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The Invention of the Telephone

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Earlier today, Apple unveiled two new iPhones: the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 plus. The tech giant announced newer models in its immensely popular line of smartphones. Smart phones today come with advanced mobile operating systems, which combine features of a mobile telephone with features of a personal computer.

Mobile telephones like the iPhone are currently some of the most widely used communications devices in the world. In the United States, nearly everyone has a cell phone – including your kids! China has an astronomical 1,100,000,000 cell phones in use.

Although in existence for more than 100 years, telephone usage and demand has been steadily increasing. There is tremendous use for telephones in business communication in addition to the use of personal mobile phones. For such a widely used device, the history of the telephone is rarely discussed.

The History of the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell’s greatest success was accomplished on March 10, 1876, when he completed a monumentally successful experiment with the telephone. According to his journal entry dated 10 March 1876, Bell spoke these famous words, “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.” This marked the first time he was able to “talk with electricity.”

However, the story behind the invention of the telephone has been surrounded by controversy. Two inventors in the 1870s both independently designed devices that could transmit speech electronically. Within hours of each other, Elisha Grey and Alexander Graham Bell rushed their designs to the patent office.

According to official records, Bell was the first to register his patent by a matter of hours. The two entered a notorious battle over the years regarding the true inventor of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell emerged as the winner of the legal battle, and thus was declared the official inventor of the telephone.

Telegraphs as a way of communicating

Telegrams were the major form of communication before telephones were invented. For those unfamiliar with telegraphy – a telegram is a message sent by an electrical telegraph operator using Morse code. Users were limited to receiving and sending one message at a time. Telegrams were used to transmit and receive messages over long distances.

Imagine for a second how difficult it was to communicate with somebody using telegraphy. The process required electric telegraph operators, Morse code and wires! Cell phones are so easy to use.

The wire-based telegraph system was highly successful for more than 30 years. The Western Union Telegraph Company bought out smaller companies during the 1800s and rapidly extended its lines to become the dominant player in the early telecommunications industry. In fact, Western Union even built the first transcontinental telegraph line. However, two inventors in the 1870’s would drastically change telecommunications for a long time.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh Scotland. Bell’s parents and grandparents were instructors in elocution and the correction of speech. Bell dropped out of high school and university, and his early career involved teaching deaf people. He taught at the Clarke School for the Deaf and at the American School for the Deaf.

While pursuing a teaching career, Bell began researching telecommunications on the side. Bell imagined potential innovations to the telegraph system.

Multiple message telegraphs

Alexander Graham Bell imagined sending multiple messages over the same wire simultaneously. He envisioned a multiple message telegraph that would allow users to send and receive several messages at the same time, rather than a single message.

In 1974, Bell received funding from father-in-law/Boston attorney Gardiner Greene Hubbard to create the “future of telecommunications” – the multiple message telegraph.

Bell worked on the multiple message telegraph and eventually enlisted the services of Thomas Watson, a young electrician. However, the pair began exploring a new idea – developing a device that would transmit speech electronically.

The harmonic telegraph

The two discovered that different tones would vary the strength of an electric current in a wire. Bell and Watson realized they only needed to build two devices for this to work. First, a working transmitter that is able to vary electric currents. Second, a receiver that would reproduce these varied currents.

On June 2, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell was first able to hear sound – a twanging clock spring – over a wire using his “harmonic telegraph” device. Less than one year later, the telephone was born, marking the death of the multiple telegraph idea.

Being able to “talk with electricity” presented vast opportunities to communicate with others.

The future of the telephone

Apple’s announcements today did more than unveil the newest iPhone 7. The announcements showed how far telephones have come. Alexander Graham Bell would probably not recognize his “harmonic telegraphs” today.

Still, the innovations to telephones have been so useful to hundreds of millions of people. Telephones and softphones are still widely used in business today and new features exist that enable landlines to do so much more than transmit voices. In addition, many companies are opting for alternatives to PSTN. Major innovations have altered the field of telecommunications. What’s next?

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