Who invented the telephone? Why is the invention of the telephone such a scandal? Why does the horse not eat cucumber salad? What was the first text message ever sent? Would you wait half an hour for a mobile phone call? And why is it called a “cell phone”?

history of the telephone timeline invention

Who invented the telephone?

So, who invented the telephone? It might surprise you but the answer are from simple. Was it Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci, Robert Hooke, maybe Innocenzo Manzetti or even, Johann Philipp Reis?

Let’s go back to the start…

who invented the tin can phone accoustic lover's

Who invented the acoustic phone?

The very first “telephone” was created as an experiment by Robert Hooke in 1667. He discovered that he could transmit sound across distance via a taught wire. This type of telephone is known as an acoustic phone aka a “tin can phone”.

Who invented the electric telephone?

The telephone started life as the telegraph. These devices allowed coded messages to travel through wires. You could only send one message at a time and skilled operators needed to send and interpret the messages.

The race was on to create a better system…

The speaking telegram

In 1843 Le Petit journal, interviewed Innocenzo Vincenzo Bartolomeo Luigi Carlo Manzetti about a “speaking telegram”. However, he did not patent the idea. Curiously, the idea was to use the speaking telegram as a way of transmitting music, not speech. In many ways, this could be considered an early form of radio.

who invented the telephone anonio meucci
Antonio Meucci (1808 – 1889), inventor of the telephone?

The Teletrofono

In 1856, Italian born, Antonio Meucci invented a device that sent speech through wires. He used the device to communicate, with his bedridden wife. Speech traveled from his workshop in the basement, to her room on the 2nd floor. A diaphragm, suspended over an electromagnet was placed in each room and connected with wires.

On December 28, 1871, he filed a patent (3335) with the US Patent Office titled “Sound Telegraph”. However, he didn’t have the finances, nor the ability in English, to retain the patent when it expired.

The Reis “Telephon”

In 1857, German, Johann Philipp Reis invented the Reis telephone. The technology was limited. The other person couldn’t really communicate back, only via telegram. It was again, primarily designed to transmit music, not speech. Reis called it the “singing station”.

The “telephon” was also capable of transmitting speech. The phrase “Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat” (The horse does not eat cucumber salad) was clearly understandable when spoken. He used this phrase because it is allegedly, hard to understand in German.

Rather incredibly, the first version of the “telephon” looked exactly like a wooden ear and was about the same size! The end of the “ear canal” had an “eardrum” (made from the skin of a German sausage and sealed with wax). A curved, platinum lever acted as the “hammer”, changing the resistance of the circuit, an early form of current regulator!

The 10th and final design, which later found its way on to the market, was a rather less extravagant, square box.

who invented the telephone Philip Reis
A Replica of the final version of the Reis telephone.
User:Travok32 / CC BY-SA

Even more bizarrely, the first receiver was built using a violin! It had a steel knitting-needle, wrapped in a coil of silk-covered copper wire, placed on the bridge of the violin. In later designs, a wooden box replaced the violin and the copper wire wound around a bobbin, instead of the needle itself.

The great patent scandal of 1875

The answer to the question: “Who invented the telephone?” really is one of the great scandals in the history of invention!

On 14th February 1876 Alexander Graham Bell filed patent 174465 for “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound”. It was the 4th patent filed that day. On the same day, Elisha Gray filed a patent for a telephone, it was the 39th patent filled that day.

Photo illustration based on Alexander Graham Bell’s notebooks and a patent caveat filed by Elisha Gray. Featured in Seth Schulman’s book.

At the time of submitting the patent, Bell had been unsuccessful in transmitting intelligible speech. It was not until February 17th, 1876 that he uttered the famous phrase: “Mr Watson, come here, I want (to see) you.” Bell’s final design was extremely similar to Gray’s (unsuccessful) patent application.

Some claim that Bell’s lawyer learned of Gray’s intended patent and added lines to Bell’s patent application regarding the use of a liquid transmitter.

Which came first? No one can really be sure…

The plot thickens

Alexander Graham Bell, conducted experiments in the same laboratory that Antonio Meucci’s (missing) materials had been stored.

On January 13, 1887, the US government moved to annul Bell’s patent on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation.

In 2002 the US government issued this statement in Congress:

If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell: Now, therefore, be it resolved, that it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.

When was the first intercontinental phone call?

In 1956 the TAT1, the first of many underwater cables, was laid between Britain and America, allowing people to phone intercontinentally.

