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The Fascinating History of the Telephone

Updated on January 11, 2015

Being the last of eight children and having an older mother and grandparents provided me a rich oral history of the technology my family used from 1900 to present.

If one had a telephone back in those days, the lines and poles had to be paid for by the person to run to another location or town or even a few hundred miles away. You were considered wealthy or on your way to being wealthy if you had money to invest in such a contraption.

Before Alexandra Graham Bell invented the U.S. telephone system and created Bell Telephone (now known as AT&T) in the 1870's, the telegraph reigned supreme for the previous 30 years. The system of tapping out one letter at a time with a dot-dash-dot morse code was the way to transmit messages across the country and the Atlantic Ocean. Bell, whose parents were teachers of elocution, taught and studied speech, sound, and the use of electricity. Bell realized he could transmit sound and thus invented the telephone.

There were many others around the world who came to the same conclusion. Elisha Gray being another American who fought in the court systems for the rights of the telephone patent. Bell won, though, and on March 10, 1876, said the first thing over his new invention, the telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." And so it began...


Before the Telephone

Of course, we know about the telegraph system, but there were other forms of communications through "the lines." One form of communication that every kid is probably familiar with is the "tin can phone" with a string or wire between two cans. Placing the can to the ear, pulling the two ends to make the string or wire taut, and waiting for the spoken message to travel to our end has been around for centuries.

Our 20th century generations have used this form of communications for science projects on sound and experimentation in play.

But long before we used the "lover's phone" or "tin can phone," people were using these to speak to each other between rooms and buildings.

Another similar form that has been used on ships of the past through today are the "speaking tubes." Using the extension of tubes to speak through. Today, we might think of Christmas wrapping tubes. Our toddlers are fascinated when we speak into them while they hold the tube to their ear. On the other hand, our 10 year old kid enjoys chasing the dog around the house bellowing like an elephant.

It seems the human race has always been fascinated with the science of sound and improving communication over time.


The Telephone Takes to the Airways

After the many disputes of who actually earned the rights to the telephone patent, Alexander Graham Bell won. With much financial backing, he took the invention and started a revolution that is still tremendously effective today. Can you imagine being without a phone?

The first telephone was in Wisconsin. Banker Alfred Galpin ran a line between his home to his bank in 1877. Later he built a switchboard including 25 lines to different people in the town.

In 1878, Richard Valentine went to Milwaukee to convince businessmen and the wealthy patrons of the city that the effectiveness of having a telephone system was worthy of the investment. They saw no need for it and laughed him out of town. They would soon have a change of heart.

In 1879, Charles Haskins, representing Bell Telephone, did succeed in bringing the telephone system to Milwaukee. Doctors, lawyers, store owners, and many others began to see the benefits of real time communications. The telephone was up and running, and its expansion from city to city, state to state, and nation to nation created relationships and communications that would change the world forever.

Through the 1880's, Bell was able to expand telephone service in populated areas. The rates were high, but the benefits were tremendous. Only the wealthy could afford to have private lines, and the telephone was considered a luxury and remained so for years to come.

In 1893, Bell's telephone patents expired and his monopoly over the telephone system gave way to small, independent companies across the nation; though, Bell Telephone still played a major role in the the telephone system for decades to come and remains through AT&T today.


When Did the Telephone Become Popular with Common People

There were over one million phones in the U.S. in 1900 connected through the switchboard system. Most common people did not have phones installed in their homes. Many would go to a local business to use a phone or take a call. Privacy was invaded through the switchboard system and party lines. Switchboard operators usually knew everything going on in a town if they chose to listen in - most did. Those who were on party lines had to wait for their sequence of rings to know which phone on the shared line was being called. Often times, more than the intended recipient picked up.

These privacy issues continued into the 1980s. I can remember my grandmother and great aunt were on a party line when I was growing up. I also remember hearing my grandmother say in a not-so-gentle-tone, "Minnie, I know you're there. Get off the line so I can tend to MY business." Of course, Aunt Minnie had had to do the same with Grandma, too. The two women were close because this was just a fact of life they had to deal with, as did many others.

Despite privacy issues, the telephone became the rage among common people in the 1940s and 50's. The service was more affordable and the demand was there. Today, it is rare for a household not to have a telephone. When phones did become more affordable, people had one phone installed in the home. Today, with our wireless home phones, there are multiple phones placed all over the house. Some of us have graduated from the homesave phone to using only our cell phones, and the industry has made adjustments by putting up more towers to accommodate the billions of users. We've come a long way since Bell spoke those first words.


