The telephones we use today barely resemble the earliest versions invented over a century ago. Each new telephone technology built upon previous innovations, together shaping how humans could communicate over distance. Examining some of the very first telephones ever created not only highlights ingenious invention, but also provides appreciation for how far telephony has advanced.
Let‘s explore 10 antique telephones that set the stage for the instant communication we enjoy today:
The earliest telephonic experiments date back as far as the 17th century. In the mid-1600s, British polymath Robert Hooke crafted a simple acoustic telephone using string stretched between two tin cans. By speaking into one can, sound waves would travel along the string, enabling the listener on the other end to hear Hooke‘s voice.
This acoustic "lover‘s telephone" demonstrated humanity‘s desire for long distance communication long before electricity. The basic components also showed early insight into converting sound waves into mechanical vibrations and back again. However, the requirements of remaining stationary at each end of the string and the limited range severely restricted usefulness. Still, Hooke‘s acoustic telephone was a ingenious first step.
Speaking Tubes Carry Sound Through Buildings
By the 1800s, speaking tubes replaced string with more reliable brass tubing to transmit sound. Blowing into one end of the rigid tube would send sound to the other end, allowing distant communication between rooms in a building. The tubes could traverse walls and curve around obstacles, providing speaking access where string could not.
Speaking tubes acted as early intercom systems in places like banks and hospitals to coordinate activities between rooms. They were also vital for maritime naval communication between decks. Remarkably, speaking tubes are still used today in places like MRI rooms where electrical and radio signals cannot be used. The continued reliance on such a simple invention is a testament to its effectiveness.
Alexander Graham Bell‘s Telephone Revolutionizes Verbal Communication
Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell developed the first telephone capable of transmitting speech electrically in 1876. Building upon earlier failed attempts at developing a harmonic telegraph, Bell‘s design worked by converting sound waves into varying electric current. This electric signal could then be instantaneously sent to a receiving telephone using wire. Upon receiving the signal, the current was reversed back into speech that the listener could understand.
This groundbreaking transmission of the human voice over wire laid the foundation for nationwide telephone infrastructure and communication networks. By 1878, the first telephone exchange connected over 500 subscribers. The following year saw the first long distance call placed between New York and Chicago hundreds of miles apart.
Despite legal challenges by Elisha Gray who claimed he invented an electric telephone before Bell, Bell is widely credited with inventing the first practical telephone device. The legal battle between the two competing inventors ultimately strengthened Bell‘s patent claims. Bell‘s telephone popularized and commercialized telephonic communication, profoundly changing how humans interacted across distances.
Candlestick Telephone Combines Handset Functions
Prior to the 1890s, telephone devices required the listener to manually hold the earpiece to their ear for the duration of a call. At the same time, the speaker had to angle themselves toward a separate mouthpiece on the device in order to transmit speech audibly. This made phone conversations cumbersome and tiresome over long periods.
The candlestick telephone, patented in 1890, overcame these difficulties by combining the mouthpiece and earpiece into a single handset for the first time. The user could conveniently hold the handset to both speak and listen without discomfort. Almon Stowger is commonly credited with this invention, though some attribute the first telephone handset to the Stromberg-Carlson Company.
Either way, the candlestick telephone represented an important user-focused improvement in telephone ergonomics and practicality. Previous telephones were technically impressive but lacked human-centered design. By making phones simpler to use comfortably, adoption increased.
Desktop Rotary Phones Bring Telephony to Households
By the early 20th century, significant advances were made to make telephone technology widely available to average households and businesses. The cradle desk telephone, first produced in 1927, incorporated the handset on top of a desktop base housing the ringer and connection box.
These telephones also revolutionized number dialing. Rotary dials built into the phone allowed users to self-dial numbers instead of requiring a human operator. This greatly increased the speed and efficiency of placing calls. No longer just a novelty for the wealthy, telephones were now accessible home appliances.
Between 1927 and 1937, household telephone subscriptions doubled from 20 to 40 percent. Despite the cost, consumers became eager to adopt the convenience and modernity telephones conferred. Bulkier than today‘s phones but far more compact than earlier business PBX systems, the desktop telephone brought telephony right into the home.
Rotary Dial Gets Slimmed Down in the Model 500
By post-WWII America in the late 1940s, telephones had become commonplace household items. But they still took up considerable desk space due to their bulky contours and bases. Henry Dreyfuss, an industrial design pioneer, was tasked by Bell Labs to re-imagine the telephone using newer materials and simplified forms.
The result was the Western Electric Model 500, released in 1949. Dreyfuss‘s design reduced the size considerably by utilizing new thermoplastic housing and reducing unnecessary ornamentation. The 500 model condensed the technological components into a compact, distinctively shaped case. To further improve usability, the numbers were moved to the outside of the rotary dial. The Model 500 became the standard telephone for decades to come.
Touch-Tone Dialing Speeds Up Calling
Rotary telephones required spinning the dial around until it hit the finger stop to input numbers. Though inventive, pulse dialing was relatively slow compared to the capabilities of electric telephone networks. The Western Electric 1500 telephone improved on this by incorporating touch-tone dialing.
Rather than pulses, the 1500 transmitted distinct musical tones for each number pressed on the keypad. This dual-tone multi-frequency signaling (DTMF) allowed near instantaneous transmission of number combinations. The Model 1500 increased call completion speeds while retaining the slim, compact footprint of previous models. First appearing in 1963, the touch-tone 1500 set the standard for all future telephones.
First Portable Cellphones Allow Mobile Communication
By the 1970s, telephony relied on landline connections to wired telephone sets. This tethered communication to specific locations – a caller had to be certain the receiving party would be home or in the office. In 1973, Dr. Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first portable mobile phone call on a device that would later become the DynaTAC 8000x.
Though extremely bulky and heavy by today‘s standards, the 1980s DynaTAC was revolutionary in untethering telephonic communication from stationary wired devices. A mobile phone user could now call or receive a call anywhere a cellular network connection was available. The DynaTAC laid the groundwork for modern smartphones that provide constant mobile access to voice communication from anywhere.
Princess Phone Brings Style to Telephony
Prior to the 1960s, telephone design catered primarily to business rather than residential consumers. The Princess telephone, introduced in 1959, aimed to change that by providing a stylish phone specifically designed for female users. Its compact case was available in attractive pastel colors with sleek lines unlike previous models.
The Princess telephone also introduced functionally innovative features like a light-up dial for visibility at night. Despite being marketed toward teenage girls, the Princess phone ultimately appealed to women of all ages and drove demand for consumer-focused telephone variety and customization.
Trimline Telephone Packs Features into a Slim Profile
Western Electric continued improving telephone design in 1965 with the Trimline model. Like the Princess, it included an illuminated dial for nighttime visibility. But the Trimline also focused on introducing a slimmer, more compact profile that took up minimal space on desks and counters.
By reducing curvature and combining the handset into the base, the Trimline had a distinctively trim appearance. This allowed it to fit into small apartments and congested workspaces. The Trimline telephone met consumers‘ needs for streamlined, convenient communication devices in the home and office. Its style exemplified the sleek, minimalist aesthetics of the 1960s.
I hope you enjoyed this look back through early telephone history! It‘s remarkable to think that such simple inventions like string and tubes enabled long distance communication and were precursors to today‘s smartphones. Every telephone discussed represented an ingenious innovation that pushed the boundaries of human connection.
Hard as it is to imagine, each new telephone technology must have been mind-boggling to experience at the time. The individuals who engineered and designed early telephones may be forgotten, but their creativity and vision still shape how we communicate today. So the next time you use your mobile phone, take a moment to appreciate the progress made over the last century and a half of telephony.