A History of the Telephone

The person who is most widely credited for inventing the telephone is the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell. Born in Edinburgh, Bell emigrated to Canada and then moved to Boston, USA in 1872. Bell was a teacher for the deaf, which led him to become interested in the production of sounds. This led to a study of electricity and magnetism, to see whether sounds could be artificially reproduced. In 1875, Bell constructed his first experimental telephone.

The earliest telephones had only one wire for both transmitting and receiving of voice. They also had only one opening for sound, the telephone user alternately listened and spoke into the same hole. Sometimes the instruments were operated in pairs at each end, making conversation more convenient but also more expensive.

The first telephones were leased in pairs to the subscriber, for example one for the home and one for the office, and the subscriber had to arrange with telegraph contractors to construct a line between them. Users who wanted the ability to speak to three or four different offices or shops would obtain and set up three or four pairs of telephones.

Before the invention of automatic telephone exchanges, the assistance of a telephone operator was required to connect the two telephone lines. The caller would speak to an operator at the central telephone exchange, who would connect the caller to the correct circuit in order to complete the call.

When telephone exchanges were first established, the companies primarily employed men to act as the operators. However, many of the young men initially employed proved likely to play pranks whilst on the phone and often didn’t connect the lines correctly. This resulted in the telephone exchange becoming one of the first businesses to extensively employ women.

Strowger, an undertaker, was motivated to invent an automatic telephone exchange after having difficulties with the local telephone operators, one of whom was the wife of a competitor. He was said to be convinced that she, as one of the manual telephone exchange operators, was sending calls “to the undertaker” to her husband. He conceived his invention in 1888, and was awarded a patent for an automatic telephone exchange in 1891. The Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company was founded in the same year.

The company installed and opened the first commercial exchange in his then-home town of La Porte, Indiana on November 3, 1892, with about 75 subscribers and a capacity for 99. The first exchanges were trialled in England in 1912 by the British General Post Office, which operated the British telephone system at the time. The last UK manual exchange, which was on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, only switched to an automatic exchange in 1976!

The next major telephone innovation was the mobile phone with the first handheld mobile phone demonstrated by Motorola in 1973, using a handset weighing around 2 kilograms. It took ten years for the first commercially available mobile phone to hit the shops, it was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. The battery life was around 30 minutes and it cost over £2,300!

Following that in 1995 a company called VocalTech pioneered the first widely available VoIP phone, that connected one PC user to another PC User. It was another couple of years before the technology developed but by 2003 25% of all calls were estimated to be made by VoIP and by 2025 the majority of calls will be made that way as legacy systems are set to be removed by then