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Telephone History Facts

Updated on April 30, 2018
dahoglund profile image

Don has worked in newspaper writing, business writing, and technical writing.


Early speaking devises

Telephones, since the days of Alexander Graham Bell, have ordinarily been based on some sort of electromagnetic principle. Prior to that, mechanical devices were used. As such their range was very limited. It brings to mind a current advertisement for cell phones. A young man asks some senior citizens what they did before cell phones. They jokingly reply that they used tin cans and string. As kids we experimented with those. According to Wikipedia such devices were used for centuries before more modern devices were invented. However, I don’t think we ever got much in the way of results with the cans and string arrangement.

The earliest devices were mechanical and transmitted sound through pipes or something similar, like speaking tubes which are still used on ships. The speaking tube, also called a “voice pipe” has two cones connected by an air pipe through which speech can be transmitted. In the 19th Century they were sometimes used like an intercom in upper class homes, as well as luxury cars, offices, military aircraft and locomotives, according to Wikipedia. These devices some of us know as megaphones. They consisted of wood or metal cones, one of which was shaped to speak into and connected to one that is flared to amplify sound. They largely became outmoded by the telephone. There is some modern day use for such devices in two way radio. The concept is used in intercoms for motorcycle helmets for communication between the pilot and passenger. Ultra-light aircraft also employ such devices.


The electrical telegraph uses electrical signals to transmit text code messages. Commonly called the telegraph it replaced the optical semaphore telegraph system. Electrical systems allowed nearly instant messages over continents and oceans. This had vast social and economic impact. Sir William Fothergill Cooke built the first commercial electrical telegraph which was used on the “Great western Railway” in England, according to Wikipedia. It started operation April 9, 1839 and ran 13 miles.

In 1837, Samuel Morse developed and patented an electrical telegraph in the United States. Alfred Vail, who was Morse’s assistant, developed the Morse code. Morse sent the first telegram January 6, 1838. Inventors such as Charles Bourseul. Thomas Edison, Elisha Gray, and Alexander Graham Bell tried to find ways to send several messages at the same time over the same line by using different modulated frequencies. These efforts led to the invention of the first telephone.

Who invented the first telephone?

I have always been told that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but like so many things in history “it ain’t necessarily so.” There have been many disputes and controversies about it. The invention has been attributed to Charles Bourseul, Antonio Meucci, Johann Phillip Reis, Alexander Graham Bell, and Elisha Gray. These and others have been given credit for it. Many lawsuits were brought over patent claims of individuals and commercial competitors. The patents of Bell and Edison seem to have won out because they had dominance of the technology and were upheld by the courts.

Bell has usually been cited as inventor of the first practical telephone. An Italian-American inventor, Antonio Meucci was recognized in the U.S. House of Representatives for contributing work on the telephone, according to Wikipedia. Johann Phillip Reiss in Germany is considered a leading telephone pioneer.

Bell was the first to patent the telephone as an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically. The early telephones had a variety of technologies. For a short time liquid transmitters were used but soon were abandoned. Next were dynamic telephones with diaphragms which wiggled a coil of wire in the field of a permanent magnet, or sometimes the reverse. These lasted longer than the liquid transmitters. Some were still around in the 20th Century, primarily in military and maritime applications. The ability to create its own electrical power was crucial in these applications. Edison/Berliner Carbon transmitters were the dominant applications. Edison patents kept the Bell monopoly going into the 20th Century when the telephone networks were more important than the instruments were.

The early telephones were powered locally. A dynamic transmitter or a local battery powered the transmitter. These early phones used a single wire for both transmitting and receiving.

Originally telephones were leased in pairs primarily for communication between a home and shop. Country phones often had hand cranked “magneto” generators to make a high voltage alternating signal to ring the bells of the other phones on the line. It would also alert the exchange operator.

Edison invented and developed the carbon microphone in 1877-1878. It was used in all phones with the Bell receiver until the 1980’s. There was long litigation and a federal court ruled that Edison, not Emile Berliner invented the Carbon microphone. This kind of microphone was also used in radio broadcasting and public address systems through the 1920’s.

In 1893 the U.S. was lagging behind Sweden, New Zealand, Switzerland and Norway in the density of telephones. When the Bell patents expired in 1893-1894, the United States rose to world leadership in telephone density with many independent telephone companies starting up. Three million phones were in the U.S. and were connected by manual switchboards by 1904.