I know that it is your aim as it is our, to extend this service so that in the near future anyone in either of our countries may talk to anyone in the other. No one can foresee the significance of this latest achievement of science and organization. – Sir Evelyn P Murry, secretary of the General Post Office, 1956

No phone numbers

Early phones had no phone numbers. They required a phone operator. The first phone operators were teenage boys but were later replaced by women. because They were considered “more courteous” and also cost between 50-75% less.

If you think the hands-free headset is a new invention, think again. This photo was taken during a civilian defense show at Madison Square Garden, New York, October 1941.

Phone calls were so essential to the war effort that during WW2 operators stayed at their posts during air raids. Many of these were young women straight out of school.

The automatic telephone exchange was invented by, of all people, an American undertaker called Strowger. The wife of his competitor worked at the manual exchange and Strowger became convinced that she was sending people to her husband instead of him.

In the UK phone operators continued to work until 1986 because the service was cheaper and people enjoyed talking to the operators.

Who invented the phone booth?

In 1881, the first phone booth or “telephone box” opened in Berlin. You had to buy paper tokens to use it.

the first phone box booth
The iconic, British, red phone box.

The iconic, British, red telephone box “the K2” was designed in 1924 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He is famous for Battersea Power Station and the Cambridge Library, to name but a few. Only one K2 phone box remains. You can find it outside the Royal Academy, where it was first placed.

BT (British Telecom) now runs an Adopt a Kiosk scheme. It allows areas to retain their iconic red telephone boxes by re-purposing them into something “more useful”.

The device, invented by Mr. Mac Farlane has a range of over 20 kilometers. Image from the journal “Science and Life” August 1920 no. 4. p.228.

Who invented the mobile phone?

Way back in 1914, the SS Leviathan ship had an onboard radio-phone. However, it wasn’t the most reliable or affordable form of communication.

In 1920, radio enthusiast W W Macfarlane amazed a reporter by calling his wife from a moving car. She was (150 m) 500 ft away.

first car telephone
The first radio-equipped vehicle, Scotland Yard, 1924. The T aerial could fold down.

In 1924 Scotland Yard tested car radios in the UK. They were not particularly incognito.

In 1928 the Detroit Police Department installed wireless receivers in cars. It was a one-way system. “KOP” played music in between announcements to comply with its federal licensing as an entertainment station.

1946 AT&T launched the first mobile phone network. The telephones were installed in cars and could handle just 3, simultaneous calls in one city, at a time. This is because all users need to use a single transmitter.

In 1965 a system upgrade allowed up to 2000 subscribers on just 7 channels. The average wait time for a mobile phone call was half an hour!

Why do we call it a cell phone?

In 1947 an engineer, rather aptly going by the name of Duglas H Ring, proposed a system of hexagonal grid or “cells” that would allow mobile phone users to use the same channels without interference. It would take 20 years for this to become a reality.

first satalite phonecall
The Telstar satellite. Credit: NASA

On July 10, 1962, Telstar I was launched. It transmitted television, telephone calls and fax messages. The satellite could only provide coverage between the US and Europe for 20 minutes of its 2 hours 40 min orbit.

“There is no more important field at the present time than communications and we must grasp the advantages presented to us by the communications satellite to use this medium wisely and effectively to insure greater understanding among the peoples of the world.” – JFK, July 11, 1962

There are now more than 840 satellites in use for communication.

who invented the first mobile phone
The “first mobile phone” A Motorola DynaTAC 8000X from 1984.

What was the first hand-held cell phone?

In 1983 the Motorola DynaTAC, 8000x became the first hand-held cell phone. Nicknamed “the Brick”, it was 33 x 4.5 x 9 cm (13 x 1.75 x 3.5 inches) and weighed about 800g (1.75 lbs), cost $3,995 and gave you 30 minutes of call time or 8 hours of standby.

What was the first text message?

On December 3rd, 1992, British engineer Neil Papworth sent the first text message (sms), from his computer to Vodafone executive Richard Jarvis’ mobile phone. It read “Merry Christmas”. Jarvis was unable to respond.

We now send an estimated 23 billion text messages worldwide each day.

The world’s “first smartphone”. The IBM Simon.

What was the first smartphone?

1992 saw the release of the first “smartphone”: the IBM Simon. It came with a touchscreen, apps such as a notepad, address book, calendar, clock, sketch pad and even supported 3rd party apps. The touch screen was monochrome, required a stylus for accuracy and couldn’t handle multi-touch.

On June 29, 2007, the iPhone 1 was released, changing the scene of the mobile phone industry forever.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, who invented the telephone?

Who do you think invented the telephone? Let me know in the comments below!