From the Telephone to the Cell Phone

The revolution of the telephone took off like wildfire. Then in the 1950s and 60's the invention of the cell phone began to come into play allowing people to take their phones with them. Many of us remember watching James Bond movies and thinking the cell phone system was a fantasy. In truth, it was based on real science. Bond using his car phone created another rage: being able to take your phone with you.

James Bond may have made the mobile system look like a high tech fantasy, but actually, it began in the 1940s, transmitting real time communications through radio waves. Ship to land communications was the first common form of this type of transmissions. It shortly moved into the form of car phones. Once more the wealthy had the market on this form of communications because it was too expensive for common folk.

Again, Bell Telephone was in the forefront of research into the mobile system. In the 40's the analog system was very limited to its area coverage but then in generations of improvement, digital then broadband networks have made the cell phone an indispensable form of communication all over the world.

Today, most people have their own cell phones. The network plans provide nationwide and international coverage. It is not free, but long distance phone calls are part of the package deal making connections between individuals and industry common.

Worldwide Communications

Alexander Graham Bell and the many other inventors of telephone technology had a vision. Did their vision realize the magnitude of its effect on the future? That the vision has made the world a smaller, easier place to navigate.


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    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      HI EPI!! I am so glad you are getting this lovely weather too. I just remember last year you were literally covered up in snow.

      I love historical things like the history of our communications. Just in my lifetime and remembering stories from my mother and grandparents all of it has moved from one marvel to the next. I spent more on my current phone than I did the first tv we bought 30 years ago, and the phone does more things and picks up more channels! HA! It is true, though. I love thinking about how things came into being and how they have changed.

      Thanks so much for dropping by! :-) May warm wishes and good energy be doubly poured back onto you. :-)

    • epigramman profile image


      7 years ago

      Good morning Susan from a beautiful sunny morning at lake erie time ontario canada 9:39am and it feels like spring again today so mother nature is definitely teasing us at this time of year although rain is moving in later on this afternoon (but not snow)

      I really do love this world class hub presentation because it really does represent another era doesent it especially in light of the fact everyone seems to use cell phones and other types of modern technology now but it was nice to take a trip down memory lane with you.

      By the way Mr. Bell comes from Brantford - roughly an hour away from where I live.

      Proud to be a Canadian with a story like this.

      Sending you warm wishes and good energy and hoping all is well with you these days

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Thanks, Ruchira. Sure, you can link it. :-)

    • Ruchira profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      wow sholland great research and well written.

      I have written a hub on the history of cellphone and was wondering if I can tag your hub to mine. the link to the hub is :

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Thanks Glenn! I really enjoyed researching the telephone. I know what you mean about "what's next?" We are progressing so quickly when we look at just 1900 to present. What will 2100 look like? I am sure George Orwell and Ray Bradbury could have written sequels to their futuristic novels.

      Thanks for dropping by and voting! :-)

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      7 years ago from Long Island, NY

      We have to wonder what life will be like in another hundred years. When you think of the way verbal remote communication progressed from the days of the speaking tube that you mentioned. And considering that when we watched James Bond movies we couldn't imagine that cellular phones could ever really come to exist.

      So what's next? Time will tell. Your hub was very enlightening and complete, as well as a nice journey down memory lane for those of us who knew of some of it. Voted up, interesting and awesome.

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      ALocsin, I don't believe you!! You look too young for your statement to be true.

      Thanks for dropping by and the votes! :-)

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Hi Teaches, I don't know what we would do without our phones now. I am addicted to my iPhone. I am sure the first users of the first telephones felt the same way. It is a fun topic to research. I think your students would enjoy digging deeper. :-)

      Thanks for dropping by and voting!

    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      You know what's scary about your history of the telephone is that I'm old enough to have been around for almost half of it! Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      I was just asking this question to my students because we were discussing the marketing of the new iphones. What would we do without them now? Great post on the history of the telephone. Voted up.

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Hey FP! It is amazing to see how technology has advanced in our lifetime. The history of the telephone is a fun one to research. I may need to add to this hub later.

      Thanks so much for dropping by! :-)

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Agus, thanks so much for the kind words and dropping by! :-)

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Hey Paula!! I always love it when you comment on my hubs. I feel we are sitting in the living room just having a chat!! :-)

      You are NOT a dinosaur. You are an invaluable wealth of wonderful history. We just had one phone in my house. Having more than one line during that time was a sign of wealth, which we definitely didn't have. LOL I remember it was a rotary wall phone next to the cabinet in the kitchen. The cord stretched about 2 1/2 feet (if that), just long enough to reach the sink to wash the dishes as I talked. LOL It wasn't the type of phone that had a detachable cord. We were stuck with it.