Personal observations

I grew up in a world not too far removed from where this history leaves off. We had party lines. I think there may have been some hand cranked phones still around in rural areas. Cell phones were science fiction. The comic strip “Dick Tracy” portrayed a wristwatch that detectives could talk into as a two way radio. The party line disappeared sometime in the 1950’s I think. Not too long after I graduated from the University I took a job on a small Iowa newspaper and was sort of surprised that the phone system was a bit lagging behind what we city folks were used to. It was a town of about 2000 people. The year was 1962. There was only one public telephone in town. The regular phones which we had to conduct business on were on some sort of party line. I found that the operators of the system would shut off the call after three minutes. Local people were used to it and just called back. I am not a telephone person and this was an added complication. Never the less I got fairly proficient at working around the system. Some years later I was working as a collections correspondent at a trucking company where I might be talking to a customer and the switchboard would cut me off because the boss wanted to use the phone. A situation I don’t understand even now. So much for customer service!

Later, on another Iowa newspaper I covered a story of the last switchboard in the area closing down. This was probably signaling the end of a telephone era. The land line is now almost a thing of the past as well.The cell phones have taken over. What will be next?

copyright 2012 Don Hoglund

© 2012 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I am somewhat surprised that we keep renventing the phone.

    • Readmikenow profile image


      2 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this. Good story! Yeah, we've come a long way in communication. It's interesting about history, not everything you are told is ever the whole story. Didn't know about those others who could have created the phone, but I'm not surprised.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      MsDora, Thanks for reading. You are ight that the early inventors deserve recognition.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 years ago from The Caribbean

      I miss the land lines. Thanks for sharing this detailed history. Happy for the earliest inventors who have their names mentioned; so often originators go unnoticed.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you Delores for reading and commenting. It does sem that modern gadgets are making us less aware of the world around us.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      4 years ago from East Coast, United States

      It's amazing how much the telephone has changed. They can do so much now! But the obsession with phone use seems strange to me. I recently saw a young woman walking down the street peering closely at her phone. She was not watching where she was gong, and totally unaware of her surroundings!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Telephone history is interesting and probably teaches us how technology evolves. Thanks for commenting.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi Don. I enjoyed this one. I well remember having two tin cans connected to each other by twine. A boyhood friend and I had the connection between our bedroom windows, which were opposite each other across the back garden. Great memories.


    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      When I was a kid in the 1940's I think we had one or two parties on our line. I know folks in teh country had many more. I worked on a newspaper in a small town once where the phone company cut people off after three minutes, but they just called back. It was hard to do telephone interviews though. Thanks for commenting and voting.

    • moonlake profile image


      7 years ago from America

      We had party lines in our home I had to always be careful and not talk about the neighbors. I never knew who was listening in. My husband had a crank phone in the home he grew up in. We have an old one hanging in our kitchen goes just right with this old farm house of ours.

      Voted up.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      toknowinfo, I'm pleased when someone learns something from my hubs. Thanks for the comments.

    • toknowinfo profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for writing this hub together, it really taught me a lot of things I didn't know. As always, very well written and a very good read!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I also thought of Bell as the inventor of the telephone. That is often the way. Thanks for commenting.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for the fascinating history on the telephone, dahoglund!! This clarifies some things about it. We always think of Bell and the telephone, but thanks for putting it into perspective. Thanks for the write!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Peggy,

      We live in a world with things that were the subject of Science Fiction when we grew up. I remember a neighbor we had that was very educated and ole enough to be my grandfather. He explained to me why space travel was impossible. I respected his education but thought he was wrong. Thanks for commenting , voting and sharing.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This was an interesting history of the telephone through the ages. It still amazes me that recognizable voices can be accurately transmitted through wires and now though the airwaves into hand held devices. But then there is a lot that we take for granted and few of us truly understand. Up votes and sharing! Good hub!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      TToombso8, thanks for commenting and voting.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Ruchira, thanks for your comments and votes.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Rob, Thanks for commenting.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      drjb, your experience with the switchboard reminds me of a receptionist at a company I once worked for. She wanted the job of teletype operator in the company but they wouldn't give it to her. She quit her job and then applied for the Teletype job and got hired. Thanks for commenting.

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 

      7 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      A fascinating look at the history of a device so many of us take for granted. Voted up and more.

    • Ruchira profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Interesting details on how man became civilized in terms of technology. Voted up as interesting and useful.

    • Robwrite profile image


      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Very interesting information. Well researched.


    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      Very thorough research, Don, about the invention of the telephone and who was really responsible. Most people credit Alexander Graham Bell with the invention of the phone but there were a host of others, as you mention, who were also involved.

      Bit of deja vu here, too. On my very first job during the summer between high school semesters, I got a job running the switchboard for a group of attorneys. I lasted half a day at the switchboard - too busy and too complicated for me so I was promoted to steno though I could not take shorthand. Try to figure that one out.


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