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Invention Of Telephone Life History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Humans are termed as “social beings”- aptly reflected since times immemorial- when they strived to communicate with one another, whether they are residing in close proximity or at a distance.

Prehistoric men had limited means of communication with those residing outside their reach But this hurdle was overcome to some extent by taming animals which could carry them both, for exploration and communication.

This quest for communicating led primitive humans to develop techniques that were effective and relied on resources available during that era.

Discovery that fire could be controlled and hence, smoke, which can be seen from a distance, can be used to overcome the hurdle of travelling sometimes over rough terrain, encouraged these humans to develop smoke signals- a method of relaying messages, that was in use as recently as early 1900s- by aborigines and indigenous races in colonized nations- such as the Red Indians.

Smoke signals however had severe limitations since they could be viewed over a limited area. Strong winds, rains and inclement weather rendered it impossible to send smoke signals. Further, such messages could only be sent and received during daytime due to limitations of the human vision.

As mankind evolved and developed, humans learnt that light travels fast and can be easily viewed at night, leading to the development of fire signals. The inherent characteristic of light signals (fire) is, it could overcome climatic hurdles. Yet, fire or light also had severe limitations: the messages could not be viewed during the day.

Thunder and lightning possibly influenced the development of fire signals, since these natural phenomena can be observed over a great distance. Sound overcomes all barriers posed by climate and time. Hence, messages relayed using sounds, usually through drums of those eras, was invented.

Sound signals or messages, though used by certain under developed and hitherto unknown communities till World War-II, had two distinct disadvantages: the range they could cover was limited and such messages offered little or no privacy. Communities had to rely on a few people who could decipher these messages and relay what they mean, to others.

As primitive humans developed and organized themselves into large societies, communications evolved drastically. Historians claim that various advanced ancient civilizations around the world communicated with distant communities as early as 3000BC using human messengers carrying stone tablets engraved with hieroglyphics or other contemporary scripts.

Around 3BC, Egyptians invented papyrus, the precursor for modern day paper, and used it to send ancient letters. Papyrus, being light weight, could be carried easily over long distances. But sending humans to deliver a message often meant the messenger had to travel over rough and sometimes hostile terrain, causing delays and sometimes, fatalities. Human messengers could also be waylaid, especially if they were carrying secret messages.

Around 1150 AD, various ancient civilizations found that birds such as falcons and pigeons could be effectively used to carry messages written on lightweight papyrus or cloth. Due to their ability to fly, birds could reach their destinations faster and were immune to hazards posed by the weather, terrain and human marauders. Yet, birds too had physical limitations since they could not fly great distances, could be preyed upon by a larger avian or shot down by skilled archers.

Ancient Chinese and Mongols attempted to use rockets, a precursor to modern-day flares, to send messages, especially during wars. But these rockets betrayed troop formations due to the trail of smoke and fire, indicating the locations from which they were launched, hence rendering the senders, prone to enemy attacks. The quest for quicker, efficient means of communicating continued over centuries, giving rise to the postal system, flag and light signals (Semaphore) and other rudimentary forms.

* The 19th century saw the invention of the electrical telegraph (a method of sending messages across huge distances using electrical pulses). But the human quest was to create that ultimate machine that would enable voice to be relayed between two places- to add that personal touch to instant communications. This encouraged scientists to imagine, conceptualize and eventually, develop the telephone, as we know it today- from humble roots to a luxury and finally, a necessity for modern man, as the next generations would embark on a long voyage of discovery and inventions as never chronicled before in history of this planet.

The beginning…

Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and scientist, had predicted the invention of the telephone in his book New Utopia in 1627, though it took another couple of centuries for his vision to be realized.

And Bacon’s vision bore fruition in England in 1729 when chemist, Stephen Gray, transmitted electricity over a wire, sending charges nearly 300 feet over brass wire and moistened thread.

In 1745-1746, Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek and Ewald Georg von Kleist, a German physicist, separately invented a kind of battery for storing static electricity which was called the Leyden jar. Though crude, the Leyden jar was used for several years for experiments and demonstrations for sending signals using electricity.

