Those seemingly insignificant words spoken in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Watson marked the beginning of a new era in human communication. The words were not shouted or delivered by courier. Instead, they were transmitted electronically through a prototype telephone in what history has recorded as the world’s first telephone call.
From the telephone’s odd earliest days to the sleek smartphones we carry now, the device has undergone revolutionary changes in its 144-year history. The model patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 was a single wire voice transmitter between two fixed locations. Inventions over the ensuing decades resulted in a device with greater versatility and one that would prove easier for consumers to use. Today’s versions bear little resemblance to early telephone prototypes.
In the years leading up to 1876, Bell worked on his invention at a fevered pace, competing with at least a half dozen other inventors. One man, Elisha Gray, delivered his telephone prototype to the United States patent only a few hours after Bell. It was this twist of fate that led to the acceptance of Bell’s patent application over Gray’s. Years of litigation followed, but Bell ultimately prevailed and remained in control of the telephone patent.
Born into a Scottish family of scientists, Bell followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a speech therapist. Among his more notable patients in Boston, Bell worked with Helen Keller. When not seeing patients, Bell dabbled in the development of communication devices. He was working on improvements to the telegraph when his research led to the development of a telephone prototype.
In 1877, a year after Bell patented his telephone prototype, the first telephone line in the country was established between Boston and Sommerville, Massachusetts. That same year, Bell founded the Bell Telephone Company, which would later absorb smaller competitors to form the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1880. The firm would dominate the industry for decades until litigation broke its monopoly.
In January 1879, the Indiana District Telephone Company obtained permission from the City of Indianapolis to erect telephone poles and wires in the city. Indiana’s first telephone exchange was subsequently established at the corner of Washington Street and Virginia Avenue in downtown Indianapolis.
By the end of 1880, over 40,000 lines crossed the United States. These lines were single-use, only allowing a caller to reach one fixed location. Multiple parties could not use the same line to connect. As a result, the commercialization of the technology on a larger scale was not feasible.
That changed in 1889 when Almon Strowger of Kansas City invented a multi-party switch that allowed one line to connect to up to 100 others. He patented his design in 1891. The telephone exchange would become an integral component of the device’s design for close to 100 years. Strowger and his business partners formed the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange in LaPorte, Indiana. The location was chosen because the city had no telephone system in place at that time. The first exchange using Strowger’s switch was installed the following year to great fanfare. A special train was arranged to bring observers from Chicago for a public demonstration. A brass band heralded the device’s successful test.
The next major development came in 1889 when William Gray patented the first payphone. The device was installed in a Hartford, Connecticut bank. By 1905, 2.2 million phone booths had been installed across the United States.
In 1896, the rotary dial was invented. The device made communication between parties much easier by removing the operator. By the 1910s, rotary phones were widely available for business and home use. Technology continued to evolve at a rapid pace. In 1915, the first transcontinental call was made from New York to San Francisco. Transatlantic calls wouldn’t begin until 1956.
In the 1940s, AT&T began to experiment with the use of a tone to establish telephone connections. After almost 20 years of research and development, touch-tone dialing was commercially introduced in 1963. Rotary phones were subsequently replaced with push-button phones.
Meanwhile, a team of inventors at Motorola was working on a revolutionary concept – the idea that telephones could operate on frequencies rather than through wires. The first wireless phone call was made by Dr. Martin Cooper in 1973, ushering in a new age of technology. Ten years later, the Motorola DynaTac, the world’s first cell phone, hit the markets. The cumbersome device was 13 inches tall, weighed 1.75 pounds, and cost a whopping $3,995. As technology improved, devices were scaled into smaller, more refined models.
Early cell phones allowed for voice communication only. On December 3, 1992, the first recorded SMS text message was delivered. It simply stated, “Merry Christmas.” Today, text messages have become a ubiquitous form of cellular communication.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, cellular infrastructure was improved to allow for faster, more secure, connections. Today’s cell phones are designed to function like handheld computers. The camera on some smartphone models rivals professional photography equipment. Video chat allows for face-to-face conversations. Many of us use our phones to check email, post messages on Facebook, and utilize a variety of apps. Cell phone users can now make a cable payment, adjust their thermostat, or view a home security feed, all from a tiny phone. Today’s cell phones bear little resemblance to their forebears.
What will communication devices of the future look like? It’s anyone’s guess where the human imagination will ultimately take technology, but it seems likely future phones will combine even more computing functionality into increasingly unique designs.