"We picture inventors as heroes with the genius to recognize and solve a society's problems. In reality, the greatest inventors have been thinkers who loved tinkering for its own sake and who then had to figure out what, if anything, their devices might be good for." Jared Diamond
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.
" . . . an inspired black-haired Scotsman of twenty eight,
on the eve of marriage, vibrant and alive to new ideas."
Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone
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 a shared accomplishment among many pioneers, therefore, 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?
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. With those two important points established, let's look at telephone history.
The telephone is an electrical instrument. Speaking into the handset's transmitter or microphone makes its diaphragm vibrate. This varies the electric current, causing the receiver's diaphragm to vibrate. This duplicates the original sound.
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 linked 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." A piezoelectric transducer uses material which converts the mechanical stress of a sound wave upon it into a varying electrical signal.
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.
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.
In 1854 Charles Bourseul wrote about transmitting speech electrically in a well circulated article. In that important paper, the Belgian-born French inventor and engineer described a flexible disk that would make and break an electrical connection to reproduce sound. Bourseul never built an instrument or pursued his ideas further.
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. 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.
In 1753 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.
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
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. 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. Faraday worked through different electrical problems in the next ten years, eventually publishing his results on induction in 1831.
In 1830 the great American scientist Professor Joseph Henry transmitted the first practical electrical signal. A short time before Henry had invented the first efficient electromagnet. He also concluded similar thoughts about induction before Faraday but he didn't publish them first. Henry's place in electrical history however, has always been secure, in particular for showing that electromagnetism could do more than create current or pick up heavy weights -- it could communicate. In a stunning demonstration in his Albany Academy classroom, Henry created the forerunner of the telegraph. In the demonstration, Henry first built an electromagnet by winding an iron bar with several feet of wire. A pivot mounted steel bar sat next to the magnet. A bell, in turn, stood next to the bar. From the electromagnet Henry strung a mile of wire around the inside of the classroom. He completed the circuit by connecting the ends of the wires at a battery. Guess what happened? The steel bar swung toward the magnet, of course, striking the bell at the same time. Breaking the connection released the bar and it was free to strike again. And while Henry did not pursue electrical signaling, he did help someone who did.
In 1837 Samuel Morse invented the first workable telegraph, applied for its patent in 1838, and was finally granted it in 1848. Joseph Henry helped Morse build a telegraph relay or repeater that allowed long distance operation. The telegraph later helped unite the country and eventually the world. Not a professional inventor, Morse was nevertheless captivated by electrical experiments. In 1832 he heard of Faraday's recently published work on inductance, and was given an electromagnet at the same time to ponder over. An idea came to him and Morse quickly worked out details for his telegraph. As depicted below, his system used a key (a switch) to make or break the electrical circuit, a battery to produce power, a single line joining one telegraph station to another and an electromagnetic receiver or sounder that upon being turned on and off, produced a clicking noise. He completed the package by devising the Morse code system of dots and dashes. A quick key tap broke the circuit momentarily, transmitting a short pulse to a distant sounder, interpreted by an operator as a dot. A more lengthy break produced a dash.
In 1861 Johann Phillip Reis completed the first non-working telephone. Tantalizingly close to reproducing speech, Reis's instrument conveyed certain sounds, poorly, but no more than that. A German physicist and school teacher, Reis's ingenuity was unquestioned. His transmitter and receiver used a cork, a knitting needle, a sausage skin, and a piece of platinum to transmit bits of music and certain other sounds. But intelligible speech could not be reproduced. The problem was simple, minute, and at the same time monumental. His telephone relied on its transmitter's diaphragm making and breaking contact with the electrical circuit, just as Bourseul suggested, and just as the telegraph worked. This approach, however, was completely wrong. The Reis instrument, in fact, worked only when sounds were so soft that the contact connecting the transmitter to the circuit remained unbroken. Speech may have traveled first over a Reis telephone however, it would have done so accidentally and against every principle he thought would make it work. And although accidental discovery is the stuff of invention, Reis did not realize his mistake, did not understand the principle behind voice transmission, did not develop his instrument further, nor did he ever claim to have invented the telephone.