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The History of the Phone

These days, for better or worse, most people’s lives revolve around the telephone. It tells us when to wake up in the morning, updates us with breaking news and keeps us entertained on the train. Because I’m involved in telemarketing, I probably spend even more time using, answering and thinking about the humble dog and bone than most people.

Tim Newman, Telemarketing Specialist

The Telemarketing Company

Despite the telephone being so incredibly prevalent in modern life, it recently came to my attention that I know very little about its invention and early history. Like most people who paid fleeting attention in their GCSE History classes, I’ve heard of Alexander Graham Bell. Embarrassingly, that one name is where my knowledge begins and ends. So today I decided to shove some fact putty into that particular chink in my brain’s armour.

If you’ve never heard of the “telephone” before, I assume you’re new here. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it…

“…a telecommunications device that permits two or more users to conduct a conversation when they are too far apart to be heard directly.”

So, now we’re all on the same page.

From humble beginnings the telephone has swarmed the earth. We’re all so used to the telephone that we rarely consider how impressive it is that a human voice can be condensed into magical signals and beamed down a wire, or even more amazingly, through thin air.

The earliest versions of the telephone (if you can call them that) were tin cans and a stretched out bit of string. Although we scoff now, at the time it was an idea sparkling with promise.

Some of the earliest experiments into the use of this so-called ‘lover’s phone’ were conducted by British scientist Robert Hooke between 1664 and 1685. Although tin can contraptions are now solely used by children standing a couple of metres apart, at one point in history they were a bustling area of invention. In an attempt to outdo the new fangled electric phone, more than 300 patents were created covering different aspects of the tin can phone.

The most impressive commercially viable version of the tin can phone was invented by the 'Pulsion Telephone Supply Company' of Massachusetts; created in 1888 it was deployed on railroad right-of-ways, with an impressive range of 3 miles.

Around the time of the tin cup revolution, the electrical telegraph was also being trialled. The first ever electrical telegraph was constructed by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and was used on the Great Western Railway in England. It ran for an impressive 13 miles. However, this invention could only transmit a code, e.g. Morse, so I won’t spend too much time talking about it here. Imagine trying to telemarket via Morse code. I don’t think you’d have too much success; the rapport build would be a logistical nightmare.

The invention of the telephone we all know and love is most frequently (in English speaking circles) attributed to Alexander Graham Bell. As with most history, it’s not quite as cut and dried as that.

Charles Bourseul, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, Elisha Gray and reams of others have all been credited with the telephone’s invention at some point or other. At the point in time when the telephone was getting ready for market, there was a huge amount of legal wrangling. Claims and counterclaims. People knew that the telephone was a game changer, and as such would also be incredibly lucrative. Legally, Bell and Edison’s patents stood up, which means they now get the kudos.

Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for an "apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically" was the first of its kind. On the other hand, if you are of German origin, you might well have learned that it was Johann Philipp Reis who invented the true progenitor of the telephone. Although Reis didn’t quite build a usable device, he was a pioneer in the field.

Another major player in the phone wars was an Italian-American inventor, Antonio Meucci, who has been recognised by the U.S. House of Representatives for his contributory work on the telephone.

The arguments and confusion were never fully settled. The true answer it seems, is that many scientists throughout Europe and America invented different technologies, parts or processes (either independently from each other, or inspired by / stolen from each other) which all added up to a functioning phone.

Some of the pivotal moments in the rise of telecommunication were as follows:

  • 1753 - Charles Morrison proposes the idea that electricity can be used to transmit messages by using different wires for each letter.
  • 1854 - Antonio Meucci demonstrates an electric voice-operated device in New York; but it’s not clear what kind of device he used.
  • 1860 - Johann Philipp Reis constructed prototype 'make-and-break' telephones, today called Reis' telephones.
  • 1876 - Elisha Gray designed a telephone using a water microphone in Illinois.
  • 1876 - Tivadar Puskás invented the telephone switchboard exchange.
  • 1877 - Thomas Edison patented a carbon microphone which produced a strong telephone signal. David Edward Hughes, in England, produced a similar product but was too slow on his patent application.
  • 2012 – I downloaded Angry Birds on my Smartphone.

Bell was the Henry Ford of the telephone. He may not have invented the whole thing from scratch, but he was the first to create commercially practical phones. It was Bell and his company that developed the technology and brought minor adaptations which honed the phone’s usability over the following years.

He was the catalyst that moved the telephone from strength to strength after the back-biting of its formative years. Government, business, military, personal; ‘pervasive’ is definitely the word.

You could probably argue that the telephone is one of the most vital inventions of the last few hundred years, at least as far as business is concerned; but I guess there would be a few contenders in that race e.g. the stapler. One thing’s for sure though, the telephone is certainly the most vital bit of technology in the world of telemarketing.

I sometimes like to end these articles with a quote, so here’s one from Fran Lebowitz, American author and public speaker:

"The telephone is a good way to talk to people without having to offer them a drink".

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