It is hard to remember a time without telephones. Important messages and correspondence was limited by foot, horse and sail. Mail sent overseas could take, depending on the distance involved, weeks or months (and even longer when you depended on wind to power your sails). When the railroad arrived, mail could be loaded onto trains but still had to be delivered at the end. The telegraph had speeded things up enormously. Messages could be sent fast from point to point but it had its limitations as well. It required hand delivery of messages from the telegraph to its recipients. Enter Alexander Graham Bell and his invention called an harmonic telegraph that would combine the telegraph and a record player so that people could speak with each other over long distances.
On 7 March 1876, his patent for this device was registered. He had begun work on the device in 1871 and was able to get investors to back his idea. By 1875 with the help of his partner Thomas Watson, he had come up with a simple receiver that could turn electricity into sound. Two other scientists, Antonio Meucci and Elisha Gray, were working on similar technologies as well.The prototype that he and Watson developed allowed sound waves to create an electric current causing a soft thin iron plate (called the diaphragm) to vibrate. It was these vibrations when transferred magnetically to another wire connected to another diaphragm in another distant instrument that would replicate the original sound. A few days after the patent was filed, Bell called his assistant and uttered the now famous “Mr Watson, come here, I need you.”
The Bell Telephone Company was founded in 1877 (now AT&T) to market the new product. The first telephone line from Boston to Somerville, Massachusetts was completed in 1877 and by 1880 there was an estimated 49,000 telephones in the United States. It would spread to major East coast cities and by 1915 transcontinental service had begun. Bell Telephone grew quickly and bought out competitors or merged with them to form American Telephone and Telegraphy Company. Since they held the patent on this technology, they had a monopoly on the industry. And one they would not give up until a 1984 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring them to end control over state markets.
Litigation by those who claimed to have invented the telephone before Bell would last for over 20 years. At one point there was an attempt by the U.S. government to withdraw the patent over the numerous claims in 1887. However the Supreme Court ruled in 1897 that the U.S. government lacked standing. Simply put the patent had been duly registered as required by law with the Patent Office. In order cancel a patent, it must show that the patent had been fraudulently obtained requiring such fraud to be proved by testimony. Since the case lacked that determination, the Supreme Court told the government you have no standing to cancel a patent.
The telephone system that was created resulted in major changes, large and small. It was easy in many places to now call for a doctor, the police, or fire department. Likewise other important business and government information could be done by phone rather than by sending a messenger or a telegraph. Speaking long distance was possible as well instead of telegraph. And dialing O for the operator meant a live human person would respond to assist.
Telephone technology would continually change over time. Calling long distance sometimes took a while depending on where you were located in earlier times (direct dialing was not yet possible due to many local exchanges, so the local exchange would set up the long distance call with other exchanges and that would take sometime to do that). In some rural locales, you had party lines where everyone was on the same line. So when you picked up the phone, you might find someone already talking! Dialing a number meant just that, you dialed a number on the old rotary phone. Speed dialing was not really possible except by mechanical means.
When touch-tone came into being, it made dialing a whole lot faster and easier. Phones changed as well from the old standard wall and desk types to more functional and even stylish types. And technology changed how phone calls were made too. Direct dialing ended the need for having to go through local exchanges for long distance calls. Now you just dialed an area code and the local number to speak with your favorite relative who lived far away. And as predicted by some futuristic science fiction, we now have wireless phones these days without the need of a phone line. Bell’s invention has certainly had an impact on us all. We cannot imagine a world without a phone.
Alexander Graham Bell
This Day in History