In 1753, Scots physician Charles Morrison conceptualized transmitting messages through electrical currents. His scheme was to use different wires to represent each letter of the alphabet. An electrostatic generator (a mechanical device that produces static electricity) would electrify the wire which represented the particular letter to be messaged.

The wire at the other side would end with a bit of paper which would be attracted by a static charge. By observing which paper letter was attracted, it was possible to send out a message. Despite the process being painfully slow, for several years people used such type of crude telegraphs.

The first break

Despite limited successes initially, the momentum picked up in 1820 when Danish physicist Christian Oersted discovered the principle of electromagnetism. In a famous experiment at his classroom at the University of Copenhagen, Christian put a compass under a live electric wire. This caused the compass to move its direction from pointing north as if under the control of a larger magnet.

A year later, British scientist Michael Faraday reversed Oersted’s experiment and discovered induction, successfully getting weak current to flow in a wire revolving around a magnet. Faraday had thus built the world’s first electric generator. This was a valuable find since humans now possessed the technology, though primordial, to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy.

A different ‘tele’

In 1830, in the US, Professor Joseph Henry succeeded in transmitting the first practical electrical signal. In a spectacular demonstration at his Albany Academy classroom, Joseph first proceeded to create an electromagnet by winding an iron bar with multiple reels of wire. He placed a steel bar mounted on a pivot and a bell near the electro-magnet, with wires connected to a battery.

When the wires were connected to a battery completing the circuit, The steel bar veered towards the magnet hitting the bell at the same time. When the connection was broken, the bar was released and it could be struck again.

However, Professor Henry did not continue his work on electrical signals but his experiments influenced the famed Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the American scientist who created the Morse Code. Morse had a fascination for electricity. In 1832, he learned about Faraday’s work on induction and procured an electromagnet. Morse worked with Henry to invent first workable telegraph in 1837.

The Morse telegraph used a switch, now called the Morse Key or break the electrical connection. Other equipment included a battery, a single wire for connecting various telegraph stations and an electromagnetic sounder which produced a clicking noise on being pressed on and off.

His system or language of dots and dashes was called as Morse code, and is used in radio communications till date. However it was limited to Western Union, the world’s largest money transfer company a few large corporations. But, the hunger for voice communications was not yet satiated though significant strides towards this direction commenced shortly thereafter.

Talking through electricity?

The mankind’s endeavour to transmit voice using electrical signals gathered momentum almost immediately. Charles Bourseul, a French inventor and engineer wrote about this idea in a well circulated article in 1854. His scheme was the development of a flexible disk which would make and break an electrical circuit to reproduce sound. However, he never pursued this idea further.

In 1861, Johann Phillip Reis, a German physicist and school teacher, developed the first electromagnetic device which could transmit sound. The first sentence spoken on it was “Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat” (the horse doesn’t eat cucumber salad). Reis’s device, which he had named the “telefon” (Germanic version of derived of the Greek words ‘tele’ means ‘distance’and ‘phon” or ‘fon’ meaning voice or sound) used a cork, a knitting needle, a sausage skin and a piece of platinum.

But unfortunately the Reis telephone could only transmit some sounds; reproduction of comprehensible speech was beyond its ability. The Reis transmitter diaphragm -a thin flexible disk that vibrated when struck by sound waves or that vibrates to generate sound waves) depended on making and breaking contact with the electrical based on Bourseul’s earlier theory.

However, Reis’ concept was flawed: To convey speech, the transmitter needed to make continuous contact with the electrical circuit. The transmitter had to vary the current depending upon the amount of vocal pressure it received.

Across the Atlantic, in the US, scientists were working towards the same goal: transmitting voice over a distance. Among these were Alexander Graham Bell, now acclaimed as the Father of the Telephone

Of accidents and mistakes

Bell, a speech professor, hailed from a family involved with music and vocal sciences. His entire upbringing and education revolved around sound and invention of the telephone was his life’s main objective.

During the day he taught the deaf to speak at the Boston College and at night he worked on a device that he called a harmonic or musical telegraph.

