The History of the Telephone

Arguably one of the most important inventions of the past two hundred years, the telephone has completely revolutionised the way we interact with each other. Used regularly by more than half the world's population, the telephone shapes the way we live our lives and takes on many shapes and forms.

Firstly we are going to go back in time to before the telephone existed. We are then going to chronicle its invention and its meteoric rise to arrive at what we have today.

Life before the telephone

Before the telephone life was very different. Instant communication was only possible face to face, and methods for long distance communication were very unreliable and time consuming.

It goes without saying that quick communication has always been necessary, and centuries ago people resorted to setting up a chain of signals, such as smoke signals or semaphore, to get instructions from one place to another. This method was not without its drawbacks, a single break in the chain would render the exercise useless.

Messengers were also utilised to deliver letters from one place to another, however days could go by before the recipient would receive the message. This was often too late if the message was of an important nature.


For hundreds of years people have been aware of electricity. Originally seen in electric fish, electricity was a complete unknown, and it would be a long time until electricity was studied in any detail.

William Gilbert, the English scientist, was the first person to professionally study electricity in 1600, particularly concentrating on static electricity. He coined the Latin term electricus which gave rise to the English words electric and electricity that we use today.

Lots of other people continued to study electricity, including Benjamin Franklin, who in the 18th century conducted extensive research in this field. One of his experiments involved attaching a metal key to a kite and flying the kite into stormy weather. When sparks jumped from the metal key to his hand he was able to prove that lightning was indeed electrical in nature.

Benjamin Franklin

It wasn't until the late 19th century that noticeable progress was made in the study of electricity and electrical engineering. Some of the key people involved were Alexander Graham Bell, who we will go on to discuss later on, Thomas Edison and Michael Faraday. Faraday, aside for been well known for the Faraday Cage that bears his name, (an enclosure formed by conductive material used to block electric fields), was the person whose discoveries made up the basics of electric motor technology.

Perhaps the most important person in the study of electricity was Thomas Edison, the world renowned inventor. Famous as the inventor of the electric light bulb and an innovator of electric distribution, Edison's name is synonymous with electricity.

A better understanding of electricity lead to the main precursor of the telephone, the telegraph, which we will now discuss.

The Telegraph

The electrical telegraph, better known as simply the telegraph, revolutionised long distance communication by transmitting electrical signals across a cable connected between two different locations. The telegraph was the most important means of communication before the invention of the telephone.

The idea of the telegraph was first suggested in as early as 1753, using one wire for each letter of the alphabet. A message could then be sent by connecting the relevant wire to an electrostatic machine. This idea, although heavily experimented with, did not take off and was not used in any major communications devices.

Francis Ronalds, the English inventor, produced the first working telegraph in 1816 using static electricity. His invention was however rejected by the Royal Navy as being unnecessary.

Another telegraph device, invented by Baron Schilling von Canstatt in 1832, was a more elaborate machine, consisting of a keyboard with 16 black and white keys used to switch the electrical current. The British government tried to purchase Schillings design, however he instead offered it to Nicholas the first of Russia where he was charged with building a telegraph in Saint Petersburg. Schillings death unfortunately put an end to the project.

The first commercial telegraph was the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph patented in 1837. This was the first telegraph to see success when it was installed on the Great Western Railway over a 13 mile stretch from Paddington station to West Drayton. The railways were the first major users of the telegraph, and over the next decade telegraphs were introduced in post offices around the UK. It was from this time that long distance, mass personal communication became a reality, leading to the dawning of a new era.

The telegraph went from strength to strength with continued improvements and new ideas. The most famous has to be the Morse system, whose inventor used it to develop Morse code in which letters are represented by combinations of long and short signals of sound.

Even with the invention of the telephone, as we shall move on to next, Western Union continued with their telegraph company until it was shut down in 2006.

The Telephone in Brief

The telephone, in its most basic form, is a device that allows people to communicate across very long distances. Made up of a microphone to speak into and a receiver to reproduce the sound, the telephone has completely changed the world. Telephones usually also have a ringer to let people know that they have an incoming call, and a dial pad into which users can type in the number that they wish to reach.

Of course the telephones of today are a lot more complicated and feature rich, but first we shall concentrate on the very beginning.

The Early Telephone

The idea of the telephone had been floating around the scientific community for some time before the first working prototype arrived on the scene, leading to some dispute as to who actually invented the device. The earliest instrument that was called a telephone in no way resembles what we know as a telephone today. Invented by a ship captain called John Taylor in 1844, the device used four horns to communicate with other ships in foggy weather.

Also in 1844 it is said that the Italian inventor Innocenzo Manzetti considered the idea of the telephone as we know it, and he may have built one in 1864, this however, has not been verified.

The first device that operated by converting sounds into electrical signals, transmitting them down a wire, then re-converting the electrical signals back to sound, was known as the Reis telephone, invented by Johann Philipp Reis in 1860. It was around this time that the word telephone began to be widely accepted, coming from the Greek words tele and phone, meaning distant voice.

Reis Telephone

Another Italian, going by the name of Antonio Meucci, invented an early voice communication device in 1854 called the telettrofono; this was demonstrated in New York during the same year. In 1871 Meucci filed a caveat at the US patent office describing his device. An interesting resolution, passed in 2002 in the US, stated that if Meucci could afford the $10 fee to maintain the caveat, Alexander Graham Bell would not have been issued with his patent.

Alexander Graham Bell did however receive a patent in 1876 for his design of the telephone, and is regarded by most people as its true inventor. The first words transmitted over his device were 'Watson come here, I want to see you,' proving that the device worked. The telephone he had created was only short range and lots of development was needed to get it to a level of commercial acceptability. Bell demonstrated a working telephone in Philadelphia in 1876 to the interest of Pedro II, the then Emperor of Brazil.

