The telephone was a large part of modern life in the 20th Century, and still continues a prominent place in society today.
Let’s admit it – we’re all probably a bit guilty of taking the old phone for granted.
Like many big discoveries, the telephone’s invention was a combination of hard work, controversy, and, well, lawyers. Here are 8 facts you probably didn’t know about the invention of the telephone.
The telephone was an evolution of the telegraph
While a professor at New York University in 1835, Samuel Morse proved that signals could be transmitted by wire. He used pulses of current to deflect an electromagnet, which moved a marker to produce written codes on a strip of paper inventing Morse Code. A public demonstration followed in 1838, and in 1843 the United States Congress funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. His first telegraph message became world famous, and ushered in an era of nearly instantaneous communication.
Bell first focused on improving the telegraph
Although highly successful, the telegraph was limited to receiving and sending one message at a time. Bell theorized about the possibility of transmitting multiple messages over the same wire at the same time. His “harmonic telegraph” was based on the principle that several notes could be sent simultaneously along the same wire if the notes or signals differed in pitch.
Alexander Graham Bell won the patent for the telephone when Elisha Gray was late
Another inventor, Ohio born Elisha Gray, invented a device similar to the telephone while working on his own solutions to improve the telegraph.
The day Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone, February 14, 1876, Gray’s attorney filed a Patent Caveat, which would give him 90 days to file an additional patent application. The caveat would prevent anyone else that filed an application on the same or similar invention from having their application processed for ninety days.
But because Bell’s patent (received 5th in line on February 14) arrived before Gray’s patent caveat (received 30th in line), the United States Patent Office decided not to hear the caveat and awarded Bell the patent, #174465. Gray would start a lawsuit against Bell in 1878, which he would ultimately lose.
Antonio Meucci’s telephone proceeded both Gray and Bell by nearly 5 years
Italian inventor Antonio Meucci had filed his own patent caveat for a telephone device… in December of 1871. But, Antonio Meucci did not renew his caveat after 1874 and Alexander Graham Bell was granted the patent for in March of 1876. Still, some scholars consider Meucci the real inventor of the telephone.
Bell’s relationship with the deaf community helped inspire the invention
Bell’s motivation for inventing the telephone may have been influenced by his relationship with the deaf community.
Bell taught students at four different schools for the deaf. He also opened a school for deaf and hearing students together, but the school had to be closed after two years.
Bell married one of his former pupils, Mabel Hubbard, In addition, Bell’s mother was hard of hearing/deaf.
Incidentally, another inventor, Robert Weitbrecht, who was himself deaf, invented the telephone typewriter in 1950. TTY, as it was dubbed, has become a common way for deaf people to communicate over telephone lines for many years.
Western Union passed on an offer to buy the telephone for $100,000
In 1876, a cash-strapped Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the first successful telephone offered to sell his telephone patent to Western Union for $100,000. They declined.
Bell invented a “wireless” telephone too, in 1880
On June 3, 1880, Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the first wireless telephone message on his “photophone.” The device allowed for the transmission of sound on a beam of light, without wires.
This technology was a rudimentary version of what we know as fiber optics today.
Descendents of Both Bell and Gray’s companies survive to this day
In 1885, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was started to manage the long distance calls of Bell’s American Bell Telephone Company.
AT&T, broken up in deregulation in the 1980s, but reformed in the 2000s, still exists today.
In 1872, Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, the great-grandparent of todays Lucent Technologies.