There are a few inventions that truly changed the world. The phone is one of them. It has helped man conquer the limits imposed by nature and distance. The telephone is one of the biggest “disruptors”, starting from the late 1800s. Alongside electricity and the internal combustion engine, the telephone has revolutionised our way of life.
With it, we have connected opposite ends of the world. Until today, this revolution continues to evolve, with fibre-optics, satellites, and mobile phone technology. Incremental changes, including the doubling of processing speed every 18 months or so since the 1960s. With cellular phones (and smartphones), we can send data, capture memories, explore the web —from a hand-held device. But the history of the telephone is not a straight line. It’s an amazing work of experimentation, discovery, incremental improvements.
Following is a brief history of the telephone:
1672: Robert Hooke creates the first acoustic telephone. Very much like the two-soup-can toys you made as a child, Hooke found that sound could be sent over a wire or string from a mouthpiece on one side to an earpiece on the other.
1796: Telegraph device built. It consisted of 44 wires that allowed 22 characters to be transmitted. Electrostatic machines generated the signals which were transmitted at a distance of 30 miles (48km). Initially, the set-up was cruel: the signals were received by servants in Aranjuez, Spain, holding live wires. The poor servants jumped at every shock triggered by someone in Madrid. It was cruel — but it worked. Later, the device was reconstructed to display sparks as the signals are sent, rather than having people getting electrocuted.
1834: Italian inventor Antonio Meucci built a kind of acoustic telephone as a way to communicate between the stage and control room at the theatre "Teatro della Pergola" in Florence. This telephone is constructed on the model of pipe-telephones on ships and is still working.
1838: Samuel B. Morse discovered that you could transmit messages by pressing down or releasing a button in intervals to transmit a pattern of sounds. This was known as Morse code.
1849: Innocenzo Manzetti, an Italian inventor born in Aosta, considered the idea of a telephone (from as early as 1844), and enhanced it as an “automaton” which he built in 1849.
1857: Johann Philipp Reis, a self-taught German scientist and inventor, developed his telephone from 1857 on. Allegedly, the transmitter was difficult to operate. The needle and the contact were critical to the device's operation. It was called a "telephone", since it did transmit voice sounds electrically over distance, but was not a commercially practical telephone.
1858: Cyrus West Field sought to lay the first transatlantic telephone cable, connecting England and the US by telegraph. This project was met with setbacks before it was completed in August 1858.
1867: Dots and dashes were flashed with signal lamps for the first time at sea in 1867. The idea came from British admiral Phillip Colomb, who used the signal lamp design of Arthur C.W. Aldis and devised a code to communicate with other ships. The code was much like Morse code; eventually, Morse code won out.
1876: Since coming to America as a teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell (who first moved to Canada from the UK) had sought a way to transmit speech electronically. He invented the telephone in March 1876.
1880: Bell set up a lab and worked to improve his invention. The result? The photophone, which was capable of sending sound on a beam of light. Bell made what was essentially history's first wireless call!
1915: Bell makes the first coast-to-coast phone call in January 1915. This was the first long-distance call from a land line. Bell's call helped make long-distance calling a reality.
1927: The first telephone service from the U.S. to the U.K. was set up in January 1927. The first phones were radio phones, but there were fading and interference issues. Three minutes of time on these phones cost nearly $10.
1930: AT&T created a two-way videotelephone called the Iconophone. The Iconophone let people see, hear, and reply to each other in real time. The idea didn't see much commercial success.
1934: The first radio telephone calls are placed from the U.S. to Japan, facilitating communication across the Pacific Ocean.
1936: The first public videophone network is set up in Nazi Germany at a trade fair. Use of the network was limited to "Aryans only."
1946: In June 1946, a telephone call was made from an automobile-based phone for the first time. It wasn't a very large mobile network, due in part to the high cost of installation.
1947: In 1946, an electronic gizmo known as a transistor was created by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley. This would replace large vacuum tube systems and allow computers to be merged with electronics, the beginnings of smartphone development.
1956: The first transatlantic telephone cable makes calls much more affordable than the radio telephone system it helped to replace.
1962: The Communications Satellite Act is passed, allowing the use of satellites in telecommunications.
1964: Charles Kao and George Hockham publish a paper proving that fiber-optic communication was possible.
1965: Trials begin of the first picturephone service. In July, Union Carbide Corporation started testing on the first picturephone network.
1973: Martin Cooper places the first cellular mobile call to Joel Engle, a rival at Bell Labs. The first cell phone took a year to recharge, and the maximum talk time was only 30 minutes.
1977: The FCC officially launches the first primary cellular test network. It only opened in few select areas, like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
1979: Ship-to-shore communication takes a leap forward as the International Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT) is established. Its aim was to provide reliable communication to marine vessels for increased safety.
1981: The first automated commercial cellular network, called 1G Generation, is launched in Japan. At the same time, the Nordic Mobile Telephone system is established in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
1983: Motorola releases the DynaTac mobile telephone in 1983. Nicknamed "The Brick," it had one hour of talk time and eight hours of standby.
1989: Only a few years after "The Brick" is released, Motorola develops the lightest cellular device on the market. The phone is called the MicroTAC and weighs in at only 12 ounces.
1992: The world's first commercial text message was sent out in 1992. It was written and sent by the employees of a company known as Logica CMG.
1993: The first smartphones came out for the public to buy. IBM created one called Simon, which had a touch screen and could send and receive faxes.
1995: Sprint opens the first personal communications service. It was the first cellular network designed for private use for individuals who own cellular phones.
1998: A company called Iridium puts a canopy of 64 satellites is into place. They also made the first hand-held satellite phones, replacing "bag" phones with ones that were much less cumbersome. This move would lead to development of the modern smartphone.
2003: Technology is developed to transmit phone calls over Internet protocols. Long-distance charges could be avoided through the use of established computer networks.
2007: First-generation iPhone released.
2008: Both the iTunes Store and the Android market open up for smartphone users in 2008. This heralds the beginning of a huge surge in the popularity of apps. The first commercially available smartphone running Android was the HTC Dream, also known as T-Mobile G1, announced on September 23, 2008.
2010: Smartphones continue to develop. The first 4G handset is released this year, bringing data onto consumers' phones at blazing-fast speeds.
2020: On March 6, 2020 the first-ever all-5G smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S20, was released.