      Oh, that reminds me. My mother lived in that house for 40 years before her death. A couple of years before she passed away, my brother was looking over her bills. The telephone company had been charging her rent for that phone for over 35 years!! He called and they removed it. Gotta watch those bills or they get ya one way or another!! Good Grief!

      So glad you dropped by! Thanks for the votes! :-)

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      E-Five, I think you have an excellent music hub with videos you could write using the telephone theme. When you do, let me know so I can link it. You are right, the telephone has influenced all.

      Thanks for dropping by and the great list of songs! I need to go put them on my cell phone play list. :-)

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Alecia, I agree with you. It is possibly the single most important invention as far as advancing personal and world communications.

      I remember my mother and grandparents talking about how a phone and a car in the early 20th century were the signs of wealth. When my family were able to have these inventions, they were on Cloud 9. I guess it is the same feeling as when we get something new that we did not think possible a few years ago. For instance, who would have thought we could have a phone that we could call using video? With all the military traveling in my marriage, that would have been an awesome thing to have 20 years ago.

      Thanks for dropping by! :-)

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Oh Donnah, I would love to know Bell's thoughts on what has become of the technology. I think with the changes he saw in his lifetime would probably give him a satisfied feeling of accomplishment and knowledge that it could only improve and grow.

      I still have a home line - too many elderly in my family who do not remember cell phones are with us everywhere we go. I do know many who have given up the expense of the home phone, though. One thing I miss about the home line use is that people call personal cell phones. You can't pick up the phone and say, "Hey, how are you?" -- get a little update -- then pass the phone off to the person the call was intended for. I miss those little slices of life. Even by keeping the home phone, most people call our cells.

      Thanks for dropping by and voting and sharing. :-)

    • sholland10 profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Holland 

      7 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Audrey, Carol, and Janine, thanks so much for dropping by. It was a very interesting subject to research, and I only was able to skim the top.

      I appreciate your comments! :-)

    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 

      7 years ago from Arlington, TX

      Nice history lesson Susan. I remember back a few decades myself when we had party lines and rotary dials. Technology is marvelous when you think of the way people communicate today.

      Nice written.

      The Frog

    • agusfanani profile image


      7 years ago from Indonesia

      The world without the telephone wouldn't be like today. Telephone has enabled human to communicate overcoming space and time barriers. Thank you for sharing this hub that all of us be grateful for the presence of this means of communication.

    • fpherj48 profile image


      7 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Great job at researching the telephone! I hate to admit how many different types of phone I actually recall......represents lots of years. I know this is all amazing to me and I can't imagine how the incredible high tech gadgets of today, positively astound elderly people in their 80's and up.

      Growing up, our first phone was as heavy as iron, no dial at all.....we picked up the receiver and waited for an operator to ask for the number we wished to call....and the local numbers were just 3 digits, by the way........OMG......Susan, I am a dinosaur!!! Really interesting hub. You did your usual awesome job... Thanks for bringing back the days!!......UP++

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 

      7 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      The first thing I thought of when I saw your article was all the popular songs that have to do with the telephone. There's a lot of them-- Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone" and "Call Me"; Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee"; ELO's "Telephone Line"; Tommy Tutone's "867-5309"; Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You"; "Operator" by Jim Croce; and many, many, many others. I guess it just shows what an important part of our lives the telephone has become. Thanks for the history...

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      7 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      The telephone to me qualifies as one of the top inventions of the past millennium. Without it, history would have written itself in a different way. I didn't know that having a telephone in the early 20th century was a sign of wealth and status. And now in the early 21st century, a phone of any sort is important to have access to basic information. This is an excellent hub and very interesting.

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Wouldn't it be awesome to see Alexander Graham Bell's reaction to the cell phone explosion we are seeing today? It is amazing to track the history of this devise that so many of us "can't live without." An interesting trend I am seeing is that many people are ditching the home phone and using the cell phone for all calls. We haven't had a home phone in over four years now. It will be interesting to watch how phones develop and evolve going forward. Great hub! Voted up and sharing.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      7 years ago from New York, New York

      Definitely the telephone has come a long way and thanks for writing this to remind us of this reality. Very detailed and so very informative. I also knew some of this, but not all. Have of course voted and shared too!!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      Well written with so much interesting information. I enjoyed reading this and learning many new things. Great research and writing...Voted UP and shared.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      7 years ago from California

      Well researched and well written article! Great job!


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