100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Telephone
Year of Invention: 1876

What Is It? An electrical device that converts sound waves into electrical sig-
nals and then back to audible sound waves.

Who Invented It? Alexander Graham Bell (in Boston)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

The telephone was the first communications superhighway and started the idea of personal mass communication. For the first time in history people were able to communicate directly with someone not in their physical presence. If you could reach a phone, you could reach the world! That concept revolutionized human perceptions of space and community. Telephones provide safety, security, connection, and education as well as instant links to family and friends.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Humans had always either talked face-to-face or written letters. Then, in 1832, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. The telegraph changed the world by opening the possibility of instant, distance communication. Letters now took seconds to travel hundreds of miles, not weeks. Still, the telegraph was not a conversation. Morse’s dots and dashes were just a rapidly transmitted letter.


How Was the Telephone Invented?

In 1874, 27-year-old Alexander Graham Bell lived in Boston, teaching the deaf to speak. He also struggled to invent two electrical machines: the harmonic telegraph (a machine to send many telegraph signals over the same wire) and the phonautograph (a machine that drew the shapes of sounds by tracing their vibrations with pens). By late 1874, Bell realized he could combine the two ideas and transmit voice electrically over telegraph wires—a telephone.

Early in 1875, Bell teamed with 20-year-old electrical engineer Thomas Watson to develop his telephone. By June 2, the pair (crammed into their small, poorly ventilated third-floor walk-up apartment at 5 Exeter Place, Boston) still couldn’t send anything but “clicks” down an electrical line, and Morse had done that 30 years before with his telegraph.

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