Bell was not alone: there were many interested in improving telegraphy for which there was a ready market.

The buzz word in those days was ‘multiple telegraphy.’ If multiple messages could be sent over a single wire at the same time it would translate to a huge saving for the telegraph company and it’s inventor could expect rich rewards.

Bell deployed of his knowledge of acoustics (the science of sound or the sense of hearing) to develop his harmonic telegraph. His plan for sending multiple messages simultaneously was to vary the musical pitch of the messages. At the same time, young Bell was also working on a device called the phono-autograph which was a teaching aid for the deaf.

This ghastly device was fashioned out of a dead man’s ear. When someone spoke into the device, the ear’s membrane would vibrate which would in turn move a lever.The lever wrote a wavelike pattern of the speech on smoked glass. Though disgusting, it helped Bell understand the concept of variable resistance.

Bell discovered he could make a speaking telegraph by simply varying the intensity of current with the spoken word, without breaking the circuit. However, this was just the easy part. Making it work properly took him another two years!

Meanwhile, Bell’s work on the harmonic telegraph drew attention from Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a famous Boston lawyer as well as head of Clarke School for the Deaf and a wealthy businessman, George Sanders. Both sensed that Bell would probably succeed and hence began funding him on the agreement that the fruits of any patents which Bell developed would be shared equally within the trio.

Bell continued working without any significant breakthrough until Spring 1875, when he met Joseph Henry- who had helped Morse with the telegraph. Surprisingly, Henry was not interested in Bell’s telegraphy work but he found his idea of transmitting speech electrically “the germ of a great invention.” The young professor confided in Henry that he lacked the necessary electrical knowledge to develop a mechanism to transmit speech. Henry encouraged Bell with the words: “Get it!” This spring also saw the entry of a talented young machinist named Thomas A. Watson as Bell’s assistant.


June 2, 1875: The first landmark: Bell and Watson conducting tests on the telegraph. Watson had been trying to send a telegraph signal across to Bell in the other room when one of the metal wires, which was part of their equipment, got entangled. Watson plucked to free it causing a sharp ‘twang’. Bell scurried from the other room where he had heard the sound of the cable being un-plucked on his receiver.

But how was that possible? Bell’s telegraph like all of its predecessors was made on the concept of turning the electric current on and off.

At the time of the “twang” episode, one of the contact screws was wound too tightly thereby allowing a current to pass unhindered.

Bell quickly comprehended what had happened and decided use the accidental phenomena to his advantage. Next day, full of high hopes, they constructed a model which was called the “Gallows” telephone owing to its distinct shape. But the instrument failed to work. Bitterly disappointed, Bell continued experimenting without much progress till end of 1875.

Next year, he penned a telephone patent application, though he had not succeeded in making a workable device

Fortunately for Bell, existing laws did not stipulate that the application also include a working model with the patent application. The patent application was filed on February 14, 1876. To Bell’s fortune, a caveat (an application filed for ideas that an inventor planned to patent in the future which gave the filer the right to be notified of any patent applications for similar inventions) outlining a device which would transmit speech, was filed only hours later by Elisha Gray, an accomplished electrician

Gray’s gadget worked on the principle of the “lover’s telegraph” where two people can talk to each other without anyone listening in by means of two cans connected via a string if proper amount of tension is sustained. To this day, mystery shrouds Bell’s patent application and what actually happened during that day. Some scholars believe, Bell was shown Gray’s caveat and allowed to change his application.

What adds weight to this belief is, the principle of variable resistance in Bell’s application was written in a margin, somewhat like an afterthought. No drawings of the same appeared in Bell’s patent but featured prominently in Gray’s.

On March 10, 1876, a week after his patent was allowed Bell, succeeded in transmitting speech at his laboratory at 5 Exeter Place. Bell bellowed into the microphone “Mr Watson-come here-I want to see you.” To which Watson replied that he had heard and understood what Bell had said. It is claimed, Bell used a liquid transmitter for this experiment-something which did not appear in his patent but was described in Gray’s caveat. But lo and behold- the world’s first telephone- the first working prototype- was born. Man had conquered nature once again for his benefit.

