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History of the Telephone — from Bell to VoIP and Beyond
Everyone knows the story of Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone.
There’s the story of Bell’s first words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see
you,” that’s indelibly printed on our brains from childhood. However, what some
don’t know is that the telephone was developed in a similar form simultaneously
by Elisha Gray, who lost the patent battle by only a few hours in 1876.
Bell was successful primarily because he understood not only electricity and
the workings of the telegraph, but had a thorough understanding of acoustics,
which most inventors weren’t all that familiar with. While focusing on the
mechanics, they weren’t taking into account the unique qualities of sound that
made transmitting speech so much more complex than simple clicks of the
telegraph. With a background in music and acoustics, Bell could address these
issues more readily.
Chance happening plays role in acceptance
The telephone may not have gained such wide acceptance if, as if by
serendipity, the Centennial Exhibition hadn’t been scheduled in Philadelphia for
only a few months later. Tucked away at a small table in an obscure corner, Bell
did not hope to garner much attention until he drew the attention of the Emperor
Dom Pedro de Alcantara of Brazil, who was amazed by the invention. Immediately,
all the scientists in attendance were clamoring to study the new invention.
At first telephones were seen as a fad that were more for entertainment
purposes than commerce, until newspapers and banks began grudgingly using them
to convey information quickly by virtue of free phone installations. The
publicity from this made them immediately more popular and soon phone exchanges
were set up in most major cities.
In the 1880’s metallic circuits were developed that allowed for long distance
calls, which grew in popularity slowly because of the cost. Later, in the
1890’s, this was overcome by the development of the party line so that families,
especially in rural areas, could split the cost of a line.
Direct dial overcomes operator interference
Until 1891, calls were put through by exchange operators, but this was done
away with by a Kansas City man who invented the direct dial system because he
was paranoid enough to think that the operators were sending his business calls
to competitors. He was an undertaker.
In 1927, the first transatlantic call was made over radio waves. During both
World Wars, telephone advancements grew by leaps and bounds because of heavy
spending by the Defense Department. Innovations resulting from war-time
experiments included Bell Telephone’s first mobile telephone system, which
connected moving vehicles to landlines via radio. Surprisingly, this was as
early as 1946, a year that also saw the development of coaxial cables for major
transmission improvements with less interference.
In the 1960’s, telephones were so much a part of the landscape that Bell
Telephone could no longer continue to use the alpha-numeric codes for telephone
exchanges (remember using numbers like Normandy-7610?) and switched to longer,
all numeric numbers. At the same time, transatlantic cables were being laid to
accommodate the increased demand for intercontinental telephone communication.
One of the most important shifts in telephone history was the launch of the
first telephone satellite in July of 1962. TelStar was a joint venture between
Bell and NASA and revolutionized telephone communications like nothing that had
come before. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit could now be used for long
distance calls without the need for laying endless lines of cable and did away
with the problem of frequent cable damage and repair.
Fiber optics move sound at the speed of light
Fiber Optic Cables were first used for telephone transmission in 1977, when
both GTE and AT&T laid Fiber Optic lines in Chicago and Boston. By the
mid-1980’s, fiber optic cable was the preferred method of telephone
transmission, since it could carry a much higher volume of calls with much less
interference. Since it also carries information faster and farther and resists
lightning strikes, the advantages soon became obvious to the computer and other
industries as well.
When the United States government deregulated telephone service, AT&T, the
telephone communications giant, was immediately inundated with competition from
MCI, Sprint and hundreds of smaller local companies and soon fiber optic lines
were snaking around the country, being dropped along side natural rights of way
such as gas lines and railroads. Telephone costs dropped and a new telephone
service revolution had begun.
Cellular phones take the next step forward
In 1973, Dr. Martin Cooper of Motorola Corporation made what was probably the
first cellular telephone call on a portable handset called the Dyna-Tac. After a
successful test run, he took it to New York to introduce the technology to the
public. By 1977, the cell phone had gone public, but these first models were
cumbersome and generally used by those who were used to keeping in touch by
two-way radio. By no means were they considered something that everyone should
have or even want. They were initially considered a replacement for the mobile
phones already in existence. The difference with cellular was the use of small
“cells” for range of service in order to increase the capacity of calls handled,
dramatically increasing the number of calls capable of being made by
mobile/cellular phone at one time in one area.
