsteps of his family, and pursued a career and education in the same specialty.
As one article on Bell explains, “his knowledge of the nature of sound led him not only to teach the deaf, but also to invent the telephone.”
In 1875, Bell was experimenting with his unique “harmonic telegraph” approach. This approach theorized that you could send multiple signals along an electrical wire – as long as those signals differed in pitch.
But on June 2, 1875, Bell hit a breakthrough with his harmonic telegraph. While experimenting, Bell realized he could hear a sound over a wire. The “sound” was a twanging clock spring.
10 months later, Bell achieved greater success. On March 10, 1876, Bell successfully spoke through a telephone to his assistant in the next room, saying:
“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”
The rest is history.
The First Telephone Line is Constructed in 1877
Bell successfully used his telephone invention in 1876. By 1877, construction of the first regular telephone line between Boston and Somerville, Massachusetts had been completed.
Telephone line construction exploded with growth over the next few years. By 1880, there were 47,900 telephones across America. By 1881, telephone service between Boston and Providence had been established. By 1892, a telephone line had been constructed between New York and Chicago. By 1894, New York and Boston were connected.
Transcontinental telephone service, however, remained elusive in the 19th century. Building a wire across the entire length of America didn’t seem practical given the low populations and huge distances out west. Thus, transcontinental service was not established until 1915, when it was completed by overhead wire.
The First Telephone Switchboards
The first telephone switchboard was created at the same time as the first telephone line: 1877 in Boston.
The first telephone switchboard patent, however, was not established until January 17, 1882, when Leroy Firman received the first patent for a telephone switchboard.
By 1971, Erna Schneider Hoover had patented the first computerized telephone exchange.
Bell Telephone Company
Bell Telephone Company – named after Alexander Graham Bell – was established in 1878. Today, we know that company as American Telephone and Telegraph, or AT&T.
Alexander Graham Bell didn’t actually found the company: the company was founded by Bell’s father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard. At first, the company was exclusively founded to hold “potentially valuable patents”, like Bell’s master telephone patent (#174465).
By the middle of 1878, the Bell Telephone Company had 10,000 phones in service. As the company’s subscriber base grew and grew, many Americans accused the company of running a giant monopoly over the American telephone industry.
Bell would face over 600 lawsuits for its allegations of monopolistic practices. It won every one of these lawsuits.
Eventually, that company would sell telephone equipment across America. Later, the company would sell telephones across Europe and other parts of the world.
Why isn’t AT&T an international company today? In 1925, the company was facing considerable criticism from the public for its perceived monopoly. Namely, AT&T was thought to be charging domestic telephone users rates that were “higher than they needed to be” in order to finance overseas operations in Europe and Canada.
Following the U.S. government’s regulatory intervention, AT&T’s president at the time decided to divest all of the company’s international interests in 1925.
The only two international parts of the company that were not divested in 1925 were Bell Telephone Company of Canada (now called Bell Canada) and Northern Electric (now called Nortel).
History of Pay Phones
The world’s first pay phone was created and patented by an inventor named William Gray from Hartford, Connecticut. The pay phone was coin-operated and installed in Hartford Bank in 1889.
Types of Telephones
Over the years, we’ve had a few major types of telephones, including rotary dialing phones, candlestick phones touch tones, and cordless phones.
Exchanges, Tap Dialing, and Rotary Dialing
The first rotary dial was invented in 1896. Prior to that, telephone owners would have to push a button on their telephone the required number of pulses by tapping in order to call a number. Understandably, the rotary dial was seen as a superior alternative to this system. By 1943, the last button tapping telephone had been phased out. Rotary dials worked by generating pulses in a certain frequency range based on where the rotary dial turned.
Candlestick phones were popularized throughout the 1890s to the 1930s. The candlestick phone was separated into two pieces: a mouthpiece that stood upright (“the candlestick”) and a receiver, which was placed in your ear when you were placing a phone call. By the 1930s, these types of phones had phased out of fashion as phone manufacturers started combining the mouth piece and receive into a single unit – a trend that continues to the modern day.
Touch Tone Phones
The first touch tone phone was invented in 1941. These phones used tones in the voice frequency range – much different from the pulses generated by rotary dials. You pressed the buttons on the phone to make a phone call.
Cordless phones started to hit the market in the 1970s. In 1986, the FTC had released the frequency range between 47 and 49 MHz for use by cordless phones.
This wider frequency range meant phones could work wirelessly with less interference and less power required in order to run.
As cordless phones became more and more popular, the FTC would eventually grant more and more frequency range to cordless phones over the years. In 1990, cordless phones received the frequency range of 900 MHz. in 1994 and 1995, digital broad spectrum (DSS) was introduced along with digital cordless phones.
Digital technologies enhanced the security of cordless phones. Instead of messages being transmitted unencrypted through the air, digital technology allowed for greater protection and less unwanted eavesdropping.
In 1998, the FCC granted the frequency range of 2.4 GHz to cordless phones. In 2003, the FCC bumped the upper limit of the frequency range to 5.8 GHz.
The First Cell Phones
Cell phones have obviously exploded with growth over the past 20-odd years. But the first cell phone dates back to post-World War II America.
In 1947, researchers began theorizing that a mobile telephone was possible. They experimented with installing telephones in vehicles. Scientists realized that by using small ranges of service areas while reusing frequency, they could be able to significantly increase the traffic capacity of mobile phones.
It would take about 40 years before the world’s first commercially-available mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC, was released. That phone was about as large as a payphone and looked a lot like a baby monitor.
Prior to the consumer release of the DynaTAC, Martin Cooper had made the world’s first mobile phone call ever using a predecessor of the DynaTAC.
Not just anybody could buy a DynaTAC phone: the phone weighed 1.75 pounds, had 30 minutes of talk time, and cost $3,995.
The First Telephone Book
The first telephone book was released soon after the world’s first telephone line was invented. That first telephone book, released in 1878 by the New Haven District Telephone Company, was just one page long and held 50 names. The book did not list any numbers. If you needed to call someone, you just said that person’s name and the operator would connect you.
That first phone book was divided into four sections for Residential, Professional, Miscellaneous, and “Essential” services listed.
By 1886, entrepreneur Reuben H. Donnelly had produced the first Yellow Pages business directory, which categorized businesses based on the types of products and services provided.