Hello telephone!

The world’s first ever telephone was rather an unwieldy looking machine, consisting of a funnel attached to a small diaphragm. When someone shouted into the funnel, it caused the diaphragm to move. The diaphragm was fixed to a wire which floated in an acid filled metal cup. The cup was electrified by a battery. Another wire in the cup led to a distant receiver. With sound, the wire moved up and down changing the resistance in the cup. This changing current was transmitted to the receiver, causing the membrane there to vibrate which led to the reproduction of sound.

Bell soon improved this crude model using an electromagnetic transmitter, a metal diaphragm and a permanent magnet. The duo worked non-stop to improve their telephone. On October 9, 1876, they made their longest call, covering a distance of about 2 miles but the due were ecstatic and indulged in a raucous celebration that ended in the wee hours the next day, amidst threats from their land lady to evict the two pioneers from her premises..

But Bell and Watson’s euphoria was short lived. When their achievement was publicized, the general sentiment that prevailed was: ‘Who needs a telephone?’ Another major hindrance was the number of companies mushrooming to sell telephones and telephone services despite Bell’s patent which broadly covered the entire gamut of speech transmission through electricity.

Lawsuits and courts loomed ahead. Fearing a financial debacle, Bell’s backers offered to sell their telephone patent rights to Western Union in fall 1876 for $100,000. But Western Union was not interested. Further woes followed: On April 27, 1877, the American inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison filed a patent application for an improved voice transmitter made with carbon. This transmitter relied on carbon’s peculiar property of varying its conductivity to electricity in response to pressure and hence, was a major breakthrough that made the telephone a practical device.

On July 9, 1877, Sanders, Hubbard and Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company. In September that year, Western Union eyed the telephone industry and entered the fray, for what was to prove, a lucrative market. But Rather than buying patent rights or licenses from Bell, they decided to buy them from others and launch their own telephone company. During the 17 years that Bell was legally supposed to hold monopoly, around 1700 telephone companies were in operation.

In December 1877, using Elisha Gray’s patent Western Union formed the American Speaking Telephone Company. The biggest selling point of it’s telephones were Edison transmitters.

Bell responded by incorporating an improved transmitter in their phones invented by physicist Francis Blake. The power of the telephone was at work. In less than a year since its commercial entry, it had captured the minds of companies and public alike. Owning a telephone was considered prestigious, causing a surge in its demand and consequently, encouraging scientists to develop supporting infrastructure such as telephone exchanges, undersea links and specialized ships to lay them, high density, tensile and weather resistant copper cable and eventually, fibre optic, microwave and satellite telecommunications technology.

Nips and tweaks

The first commercial switchboard began operation in New Haven, Connecticut on January 28 1878. It served 21 telephones on 8 lines,

The first switching board operators were teenage boys. However their impolite manners forced companies to replace them with females who trained to be ‘calm and gracious.’

On February 21, 1878, the world’s first telephone directory was published- a single paper which contained only fifty names.

Till 1880, telephones were not equipped with a ringer to alert the receiver about an incoming call. The caller had to tap the phone with a hammer hoping that someone would be around at the receiver’s end to hear it. This situation changed when Thomas Watson filed a patent for a ringer on 1 August 1878. Understandably, the ringer was a runaway success.

In September 1878, the Bell Company filed a suit against the mammoth Western Union for patent infringement which they won in November 1879.

Western Union had to give up all its telephone patents and the 56,000 phones under its service. In return, it got to have 20 % of Bell rentals for the 17 years till Bell had its patents.

In 1881, the concept of metallic circuit was introduced which was a major milestone for the telephone. In a metallic circuit, each telephone is connected by two wires as opposed to the single wire grounded connection prevalent till that time.

The electrical circuit in the single wire was complete as the wire at each end was earthed. But the same ground was also being used by houses, factories and telegraph companies to earth their electrical circuits creating a lot of noise. The metallic circuit completed the circuit by using two wires, avoiding the ground altogether and also the noise and disturbance.