The first cellular services used analog technology operating at 800 Megahertz
in a continuous wave. Over time, the power needs of callers increased and the
industry standard moved to a more reliable 1850 MHz with PCS. In 1988, the
Cellular Technology Industry Association was formed to develop guidelines for
cellular service providers and steer developments and improvements in the cell
phone industry. There are now well over 60 million cellular telephone customers,
a staggering number for a service that has been commercially available for only
Next stop, digital!
While the majority of users still have analog cell phones, the new frontier
is definitely digital. Rather than using a continuous wavelength for
transmission, digital chops up the wave into discreet bytes of information and
sends them in “pulses” of data. The up side to this is that digital signals tend
to be more secure when transmitted than analog. It’s also a more efficient use
of bandwidth and provides clearer, cleaner sound quality. If you transmit video
clips or photos (like with the new video or picture cell phones) digital is much
faster, and will be the choice hands-down when you’re integrating the cell phone
and the Internet.
There is a caveat; however, in that digital currently transmits through three
different technologies. This can lead to some problems with coverage. If you are
on a TDMA (time-division multiple access) system and traveling in an area that
has digital coverage that’s CDMA (code-division multiple access), you could run
The answer for now is the combined analog-digital technology that providers
are touting. This offers the great coverage of analog when needed and the great
speed and quality of PCS/digital.
Telephone conferencing arrives on the scene
The first real “audio conferencing” could be said to have been the party
lines set up back in the early years of telephone use, although at that time the
advantages of a party line for multiple users weren’t grasped except as a way to
save money. In fact, the fact that several people in different locations could
pick up and talk on the line at the same time was considered a nuisance and was
actively discouraged as “eavesdropping.”
When party lines were phased out, the idea of multiple conversations were
forgotten until businesses began seeking ways to carry on meetings via telephone
in order to save travel expenses and link teams together over distances. The
concept was revisited with new parameters; this time restrictions needed to be
in place, and the lines had to be open only when needed and desired.
Soon companies around the globe were offering to coordinate conference
calling for companies based on either flat rates, monthly fees or based on call
volume, with a trained operator setting up connections between each participant
on a dedicated line so that groups of up to ten could talk simultaneously. Their
bulk long-distance rates enabled them to pass savings along to their customers.
Telephone manufacturers like Polycom, AT&T and Panasonic also jumped on the
bandwagon, developing office telephone systems that enabled users to dial a
client, put them on hold then call up a third party and connect the three
callers into one conversation.
The Internet soon brought competition, however, to audio conferencing and the
cost of long distance telephone calls. Even with lower rates based on bulk
purchasing and group rates, Internet telephony is gaining ground on traditional
telephone audio conferencing because it’s so much cheaper.
VoIP, the Internet and the eventual demise of traditional telephone
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) soon became popular for telephone
communications because it avoids the toll charges of standard telephone
connections. Dial-up internet connections provided near “toll-quality” voice
communications, and with broadband connections the increased data throughput
enabled businesses to use VoIP in conjunction with other Internet services like
data sharing and video conferencing. With the money saved using VoIP, it seems
obvious that using analog phone lines for telephone conferencing will soon be a
thing of the past.
Most VoIP audio conferencing technologies give you the capability to network
multiple groups or parties from different geographical locations, making it
simple to hold an international sales staff meeting. Web conferencing solutions
using VoIP from companies such as Voxwire, TTCGlobalTalk and VoiceCafe can
provide almost unlimited conference room seats for a meeting, limited only by
the bandwidth of the VoIP server.
As the Internet becomes a standard part of any suite of office equipment,
analog telephone services, audio conferencing and their equipment will soon
become obsolete. Audio conferencing will be done more and more on the Internet
using VoIP based web conferencing services offering powerful collaborative
services that go beyond just simple voice communications. For placing calls,
digital phone services like Vonage and Packet8 that implement VoIP over
broadband connections will step in to offer less expensive, more comprehensive
calling options to meet the needs of individuals and companies going into the
This article on the “The History of the Telephone” reprinted with
Copyright © 2004-2005 Evaluseek Publishing.
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