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The history of the telephone, with 50 examples of old phones, including early rotary-dial models

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History of the phone - Alexander Graham Bell

It was different then, The old enemy of distance prowled everywhere. And people were separated by the bigness of this land. That was what started young Alec Bell thinking. He knew well what it meant to be shut off from the sounds of familiar voices. You see, he was a teacher of the deaf.

It wasn’t easy–explaining sound to those who knew only silence. He had to take hold of sound and pry loose her secrets. He had to find out what she looks like. What she’s made of. And then he learned that sound was willing to learn from him.

So he taught sound to change herself into a new form — electricity that wiggled up and down along a wire and carried with it all the laughter and sadness and anger and love of men’s everyday conversation.

Wherever they strung Alec’s wire, distance just shriveled away. The plain, friendly speech of the western farmer could be heard, clear and distinct, in Boston. A man in New York could find out how things were going in California without even raising his voice. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was talking their language.

Some inventions change the way people live all over the world.

If so many of them have happened in America, it’s because in this country there’s always a dream of doing things better. And part of that dream is that each of us can make it come true. (Via John Hancock Life Insurance Company, 1959)

Antique phones from 1920-1930

These six images were part of a series of photographs by Theodor Horydczak, all featuring the latest rotary-dial telephones. Based on the technology shown, the pictures were apparently taken sometime between 1920 and 1930.

Early rotary-dial telephones (1920-1930)


The history of the telephone - Early phone models (2)

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The history of the telephone - Early phone models (3)


The work of Alexander Graham Bell & Thomas Watson

We begin with the case devoted to the experimental work of Bell and Thomas A. Watson, his assistant, before the telephone became a commercial instrument (Figure 3).

It illustrates a fascinating story — that of the laboratory work on the telephone prior to its commercial application. Here we may get a picture of the orderly developments from the mental conception to a practical instrument, and also opportunity to record briefly the times, places, and instruments used in the ” first ” successful tests with the telephone.

The history of the telephone - Early phone models (6)

In this case, the important stages are shown on the second and third shelves from the top, beginning at the left. We first see two original smoked glass records made by Professor Bell and Dr. Clarence John Blake in 1874. They represent sound waves and were made with an apparatus that used parts of a human ear as a means of moving the recording stylus.

It was these experiments that showed Bell that a diaphragm could, by its motion, reproduce all the elements of a sound wave and led to his conception of the electric speaking telephone, while visiting his parents in Brantford, Canada, during August of that year.

The history of the telephone - Early phone models (5)

Next are facsimiles of Bell’s vibrating reeds for his harmonic telegraph, one a transmitter with its contact for making and breaking the current, and the other a receiver.

It was on that memorable day, June 2, 1875, when Bell and Watson were testing a number of these transmitters having various sizes of reeds for the different frequencies, connected by a single wire to a corresponding set of vibrating reed receivers, that the first sounds were transmitted electrically.

The adjusting screw on one of the transmitters happened to be screwed down too far. Watson snapped the reed to open the circuit, but the circuit remained closed through the screw while the reed by its vibration over the pole of its electromagnet was generating that conception of Bell — a current of electricity that varied in intensity precisely as the air was varying in its density within hearing distance of that spring.

That undulating current had passed through the connecting wire to the distant receiver which Bell had to his ear and caused its vibrating reed to reproduce faintly the sound of the vibrating spring of the transmitter.

The history of the telephone - Early phone models (4)

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The First Telephone

Following these exhibits, we see the replica of the telephone made and tested the next day, through which voice sounds were first electrically transmitted — the first telephone.

This transmitter has the same electrical structure as the harmonic telegraph transmitter except that the vibrating reed is hinged at the magnet and the free end under the pole-piece of the electromagnet is secured to a large gold beater’s skin membrane stretched over the mouthpiece.

The varying intensities of the speech sounds caused the skin diaphragm and the attached reed to vibrate and the vibrations of the reed generated a current varying in proportion to the sound intensities. The receiver at the other end of the line was a harmonic vibrating reed receiver the same as used by Bell the day before.

These two tests, June 2 and June 3, 1875, were conducted in the building at 109 Court Street, Boston, Mass., occupied by Charles Williams, Jr., Manufacturer of Electrical Supplies.

Watson, who was employed by Williams, had been assigned to make Bell’s experimental apparatus and to assist him in his work.

