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History of the Telephone

The history of the telephone is a long and winding road from the first mechanical devices to the modern smart phone.

History of the Telephone

History of the Telephone: Mechanical Devices

Mechanical devices including voice tubes were employed aboard ships, trains, and even in homes. The mechanical voice tube had long piping connecting one area to another. Users of voice tubes essentially shouted in one end while someone on the other end listened. This allowed the passing of orders and requests without running from one end of a ship or house to the other.

In some cases, these mechanical tubes are said to have been placed between houses so illicit lovers might communicate. The connection of two cans with a taut string between them allowed the mechanical transmission of sound waves. However, these mechanical devices were only the beginning.

Telegraph to Telephone

The invention of the telegraph system allowed the transmission of coded beeps and blips across long distances. Telegrams shortened the time it took to get messages across vast distances, particularly in the United States where news and information could take months and sometimes years to travel from one coast to the other. The electromagnetic telegraph came into high use in the early 1800s and the telephone was not far behind.

The history of the telephone is a muddied business when looking for someone to credit with the invention of the telephone. Among those credited are:

  • Charles Bourseul
  • Antonio Meucci
  • Johann Philipp Reis
  • Alexander Graham Bell
  • Elisha Gray
  • Tivadar Puskas
  • Thomas Edison

The most familiar and most often-associated name with the history of telephone in the United States is Alexander Graham Bell. Meucci constructed a telephone device as early as 1854. Reis developed a make or break type telephone in 1860. Gray began using a water microphone in 1876. Bell filed for and was awarded a patent for a telephone invention in 1876. Puskas and Edison would improve upon Bell's patent with the telephone switchboard and carbon microphone respectively.

All of these men contributed to the history of the telephone as a product of human ingenuity. The invention of the telephone changed how people could communicate, allowing families to contact each other over great distances. However, 1877 was still a long way from a telephone in every home.

Coast-to-Coast and Crossing Borders

Despite the controversy associated with Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, he continued to contribute to telephone history. In 1915, he and his assistant shared the first coast-to-coast telephone call. Bell was in New York while his assistant was in California. The United States led the world in the density of available telephones, most were connected via large telephone switchboards. Phone usage would stretch across borders with World War I and II. The ability of Generals and military personnel to telephone their superiors increased the flow of information.

In the 1960s, rotary telephones were gradually replaced by touch-tone technology. The first steps towards mobile phones began with the permanent fixture of radios in police cars and taxicabs. While the technology to support mobile phones remained some time in the future, the plans, ideas, and need continued to grow.

In the 1970s, the telephone would pair with another up and coming technology: the computer.

Internet Protocols and Microchips

Microchip technology would advance the mechanical and electromagnetic technology. On April 3, 1973, a Motorola manager placed the first cellular phone call to the head of AT&T's Bell Labs research. New designs included telephone cable buried underground rather than strung just pole to pole allowing for stronger, and more certain connectivity. Television cable companies soon took advantage of this by adding new television programming and more.

Cable companies would eventually join the more traditional phone companies in offering telephone service by the end of the 1980s and beginning of the early 1990s. Throughout the late 70s and 80s, computers were able to talk to each other via modems. The first BBS (bulletin board systems) were created, allowing users to "dial up" their connection and communicate via message boards on the BBS.

America Online became one of the first Internet companies, along with CompuServe, to offer customers dial up service to their online content, which contributed to the spread of cable lines, Internet backbone servers, and more.

Today, satellite connections and wireless phone service are available at an inexpensive rate. A telephone in every city became a telephone in every home to now a telephone in every pocket. The telephone continues to be at the center of human ingenuity with the 21st century introducing the smart phones – phones that act as computers, cameras, recorders, video players, and more.