The earliest telephones were sold in pairs and were connected by a single wire. Someone, for example, would place one piece in their home and the other in their shop. Communication therefore could only be made between their home and their shop. The invention of the telephone exchange by Tivadar Puskas changed all of this, making telephone communication a more appealing idea.

The Telephone Exchange

A telephone exchange is a telecommunications system that is used to interconnect the telephone lines of subscribers in order to establish a telephone call. Originally telephone exchanges were operated manually by human operators before becoming fully automated. One subscriber would call into the exchange; the operator would then use a series of wires on the switchboard to connect the call to the correct location.

Of course manual telephone exchanges were time consuming and cumbersome and in the early days it could take up to 15 minutes to connect a long distance call. Automatic telephone exchanges changed this when they came into existence in the early 20th century, and have continued to be improved in design over the years.

The Telephone in the 20th Century

Although the telephone was a product of the 19th century, it really took off in usage from the early 1900's. The US lead the way having over three million phones in operation by 1904. From this time until the end of the century the telephone turned from a fascinating device into the mainstay of communications around the world, taking on many shapes and forms. The first to really catch on in popularity was the rotary dial telephone.

Rotary Dial Telephone

Rotary Dial Phone

By Holger.Ellgaard 08:21, 15 October 2007 (UTC) (egen bild) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The rotary dial telephone is a telephone that incorporates a circular dial from which numbers can be entered to reach a desired recipient. The easy layout and functionality of the device made it immensely popular in the early part of the 20th century.

The dial worked by having a hole for each number into which a user could place their finger, they would then turn the dial clockwise until it reached the finger stop. The user would then remove their finger and the dial would spring back to its original position. The user then repeats this process until the desired phone number is entered.

More and more development took place over the years until we arrived with the device that became the next big hit, the push button telephone.

Push Button Telephone

A push button telephone is a device that uses numbered buttons for the purpose of dialling a telephone number to reach another telephone user. Originally thought up in as early as 1887, the push button telephone began to gain traction in the 1960s, but it wasn't until the 1980s that most people had push button as opposed to a rotary dial telephones.

Push button telephones work on dual-tone multi-frequency signalling, known more commonly as touch tone dialling, and this form of signalling, DTMF for short, is still the international standard for telephone signalling today. In the past not all push button telephones worked on DTMF, instead replying on pulse dialling, however this quickly changed due to the inferior nature of pulse dialling.

Landline telephones were the only telephones available for the majority of the 20th century. That is of course until the mobile telephone came along.

The Mobile Telephone

The mobile phone is a portable telephone that operates over a radio frequency. Mobile phones make and receive calls within the service area provided by the mobile phone operators.

The first mobile phone was developed by Motorola and was successfully demonstrated in 1973. This device was huge in comparison to modern day devices, weighing around two kilograms.

First Mobile Phone

By Redrum0486 ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1979 the first commercial automated mobile phone network was launched in Japan, followed by several other counties in the early to mid-1980s. Over the next thirty five years there was a great improvement in network technology, moving from 1G all the way to where we are now with 4G mobile technology.

Mobile phones, up until the invention of smartphones, were usually made up of the same basic components. A battery is used to provide power for the device, a keypad for user interaction, a screen to display inputted information and stored information, and from the early 1990s a sim card.

A sim card, (Subscriber Identity Module), is a key component of mobile phones, without sim cards mobile phones would not be able to make or receive calls. A sim card stores the service-subscriber key that is used to identify and authenticate the mobile phone user.

Before the smartphone came along Short Message Service, SMS for short, was one of the most popular features of mobile phones. SMS allows users to send text messages over data to other mobile phone users.

While the smartphone is in essence a mobile phone, it revolutionised how we communicate with each.

The Smartphone

A smartphone is a mobile phone that has an advanced mobile operating system. While most people think of smartphones as being relatively new devices, the first smartphone that had commercial success was released in 1999 in Japan.

Steady improvement in connection speed and technology ensued over the next few years until what is arguably the biggest occurrence in the history of the mobile phone, the invention of the iPhone and fully touch screen devices.

It was in early 2007 that the first iPhone was released to much fanfare. Using a touch screen for users to interact with instead of a keypad, the iPhone brought a whole realm of possibilities to the smartphone away from standard calling and text messaging. Using an operating system that encouraged developers to create applications to use on the iPhone, the phone went from being a device of convenience to a device of necessity for millions of users worldwide.

From 2007 a new iPhone has been released every year. With heavy competition from Android devices, manufactured by a slew of companies with Samsung being the most popular, and to a lesser extent Blackberry and Windows, touch screen smartphones are currently all the rage.

Moving Forward

No one knows what the future holds for the telephone. While we can be sure that touchscreen devices will continue to be released for the foreseeable future, we are less sure what other innovations will drastically change the telephone.

5G is being proposed as the successor to 4G technology, however so far all that is being said about this is how it will offer faster connection speeds. While this is beneficial it is not revolutionary.

A possibility may be the projector phone that can project the display on to the users arm allowing the users to interact with the device by typing directly on to their skin.

While we may not know what the future holds we can be sure that there will be some amazing innovations released to the market, the question is simply what and when.


Number of mobile phone users worldwide from 2013 to 2019 (in billions).

A Time Before Phones.

Thomas Edison Electricity.

Morse Code and the Telegraph. 2009.

Telephone History.

Rotary Dial Telephones. By Dave Harfield. 27th of March 2013.

Push Button Telephone. By Carl. 18th of November 2012.

the History of Mobile Phones From 1973 to 2008. By Richard Godwin. 16th of April 2015.

History of the Smartphone.

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