The Invention of the Telephone

Adam Alred • 06 Feb 2023 • 3 min read

No single invention has helped shaped modern technology as much as the telephone. Nearly all of our current communication methods can be traced back to this crucial invention. Even though we might not always use our phone for making calls, we all carry one in our pocket, purse, or backpack. Alexander Graham Bell is officially credited as the creator of the phone, as he filed the first patent for the device in 1876, but he isn’t the only inventor with a legitimate claim to this technology. However, the story of the invention of the telephone inevitably leads to Bell, and it cannot be told without understanding his family history. He was not the first individual to deduce that an electrically charged wire could carry a voice from point A to point B, but he was the first to demonstrate the practicality and value of such a device.

Early Life and the Family Trade

Bell’s family was well-versed in elocution, the skill of expressive speech, and oralism, the teaching of the hearing-impaired to speak and lip-read. Thus, Bell became interested in language and sound from a young age. Bell was born in Scotland in 1847 but moved to Canada with his family in 1870. He was originally a teacher for the hearing-impaired, having begun in this vocation after his mother gradually lost her hearing starting when he was 12 years old. Bell also mastered visible speech when he was young. Visible speech is the association of symbols with the placement of different parts of the mouth when a person makes different sounds. It was developed by his father, Alexander Melville Bell. Helen Keller was actually one of the first students of visible speech.

Bell was originally working on a harmonic telegraph when the inspiration for the telephone struck. He first conceived of the idea of transmitting speech over a wire after he heard the sound of a spring transmitted through a wire from more than 50 feet away. Although the telegraph was useful, it was restricted to carrying a single message in Morse code. Bell was attempting to modify a telegraph when he heard the sound of the spring transmitted over the wire, and he deduced that not only could multiple pitches be sent over a wire but a human voice as well. The telegraph had been in use for more than a quarter-century when Bell constructed his first rudimentary telephone, made of wood, screws, and coiled wires, in 1876. He reasoned that a properly electrified wire could simultaneously carry different pitches, which could hypothetically include speech. After some tinkering with electrified wires, he was able to successfully send the first message by phone, summoning his assistant in another room by saying, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” The viability of the telephone was proven further in 1877, when Bell made the first long-distance call from New York to Chicago. By 1878, the first phone lines and switchboard were up and running.

Patent Problems

Bell filed his patent for the telephone on Feb. 14, 1876, the same day that inventor Elisha Gray filed a remarkably similar patent for a telephone. Neither inventor visited the patent office themselves; instead, they sent lawyers to file on their behalf, with Bell’s lawyers arriving a few hours before Gray’s. Although Bell eventually won the patent and thus is credited as sole inventor of the telephone, there were claims of malfeasance, and some argue that Bell’s lawyer unfairly influenced the patent clerks. Of particular interest is a note made in the margin of Bell’s patent, as if it was added later, referencing variable resistance, a key component of how the telephone works. Nonetheless, Bell got the patent.

Bell Telephone Company was founded in 1877 by Bell’s father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard. This company would evolve into the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which would then be shortened to AT&T. In the 20th century, AT&T developed a monopoly over telephone service in the United States that it would hold until 1984.

Telephones became indispensable in the early 20th century. Transatlantic phone cables were laid in the early 1900s, allowing intercontinental calling. With the development of radio technology, wireless calls across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to London became possible in the 1920s. And nowadays, telephones are ubiquitous. But without Bell’s curiosity, genius, and hard work, the world of communications would not be what it is today.

By Adam Alred

VP of IT @ VoiceNation