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The telephone story — how deaf research changed the world

The story of the telephone is one of technology, irony, big business and legal wrangles against a backdrop of ingenious engineering and invention. The telephone touched the lives of millions of people and brought about the biggest revolution in global communication for more than four centuries. And all because of an accidental discovery on the road to helping the hard of hearing.

Helping the deaf hear and improving speech

If Alexander Graham Bell is the hero of our communication technology story, he is an accidental one. The US scientist, engineer and inventor had set out, not to make a telephone, but to help the deaf hear better and improve the way we speak.

Bell was a speech therapist and deaf educator; his mother and wife were both hearing-impaired; his father was a speech coach and both his grandfather and brother worked in the area of elocution. The Scotland-born teacher wanted to create a machine that could “help deaf students visualise sound.”

It was Bell’s research and experimentation on hearing and speech that led him to secure the UK and US telephone patents which changed the world. Ironically, too, Bell was inspired by the deaf community to invent something which they could never use.

A 400-year void — 15th-19th centuries

Bell was born a century after the start of the industrial revolution. Yet, despite the advances in manufacturing, there had been a four-century void in the advancement of communication technology — since the invention of the printing press in 1450, all messages were written, typed or printed and delivered manually.

‘Writing at a distance’ and ‘improving’ telegraphy — 1840s

Three year’s before Bell’s birth, the Telegraph was ‘born’ with the written words: “What hath God wrought?” — one of Samuel Morse’s first telegrams in 1844. The Telegraph, patented by Morse, transmitted text (‘graphe’) through electrical signals over a wire between stations at a distance (‘tele’) apart. But it couldn’t transmit sound, especially the human voice. What Bell achieved was nothing short of world-changing, but he clearly didn’t know this when he submitted his patent — he modestly called it Improvements In Telegraphy.

Patent legal battles of the 1880s

Many others had a role to play in this invention story. Among them were the Italian inventor, Antonio Meucci (who submitted a provisional patent a few years before Bell but couldn’t follow it through), and Elisha Gray (who filed his provisional patent on the same day as Bell’s full application). Legal battles followed from Gray (the co-founder of Western Electric Manufacturing Company) and Meucci. Others joined the queue to lay an array of lawsuits at Bell’s door, all of which he successfully fought off.

Selling the rights and going it alone

Bell offered to sell the rights to the communications company, Western Union, in the US, and the Post Office (PO), in the UK. But both declined, so, in 1878, he created his own companies, selling the UK’s first devices and starting the proliferation of the telephone on both sides of the pond.

Competition and legal battles — 1880-1912

He fought off competition from the US, where Western Union worked with Gray and the prolific inventor, Thomas Edison, on its own version of the telephone, claiming, in their defence, that Gray had invented it. The judge didn’t buy it, and, in 1879, Western Union was pushed out of the market. A series of mergers, amalgamations and takeovers followed on both sides of the Atlantic, which ended in near-monopoly by Bell and his co-directors. To cut a long story short, the PO took over everything in the UK in 1912.

What a difference a voice makes

While the Telegraph revolutionised long-distance communication by drastically reducing message delivery times from days to seconds, the telephone breathed new life into relationships — it changed lives and permanently altered society. “The voice bit of is the thing,” said Malcolm Holt, a volunteer historian at the Telephone Museum at The Heritage Centre in Milton Keynes. “People actually talking to each other, ear-to-ear, and responding to each other instantaneously. Unlike a written message, for the first time you could hear the tone of someone’s voice. It must have been an absolute revelation.”

Cutting out the middle man — 1890s-1970s

The next big chapter in the telephone story opened in 1891 when paranoid undertaker/engineer, Almon Strowger, patented the first automated switchboard. The story goes that he thought his rival’s wife (a switchboard operator) was directing calls to her husband, so he turned his suspicion into action. His electromechanical telephone exchange allowed people in small towns with only one part-time operator to stay connected 24 hours a day. Manual switchboards were still used in larger cities up until the 1970s.

Six million phones by 1910

The march of the telephone was swift. In May, 1877, there were six phones; by November there were 3,000, and four years later there were more than 130,000. They spread to every village, town and city in the UK. In 1900 there were 600,000 telephones, and, just a decade later, the number had risen almost ten-fold. Today, there are 88 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK (more than one each).

Designed for talking — 1930s-1980s

The early phone designs were the ‘candlestick’, ‘butter stamp’ and the Eiffel Tower (the most elegant of all). Then, in the 1930s, came the rotary designs, including the art deco Bakelite ashtray and the Stromberg Carlson Fatboy. The Sixties saw the arrival of touch-tone phones and the Seventies heralded push-button designs. In the Eighties, portable, cordless, home phones and car phones hit the shops, and, finally, the mobile phone arrived — hallelujah.

Rotary Dial Phone

How may I direct your call? 1880-1984

There have been 250 million entries into phone directories, from the first one, in 1880, to the last, in 1984. Since then everything has been computerised, including the old directories (which you can still view online). This paved the way for new search tools like People Finder, UK Address Finder, Reverse Phone Lookup and Phone Number Finder. We also use the electoral roll, first created in 1832, to help you find people, whether you have all the information or not.

Millennium madness

In the late Nineties and early 2000s, all kinds of functions were added to phones, including GPRS internet services, music, camera, touch screen, gaming, 3G, video, and decent web browsers. With the iPhone came a wave of tablets, phablets, and…you know the rest. The question is, what’s next?

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