When we talk about technology, it’s always important to remember how far we’ve come. And for the telephone – which got nicknamed simply as “phone” and then upgraded to the smartphone, that magnificent little palm-sized supercomputer you’re holding in your hand right now – it’s been a fantastic life so far. So sit back and enjoy the highlights of a history lesson that’s filled with intrigue, invention, and whole lot of phone calls.
Invention Madness: From Telegraph to Telephone
While a professor at New York University in 1835, Samuel Morse proved that signals could be transmitted by wire using electromagnets. He would later use this discovery to invent a practical telegraph device, wire system, and signal language (now known as Morse Code). And after sending the first telegram in 1844, the telegraph became a nationwide commercial success and a standard form of communication throughout the United States.
For more than 30 years, all rapid, long-distance communication depended upon the telegraph. But in 1874, another inventor began experimenting with electrical signals in an attempt to improve the telegraph. This inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, would go on to develop the telephone (which he first called a “speaking telegraph”), a rival technology that would once again change the face of communications.
Papa Bell Creates the Telephone
After years of experimentation, on March 7th, 1876, Bell was granted the first official patent for his telephone invention. And on March 10th, Bell transmitted the first coherent, complete sentence to his assistant, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you,” from his laboratory. He’d proven that his idea worked, and went on to tweak the telephone for many more months until he thought it would sell.
Ironically, this phenomenal technology didn’t catch on immediately. In fact, later on in 1876, telecommunications giant Western Union refused Bell’s offer to sell them the patent for his telephone device for $100,000 – calling his invention “nothing more than a novelty.” But by 1877, trusting his own instincts and intellect, Bell began laying the groundwork to found his own telephone company and to develop a system that would enable his invention’s use on a larger scale.
The Father of All Phone Companies
And after inventing the telephone in 1876 and laying the first regular telephone to send the signal in 1877, Alexander Graham Bell created the very first telephone company in 1878. Bell merged his own trailblazing company with other, smaller ones throughout the years, eventually incorporating them as one in 1885 to form the American Telegraph and Telephone Company. And the phone company we now know best as AT&T went on to dominate telephone communications for the next century.
Throughout that time, even after Bell’s death in 1903, Bell Labs would go on to file hundreds of invention patents and reach all sorts of telecommunications achievements, such as the first transcontinental call in 1915, as well as the first international telephone call in 1926. The Bell phone system would go on to integrate the telephone switchboards (first manually operated, then electronically), to create rotary and touch-tone dialing systems, to install public pay phones in major cities, and to mass produce multiple versions of home phones so that each and every residence in the country could buy one. And every time they innovated, the world of communications changed once more.
The Future of Telecommunications
In the 1940s, Bell’s company went on to become a big player in the mobile phone industry, as well as the cellular phone industry in the 1960s and 70s. In case you’re now wondering to yourself “what’s the difference between a mobile phone and a cellular phone?,” let’s explain.
“Alexander Graham Bell has so drastically changed both humanity and history with his inventions.”
A mobile phone is simply a telephone that’s not corded. It transmits a short signal to a receiver base likely placed in another room in your home, which is connected to a phone line and the larger, wired network. The cell phone, however, has a bit more going on. Two engineers at Bell Labs had diagrammed a network of wireless towers they’d envisioned into what they called a “cellular layout,” because each transmission tower and its coverage map looked like a biological cell. Eventually, the phones they developed to operate on this type of network came to be called cellular phones, and they allowed users to make calls nearly anywhere in the world. However, technically speaking, what you have is a mobile phone operating on a cellular network.
In 1984, the United States required AT&T to split their company up into seven regional operations, which were nicknamed as “Baby Bells” by consumers, with the original company becoming known as “Ma Bell.” Currently, three telecommunications companies still in operation today have Baby Bells as predecessors – AT&T Inc., CenturyLink, and Verizon – all of which provide great service for meeting your TV, Internet, and Home Phone needs.
Later on in the 1980s, AT&T entered into the VOIP market and the DSL market, bringing the Internet into many American homes. And today, their high-speed mobile Internet network covers 365 million people and businesses all across North America.
It’s always fascinating to see how technology has changed and developed throughout history, and how humans – such as Alexander Graham Bell – have so drastically changed both humanity and history with their inventions. It’s also fun to imagine what’s going to be the next evolution in telecommunications technology, as inventors continue to try to better fulfill our basic human desire to communicate with each other.