The following is Part 1 in a series on the history of the telephone, mostly from an American perspective. These pages are researched and written by Tom Farley and the original can be found at privateline.com
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Telephone History Part 1: Introduction
Tom Farley’s Telephone History Series Part 1
Telephone History Part 1 — to 1830
“The inventor is a man who looks around upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses him, seeking materialization.” Alexander Graham Bell (1891)
On March 10, 1876, in Boston, Massachusetts, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Thomas Watson fashioned the device itself; a crude thing made of a wooden stand, a funnel, a cup of acid, and some copper wire. But these simple parts and the equally simple first telephone call — “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!” — belie a complicated past. Bell filed his application just hours before his competitor, Elisha Gray, filed notice to soon patent a telephone himself. What’s more, though neither man had actually built a working telephone, Bell made his telephone operate three weeks later using ideas outlined in Gray’s Notice of Invention, methods Bell did not propose in his own patent.
Intrigue aside for now, the story of the telephone is the story of invention itself. Bell developed new and original ideas but did so by building on older ideas and developments. Bell succeeded specifically because he understood acoustics, the study of sound, and something about electricity. Other inventors knew electricity well but little of acoustics. The telephone is perhaps a shared accomplishment among many pioneers although the credit and rewards were not shared equally. That, too, is often the story of invention.
Telephone comes from the Greek word tele, meaning from afar, and phone, meaning voice or voiced sound. Generally, a telephone is any device which conveys sound over a distance. A string telephone, a megaphone, or a speaking tube might be considered telephonic instruments but for our purposes they are not telephones. These transmit sound mechanically and not electrically. How’s that?
Speech is sound in motion. Talking produces acoustic pressure. Speaking into the can of a string telephone, for example, makes the line vibrate, causing sound waves to travel from one end of the stretched line to the other. A telephone by comparison, reproduces sound by electrical means. What the Victorians called “talking by lightning.”
A standard dictionary defines the telephone as “an apparatus for reproducing sound, especially that of the voice, at a great distance, by means of electricity; consisting of transmitting and receiving instruments connected by a line or wire which conveys the electric current.” Electrical current 1) operates the telephone and 2) your voice varies that current to communicate.
Unlike the above diagram, modern telephones don’t use carbon in their handsets. They use electret microphones for the transmitter and piezoelectric transducers for receivers but the principle described in the image above is the same. Sound waves picked up by an electret microphone causes “a thin, metal-coated plastic diaphragm to vibrate, producing variations in an electric field across a tiny air gap between the diaphragm and an electrode.”[The Britannica] A piezoelectric transducer uses material which converts the mechanical stress of a sound wave upon it into a varying electrical signal.
With the electrical point established, let’s look at telephone history.
Telephone history begins at the start of human history. Man has always wanted to communicate from afar. People have used smoke signals, mirrors, jungle drums, carrier pigeons and semaphores to get a message from one point to another. But a phone was something new. Some say Francis Bacon predicted the telephone in 1627, however, his book New Utopia only described a long speaking tube. A real telephone could not be invented until the electrical age began. And even then it didn’t seem desirable. The electrical principles needed to build a telephone were known in 1831 but it wasn’t until 1854 that Bourseul suggested transmitting speech electrically. And it wasn’t until 22 years later in 1876 that the idea became a reality. But before then, a telephone might have been impossible to form in one’s consciousness.
While Da Vinci predicted flight and Jules Verne envisioned space travel, people did not lie awake through the centuries dreaming of making a call. How could they? With little knowledge of electricity, let alone the idea that it could carry a conversation, how could people dream of a telephonic future? Who in the fifteenth century might have imagined a pay phone on the street corner or a fax machine on their desk? You didn’t have then, an easily visualized goal among people like powered flight, resulting in one inventor after another working through the years to realize a common goal. Telephone development instead was a series of often disconnected events, mostly electrical, some accidental, that made the telephone possible. I’ll cover just a few.
There are many ways to communicate over long distances. I have reproduced a nice color diagram which shows the Roman alphabet, the international flag code, Morse Code, and semaphore signaling. Click here to view
II. Early Telephone Development
In 1729 English chemist Stephen Gray transmitted electricity over a wire. He sent charges nearly 300 feet over brass wire and moistened thread. An electrostatic generator powered his experiments, one charge at a time. A few years later, Dutchman Pieter van Musschenbroek and German Ewald Georg von Kleist in 1746 independently developed the Leyden jar, a sort of battery or condenser for storing static electricity. Named for its Holland city of invention, the jar was a glass bottle lined inside and out with tin or lead. The glass sandwiched between the metal sheets stored electricity; a strong charge could be kept for a few days and transported. Over the years these jars were used in countless experiments, lectures, and demonstrations.
