The Telephone-Process & Complications

The telephone is one of the pieces of technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is said to have numerous creators, though Alexander Graham Bell is given the most of the credit, as he was the first to patent it in March 1876. Entitled, “Improvement in Telegraphy,” that was exactly was Bell’s telephone was intended to be. Casson describe how Bell “toiled at his musical telegraph and he dreamed of replacing the telegraph and its cumbrous sign language by a new machine that would carry, not dots and dashes, but the human voice.”1 Rather than the complicated codes needed while using the telegraph, normal human speech could be sent and received without actual face-to-face contact. Coe describes Bell’s first telephone communication, “Bell’s famous transmission, ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!’ took place on March 10, 1876. It is part of the myth and legend of the telephone, and by many it has been assumed that this was the first intelligible transmission of human speech.”2

But Bell’s call was not the first time human speech had been electrically transmitted. Elisha Gray had used a liquid contact transmitter before which allowed for the necessary current for speech transmission to be established. It took forty weeks to get the telephone to do more than make strange inarticulate noises.3 And once it did “speak.” Bell realized that this liquid transmitter would not be suitable for commercial use.4 Bell’s telephone had a single magnetic unit that acted as a receiver and transmitter. This was one of the major complications as it was frustrating to the user that they had to constantly be moving their head to use it both ways.5 Loomis describes “the first commercial telephone in 1877” as “a box telephone, about the size and shape of a breadbox. This instrument [telephone] served as a receiver, transmitter, and calling device all in one…And its single opening was used for both talking and listening. The awkwardness of this arrangement led to the development, later in 1877, of the hand telephone.” 6. Another complication was that two telephones were directly connected to each other, preventing either party to call anyone else. These were not the only problems in the early use of the telephone however. Speaking of George Maynard, who was in charge of the telephone network in the Washington, D.C. area, Loomis states, “From 1877 to 1879 [George Colton] Maynard also wrote dozens of letters complaining, often bitterly, about shoddy workmanship, faulty design, and instrument failure due to loss of magnetization, corrosion, and the absence of quality control.”7 Although the early telephone had a complicated process of sending and receiving information, it was still able to succeed through new developments and innovations that made it less awkward than the first and an overall better quality machine.

  1. Herbert N. Casson, “The Birth of the Telephone: Its Invention Not an Accident but the Working Out of a Scientific Theory-Bell and Watson Teaching the Infant to Say Words,” 12672-12674, in The Worlds Work Vol XIX (Doubleday, Page & Co., 1910), (accessed September 28, 2011).
  2. Lewis Coe, The Telephone and Its Several Inventors (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995), 2.
  3. Casson, 12674.
  4. Coe, 2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Richard T. Loomis, “The Telephone Comes to Washington: George C. Maynard, 1839-1919,” Washington History 12, no 2 (Fall/Winter 2000/2001): 27, (accessed September 28, 2011)
  7. Ibid, 28.

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