Home > Michael Ashton > The History of the Telephone

The History of the Telephone

Communicating information has always been an extremely important factor for people to maintain relationships. Since the inception of the telephone, communication has significantly improved, providing a tool for relationships of all types to be sustained at any distance. This tool provided a sweeping way for individuals to speak to one another, person to person, in real time. The power of the telephone was immediate across the country. Because of this important step in technology, a major change was signaled in American society and around the world.

The telephone is a historic device that transmits and receives sound, usually that of a human’s voice. The invention of the telephone was to serve as a bridge between short to long distances, providing a convenient means to verbally communicate to one another. This invention has changed many facets of human life at that point, as mail was the standard mode of communication before the telephone came into the fore. Because phone calls were comparatively instant and cheaper, people were able to speak to each other within seconds. With its impact, it made businesses run tighter and more efficiently, saving money that would have otherwise been spent on traveling to great distances, making transactions occur more quickly.

As Alexander Graham Bell began designing and developing the telephone, one of his main goals was to allow everyone, including the poor to use the telephone. Bell carried an extensive knowledge of the nature of sound as well as an understanding and appreciation of music. It was this unique combination that enabled him to raise the possibility of transmitting multiple messages over the same wire at the same time. The entire focus of his first creation was to produce an alternative that would eventually replace the telegraph. Although the telegraph was a highly successful system, it was also deeply limited to being able to receive and send one message at a time.

As Bell began experimenting with electrical signals, the telegraph had already been an established means of communication for some 30 years. Initially, when the telephone was introduced it was met with some resistance and a few technical problems. Although the telephone would later become a necessity of daily life, it was not as warmly received by the public. People believed it was nothing more than a toy. The company that became AT&T (shortened to American Telephone and Telegraph Company) began in 1875, in an arrangement among inventor Alexander Graham Bell and the two men, Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, who agreed to finance his work. There had been manyalterations in the structure and design of the telephone since the time it was first made. Bell’s interest in electricity continued and he attempted to send several telegraph messages over a single wire at one time. Missing the time and proper skill to make the equipment for these experiments, he solicited the help of Thomas A. Watson from a nearby electrical shop. The two became fast friends and worked together on the tiresome experimentation to yield sounds over what was dubbed the “harmonic telegraph.” On June 2, 1875, while Bell was at one end of the line and Watson worked on the reeds of the telegraph in another room that he heard the sound of a plucked reed coming to him over the wire. Bell announced his findings, first in a series of lectures to Boston scientists and later at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. He later received the patents in 1876 and 1877. Building out from New York, AT&T reached its initial goal of Chicago in 1892, and then San Francisco in 1915. On December 30, 1899, AT&T acquired the assets of American Bell, and became the parent company of the Bell System. Because the signals would tend to weaken as they traveled down telephone wires, producing a nationwide network required a wide range of inventions. Loading coils, which were invented independently at AT&T and elsewhere allowed the network to be built out to Denver. The first practical electrical amplifiers, devised at AT&T in 1913 made transcontinental telephony possible.

After Bell’s patents expired in 1893, independent telephone companies spread across the county. The Wisconsin Telephone Company and its parent Bell fiercely competed with the smaller companies, who fought among themselves as well. Smaller companies built phones and installed systems in different parts of the companies. A growing pain during this time was the fact that subscribers to the service of one particular company could not talk to those of another, unless they wanted another line with that other company. Independent subscribers could not make long-distance calls from their telephones, as Bell owned all the toll lines. Bell offices could provide this service, albeit for an additional charge. Eventually, many of the smaller companies sold out to the Wisconsin Telephone Company, which soon dominated in the larger towns and cities. Smaller companies would continue to provide service to rural areas and small towns. By 1900 there were nearly 600,000 phones in Bell’s telephone system. Five years later, that number multiplied, reaching 2.2 million phones. By 1910, there were nearly 5.8 million phones active in Bell’s telephone system. In 1915, the transcontinental telephone line began operating.

By the end of 1907, AT&T had control on phone and telegraph service, thanks to its lucrative purchase of Western Union. Its president, Theodore Vail, urged at the time that a monopoly could most efficiently operate the nation’s far-flung communications network. At the urging of the public and AT&T competitors, the government began to investigate the company for anti-trust violations, thus forcing the 1913 Kingsbury Commitment, an agreement between AT&T vice president Nathan Kingsbury and the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Under this commitment, AT&T agreed to divest itself of Western Union and provide long-distance services to independent phone exchanges. During World War I, the government nationalized telephone and telegraph lines in the United States from June 1918 to July 1919, when, after a joint resolution of Congress, President Wilson issued an order putting them under the direction of the U.S. Post Office. A year later, the systems were returned to private ownership, AT&T resumed its monopolistic hold, and by 1934 the government again acted, this time agreeing to allow it to operate as a “regulated monopoly” under the jurisdiction of the FCC.

Throughout the years, telephones had become a staple in American life, with as many as 30 million being used in homes in the United States in 1948. Call volume was measured to have augmented during the 1940s, citing a dramatic increase after the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941. Though Bell had originally designed the telephone’s only function to serve voice communications, technology has developed over time, producing newer capabilities for people to communicate. Debuting in the 1970s, pay telephone booths (which could arguably be considered the first of mobile phones) began appearing in parts of the United States and Canada.

In the 1980s when the first mobile phones were introduced, some weighed up to 10 pounds and were priced expensively until the slimmed down versions debuted into the market. Motorola introduced the 16-ounce “DynaTAC” phone into commercial service in 1983, with each phone costing the consumer $3,500. It took seven additional years before there were a million subscribers in the United States.Up until the release of the first truly portable phone in 1989, most cellular phones were installed as car phones due to the inability to fit them into a jacket pocket.

As technology continues to change and take its users into different directions, the telephone has remained an indispensable tool in the United States and around the world. By transforming communication technology, interpersonal communications have been expanded at a level that Alexander Graham Bell probably wouldn’t have imagined.

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