1889 saw the entry of the first coin operated telephone or pay phone patented by William Gray of Connecticut. But there was still scope for a lot of improvement. One important breakthrough came in the year 1891. Almon Strowger; a Kansas City undertaker was fed up with his local switchboard exchange as many incoming calls meant for him where routed by a woman handling the exchange of his competitor, who was the supposedly her husband.

Goaded by frustration, Strowger invented an automatic telephone that could dial a number itself with push buttons removing the need of an exchange for making local calls. He is also credited with having created a telephone exchange, the Strowger type, that dispensed with the need for manual connection between two phones. Most older, US-made exchanges were patented under the Bell name.

Several other inventors developed different types of telephone exchanges such as the Crossbar and its variants, analogue exchanges were made by multinationals such as Alcatel, AT&T, Siemens and others, who eventually developed the technology further to digital exchanges enabling service providers to offer enhanced facilities such as call forwarding, call barring, Caller Line Identification and Presentation and others.

Soonw, improving the signals took centre stage. In 1899, Michael Pupin, a Serbian physicist and chemist, developed loading coils or inductors. Placed along the circuit in a telephone line, this device greatly reduced the loss of signals over long distances.

Developments, decline and a new kind of phone

In 1906, long distance communication received another boost when the eccentric American inventor Lee De Forest invented a triode in a vacuum tube, a device which amplified signals over long distances it helped to make transcontinental telephone service possible.

In 1915, Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental call to Thomas Watson from New York to San Francisco using De Forest’s triodes. Bell asked: “Mr. Watson, are you there?” and Watson replied that he was and he had heard distinctly.

In 1920, AT&T developed the frequency multiplexing concept which allowed electronic shifting of frequencies across various frequency bands. This allowed several telephone calls to be made at the same time. Till then, operator assistance was required for making an outstation call. This changed in 1951 when in a test in Englewood, New Jersey, the customers were able to make calls anywhere within the United States on their own, without operator assistance. However, it took another decade to make this service available throughout the United States.

The year 1956 saw the installation of the first transatlantic telephone cable-the TAT-1, from Scotland to Nova Scotia, North America and the United Kingdom were finally connected telephonically. Soon, Germany, France and Netherlands were also linked.

In 1962, the first digital transmission system (technology which breaks the voice signal into binary format in a series of “0s” and “1s”) began which later went on to replace the existing analogue system (technology which translates the voice signal into electronic pulses).

A year later, the first touch tone telephones were introduced which used Dual Tone Multi Frequency (DTMF). The touch tone telephones were much better than the existing rotary phones in telephone switching or simply put in connecting a call from one telephone to the other. When the user touches a button on the phone’s keypad a tone is emitted which is heard by the system to which he is connected.

In 1965, the first electronic central office switching system, the 1 ESS, got operational in New Jersey at a cost of $500 million! Electronic switching replaced the earlier electromagnetic switches which were rather unreliable. Also, the ESS had features such as call forwarding and speed dialling. In 1973, the first portable cell phone call was made by Martin Cooper of Motorola to his rival Joel Engel at Bell Labs. In 1978, public testing of a new cellular phone system started in Chicago by AT&T and Bell Labs. It was followed up in 1981 by a trial by Motorola and the American Radio Telephone Service in the Washington Baltimore area.

In 1982, the Federal Communications Commission approved commercial cellular phone service and by the late 1980s this service became available in most parts of the US.

In 1989, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and its associates in the US developed the World Wide Web or the Internet. In the initial stage, users had to connect to the Internet using dial-up connections that worked through telephone lines.

The 1990s brought with it a completely new type of technology, the Voice Over Internet Protocols (VoIP), a system which allowed users to make voice calls over the Internet at a much lower cost or fre.

The turn of the century saw an entirely changed picture with over 500 million cell phone subscribers which has increased to a whopping 6 billion by 2012; with the world population at 7 billion.

In early 2000s, a new system called the Triple Play was developed in Europe allowing service providers to offer a land-line telephone, high-speed Internet connection and cable TV through a single dedicated cable installed at the subscriber’s premises and connected to the nearest telephone exchange.


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