Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell almost simultaneously invented the telephone in the 1870s. The invention was a series of electric cables through which sound could be transmitted. Bell is universally recognized as the inventor of the telephone because he patented the invention first. The telegraph was the primary mode of long-distance communication at the time, and Bell’s attempts to improve the telegraph system led to the invention of the telephone.
The telegraph system was an inadequate form of communication because it required users to learn Morse code and it wasn’t possible to send more than one message at the same time. Bell discovered that it might be possible to create a “harmonic telegraph” through which differently pitched sounds could be transmitted through the same wire.
Gardiner Green Hubbard, an attorney and Bell’s father-in-law, bankrolled his experiments. Hubbard’s motive was to disrupt Western Union Telegraph Company’s communications monopoly in the United States. But unbeknownst to Hubbard, Bell and Thomas Watson, an electrician, were planning to create a device that could transmit human speech instead of Morse code messages.
In 1875, Bell and Watson consulted with Joseph Henry, the director of the Smithsonian Institute, who encouraged them in their pursuits. By June of that year, they had created a device that could send different tones to the recipient. The missing element was a membrane that could translate the tones into electronic signals and reproduce them as audible sounds.
On March 10, 1876, Bell successfully made a telephone call to Watson in an adjacent room. He was only 29 years old.
The Telephone: Important Dates
- 1874: Alexander Graham Bell discovered the principal concept of the telephone.
- 1876: Only a few hours before Elisha Gray, Bell invented the first telephone.
- 1877: In the U.S., the first outdoor telephone cables were constructed, stretching only three miles. Soon after, the first telephone company was started.
- 1878: Subscribers were able to exchange telephone calls even when they didn’t have direct lines via an exchange system.
- 1879: Subscribers in the first telephone directory were differentiated by number instead of by name, which allowed one person to have multiple numbers.
- 1880s: Telephone service was no longer just for local calls. Subscribers were able to make long-distance phone calls that were wired through metallic circuitry.
: Hammond V. Hayes developed a central battery system through which all telephones within a single exchange shared one battery instead of individual batteries. He was later issued a patent for the discovery.
- 1891: An undertaker in Kansas City, Almon Strowger, invented the first automatic dialing system because he thought operators were conspiring to direct his customers to his competition. This system was patented and became known as the Strowger switch.
- 1900: The first pay phone was set up in Hartford, Connecticut.
- 1904: The Bell Company experimented with the “French phone,” in which the receiver and transmitter shared the same handset.
- 1911: American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) initiated a hostile acquisition of the Western Union Telegraph Company by secretly purchasing the majority of the company’s stock.
- 1918: The U.S. alone had approximately ten million Bell telephones in service.
- 1921: Phantom circuits allowed phone companies to switch large numbers of calls, which made it possible for three phone calls to occur on two wire sets.
- 1927: Customers in New York and London were the first users to receive transatlantic international phone service via radio waves.
- 1936: Bell Labs started researching electronic telephone exchanges, which led to the development of the electronic switching system (ESS).
- 1946: The first commercial cell phone service launched, using radio wave technology.
- 1947: Long-distance phone calls were made with microwave radio technology.
- 1947: Bell Laboratories invented the transistor.
- 1955: Transatlantic telephone cables were laid for the first time.
- 1962: NASA launched Telstar, the first international communications satellite in the world.
- 1980s: The development of fiber-optic cables expanded the potential for telephone service providers to handle a huge volume of calls.
- 1980 to Present: Cell phones advanced from basic devices to Wi-Fi-capable smartphones. A cellular phone receives seamless transmissions through its singular cell transmitter.
Alexander Graham Bell
Bell’s first successful use of the telephone he invented was when he called his colleague, Watson, in the adjoining room and asked to speak with him. Bell later founded a telephone company, which had a monopoly over phone communications in the U.S. for decades. The lab named after him, Bell Labs, made several important telecommunications innovations, such as the transistor and the electronic switching system.
The Telegraph and Morse Code
Samuel Morse created Morse code so that it could be used to send messages through telegraph wires. The telegraph was the antecedent to the telephone. Users could send messages, but the receiver couldn’t hear the voice of the sender. Most of us no longer use Morse code on a daily basis, but it’s still used by amateur radio operators.
Additional Information on Telephone History