The June 2 test with the harmonic telegraph instruments was made in the two adjacent front rooms on the fifth or attic floor. For the June 3 tests, these rooms were so close that the voice carried through the air and would interfere with the tests over the wire. Watson, therefore, ran a wire from one of these rooms down two flights of stairs to the third floor of Williams’s shop, ending it near his own work bench in the rear.

This first telephone, often referred to as the “gallows frame ” telephone, was connected to the line terminating near Watson’s bench and the vibrating reed receiver to the other end in the attic room. Voice sounds were plainly heard over this first telephone line but they were not sufficiently distinct to be intelligible. Bell’s conception in 1874 of the speaking telephone was thus verified on the instrument tested on June 3, 1875.

The history of the telephone - Early phone models (9)

Several modifications of the gallows frame telephone were made immediately afterwards. Two of such are shown in the left corner of the bottom shelf of the case.

The liquid transmitter

The next important step is the “liquid” transmitter of March 10, 1876, seen immediately to the right of the gallows frame telephone. This is a replica of the telephone through which the first articulate words were transmitted and understood at a distance over a wire. Bell applied to this transmitter the principle of an electric spark arrester he had been developing for some time previous for use with his multiple telegraph.

In this, he regulated the resistance between two wires by dipping their ends in a vessel of water, varying the resistance by changing the depth to which the wires were submerged. In the telephone, a wire rod is attached to the stretched membrane and projects downward just dipping into the cup of acidulated water (dilute sulphuric acid).

With the vibrations of the diaphragm, the wire rose and fell in the liquid, producing changes in the resistance of the circuit through the rod and liquid. This caused corresponding changes in the electric current passing over the wire through the vibrating reed receiver with the resulting reproduction of the original sounds.

To the right of the liquid transmitter is the original wire over which the first complete and intelligible sentence was transmitted and at its right is a replica of the vibrating reed receiver.

The first telephone transmission

This first sentence, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” was transmitted on the evening of March 10, 1876, between two rooms at 5 Exeter Place, Boston.

Bell had moved his laboratory from Williams’s attic at 109 Court Street, in January, 1876, for more privacy, and had rented two rooms, again in an attic, at the Exeter Street boarding house.

The room facing Exeter Street was used as his bedroom. The other, at the rear looking out on the back of the buildings on Hayward Place, was fitted as his laboratory. The test wire ran between these two rooms.

On this night, the liquid transmitter was in the laboratory and the vibrating reed receiver was connected to the wire in the bedroom, in which Watson was stationed for the test. Bell accidentally overturned the acid of a battery, spilling some on his clothes. His call to Watson, that first sentence, was an appeal for assistance. Watson could not answer, as he had only the vibrating reed receiver, so he rushed down the hall and into Bell’s laboratory exclaiming, “Mr. Bell, I heard every word you said — distinctly.”

Alexander Graham Bell - Telephone demonstration 1877

The original wire in its own glass case has other historic associations. When the transcontinental telephone service was formally opened on January 25, 1915, in the ceremonies held in New York and San Francisco, this wire was placed in the circuit at New York, where a replica of Bell’s gallows frame telephone was used as a transmitter by Mr. Bell, who repeated that famous first sentence to Mr. Watson, who was at the other end of the line in San Francisco.

On January 23, 1931, Mrs. May Bell Grosvenor, a daughter of Mr. Bell, spoke through another replica with this original wire in the circuit addressing in a clear voice a gathering of more than 4,000 people at a meeting of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D. C.

The history of the telephone - Early phone models (10)

The history of the telephone - Early phone models (7)

The history of the telephone - Early phone models (8)

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The history of the telephone - Early phone models (1)


The evolution of telephones: 1878 to 1946 – How many of ’em can you remember?

“Some of the old-timers must look pretty strange to you. But not to me… I made all of them.

“I started making telephone apparatus of all sorts in 1877, did such a good job that I was asked to join the Bell Telephone team way back in 1882.

“Telephone users get more and better service for their money in this country than anywhere else in the world. I’ve helped make this possible by efficient manufacturing of uniform, high-quality equipment… by volume purchasing of all manner of supplies for the Bell Telephone Companies…by distributing to them, through my warehouses in 29 principal cities, the telephone equipment I make and the supplies I buy… by skillful installation of central office equipment.

“That is a huge job… especially now when the demand for telephone service is at an all-time peak.

“Remember my name… it’s Western Electric.”

Phones from 1878 to 1946

Shown: Telephones from 1878, 1882, 1892, 1897, 1902, 1905, 1914, 1920, 1928 and 1946

Phones from 1878 to 1946

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1959 Alexander Graham Bell

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