For more information on Leyden jars, including photographs and instructions on how to build them, go this page at the Static Generator site:
A static electricity web page is here:
In 1753 an anonymous writer, possibly physician Charles Morrison, suggested in The Scot’s Magazine that electricity might transmit messages. He thought up a scheme using separate wires to represent each letter. An electrostatic generator, he posited, could electrify each line in turn, attracting a bit of paper by static charge on the other end. By noting which paper letters were attracted one might spell out a message. Needing wires by the dozen, signals got transmitted a mile or two. People labored with telegraphs like this for many decades. Experiments continued slowly until 1800. Many inventors worked alone, misunderstood earlier discoveries, or spent time producing results already achieved. Poor equipment didn’t help either.
Balky electrostatic generators produced static electricity by friction, often by spinning leather against glass. And while static electricity could make hair stand on end or throw sparks, it couldn’t provide the energy to do truly useful things. Inventors and industry needed a reliable and continuous current.
In 1800 Alessandro Volta produced the first battery. A major development, Volta’s battery provided sustained low powered electric current at high cost. Chemically based, as all batteries are, the battery improved quickly and became the electrical source for further experimenting. But while batteries got more reliable, they still couldn’t produce the power needed to work machinery, light cities, or provide heat. And although batteries would work telegraph and telephone systems, and still do, transmitting speech required understanding two related elements, namely, electricity and magnetism.
In 1820 Danish physicist Christian Oersted discovered electromagnetism, the critical idea needed to develop electrical power and to communicate. In a famous experiment at his University of Copenhagen classroom, Oersted pushed a compass under a live electric wire. This caused its needle to turn from pointing north, as if acted on by a larger magnet. Oersted discovered that an electric current creates a magnetic field. But could a magnetic field create electricity? If so, a new source of power beckoned. And the principle of electromagnetism, if fully understood and applied, promised a new era of communication
For an excellent summary of Christian Oersted’s life, visit:
In 1821 Michael Faraday reversed Oersted’s experiment and in so doing discovered induction. He got a weak current to flow in a wire revolving around a permanent magnet. In other words, a magnetic field caused or induced an electric current to flow in a nearby wire. In so doing, Faraday had built the world’s first electric generator. Mechanical energy could now be converted to electrical energy. Is that clear? This is a very important point.
The simple act of moving ones’ hand caused current to move. Mechanical energy into electrical energy. Although many years away, a turbine powered dynamo would let the power of flowing water or burning coal produce electricity. Got a river or a dam? The water spins the turbines which turns the generators which produce electricity. The more water you have the more generators you can add and the more electricity you can produce. Mechanical energy into electrical energy.
(By comparison, a motor turns electrical energy into mechanical energy. Thanks to A. Almoian for pointing out this key difference and to Neal Kling for another correction.)
Telephone History Series   Next Page –>
Surtees, Lawrence (2005). “ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL”. In Cook, Ramsay; Bélanger, Réal. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XV (1921–1930) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
[Britannica definition]”Telecommunications Systems: Telephone: THE TELEPHONE INSTRUMENT” Britannica Online. “In modern electret transmitters, developed in the 1970s, the carbon layer is replaced by a thin plastic sheet that has been given a conductive metallic coating on one side. The plastic separates that coating from another metal electrode and maintains an electric field between them. Vibrations caused by speech produce fluctuations in the electric field, which in turn produce small variations in voltage. The voltages are amplified for transmission over the telephone line.”
[Accessed 11 February 1999]
“[Piezoelectric] crystals are used as transducers to convert mechanical or sound energy into electrical energy in such things as microphones, phonographs, and in sound and vibration detection systems.”
“Piezoelectricity was first observed in 1880 when Pierre and Jacques Curie put a weight on a quartz crystal and detected a proportional electric charge on its surface. A year later the converse effect was demonstrated — that is when a voltage is applied to a crystal, a displacement occurs which is proportional to the voltage.”
“Reversing the polarity of the voltages reverses the direction of displacement. The term piezoelectricity is derived from the Greek word piezein meaning to press. Hence, a piezoelectric crystal is one capable of producing electricity when subjected to pressure.”
An anonymous writer in the July, 1964 Lenkurt Demodulator