A brief history of the telephone

A telecommunication device which converts sound into electric pulses, thus permitting conversation between two or more persons over long distances is called the telephone. There is a long history that took place before the modern phones appeared.

The first devices that existed for transmitting speech were mechanical acoustic devices. The “lover’s phone”(the acoustic tin can telephone), for example, connects two diaphragms, along with the wire, by connecting the bottoms of two metal cans.

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Among the earliest known experiments, an acoustic string phone, which was made in 1667, is attributed to  British physicist and polymath Robert Hooke.

 Bell System (1877). Photo Credit


This old device it is only decorative and doesn’t work. Photo Credit

After those devices were invented, electromagnetic telephones emerged from the improvements of the electrical telegraph, and the list of inventors is pretty long. In 1816, the English inventor Francis Ronalds made the first working telegraph.

Alfred Vail, who was the assistant of Samuel Morse (who patented the electric telegraph in 1837), developed a signaling alphabet with Morse that came to be known as Morse code, and the first Morse telegram in America was sent on January 6, 1838.

Model of an old telephone. Photo Credit

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The microphone (transmitter) and an earphone (receiver) are the essential elements of the device that we call telephone.


Old candlestick telephone at Tallahassee Auto Museum. Photo Credit

For the invention of the phone, a significant number of inventors have been credited. However, in the history of the telephone, a few individuals should be mentioned above others including Antonio Meucci, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Bourseul, Elisha Gray, Innocenzo Manzetti and Johann Philipp Reis.

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The microphone (transmitter) and an earphone (receiver) are the essential elements of the telephone. The microphone is there to transmit the speech, and the earphone is a receiver that allows the reproduction of the voice in a distant location. To announce an incoming telephone call, the device contains a ringer which produces a sound. There is also dial or keypad for entering the number of another phone.

Wooden wall telephone with a hand-cranked magneto generator, Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Calcutta. Photo Credit


One of the earliest models of telephone, by the Edison Company. Photo Credit

The earliest telephones were directly connected to each other. For example, from one customer’s residence to another customer’s location. These systems were very impractical because they only involve a few customers. Therefore, those devices were quickly replaced with a landline telephone service that connected each telephone to a local central office switching system. In the early 1900s this was developed into a fully automated system.

Old Telephone Exchange from Quandialla Post Office. Photo Credit


An old telephone switchboard. Photo Credit

The term “telephone” was also used for other devices before the development of the cordless telephone. The instrument that used air horns to communicate between sailing vessels was called “The Telephone” and it was invented by Captain John Taylor in 1844. The first device that was based on turning sound into electrical impulses was “the Reis telephone,” which was designed by Johann Philipp Reis in 1860.

The design of  the Johann Philipp Reis telephone.

The first inventor to be awarded a patent by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for the electric telephone was Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. To commemorate his innovation, there is the Bell Memorial, designed by Walter Seymour Allward and located in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell.


Workers of French company Societé Pantélephone L. de Lochet et Cie with the first telephones in Argentina, 1881. 

There are a lot of interesting facts about the telephone and the history of its invention and use and some of them are worthy of note. For example, the first to suggest the idea of an electric telephone was Innocenzo Manzetti in 1844. The Reis telephone transferred voice electrically over a distance of 340 feet in 1861. On 10 March 1876, by using a liquid transmitter, Bell, for the first time, transmits speech, with the sentence “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!”.

The phone used by American soldiers in WWII (Museum and Library of Minalin). Photo Credit


A Telephone made out of bakelite from the 1940s. Photo Credit


Old telephones at Danmarks Tekniske Museum. Photo Credit

On 1 July 1881, the world’s first international telephone call was made. In 1919, in Norfolk, Virginia, rotary dial telephones were installed in the Bell System for the first time. In the United States, in 1937, the Electric type 302 telephone becomes available. The first commercial mobile phone call was made in 1946. Five decades ago, almost every household had a telephone, and today the whole population is frequently contacted by this device.