Dialing for success - the story of the telephone
Communication has always been the topmost priority for man in society; it is the only way he can put his thoughts across. Man has always found the need to communicate, using all kinds of methods, from hand signs, smoke signals, mirrors, drums to letters.

The Morse code and telegraphy made the first foray in expanding communication but the telephone literally opened the floodgates. Today the telephone has expanded beyond what its inventor Alexander Graham Bell could have dreamt of - cellular phones, pagers, mobile phones, fiber optics, the fax machine and of course the Internet, which has almost networked the entire world. Tracing the evolution of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and its journey over the years.


The inventor

Born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alexander Graham Bell took to writing and reading at a young age. His entire family right from his grandfather was enthralled by sound and its various possibilities. His mother was almost totally deaf but Bell found a new way to communicate with her, unlike others who used the ear tube. He would communicate by speaking in low sonorous sounds very close to her forehead. He believed that she would be able to hear him through vibrations that his vocal intonations made. This early insight would stand him in good stead to develop more elaborate theories of sound waves. Bell was also a gifted pianist, and learned to discriminate pitch early on and make observations in chords and sound.


Bell and his parents moved to Canada and then onto Boston after tuberculosis claimed both his brothers' lives. Bell himself had tuberculosis but survived the disease.

In 1871, Bell began teaching at a school for the hearing impaired in Boston. It was here that his ideas about transmitting speech electrically began to take sharper focus. He read physics and attended lectures on science and technology, while simultaneously working to create, what he called, "harmonic telegraphs".


With the telegraph line completed in 1843, telegraphy with Morse code had grown into a thriving industry. But it had its drawbacks like single or limited messages and was dependent on hand-delivery of these messages. By drawing parallels between multiple messages and multiple notes in a musical chord, Bell began to work on the idea of "harmonic telegraph", which would eventually lead him to his revolutionary invention.

By this time Bell knew that speech was composed of sound vibrations. He began to wonder whether these vibrations or waves could be converted into an electrical transmission. Working simultaneously with pitch, electricity and speaking machines, in a flash of inspiration, he realized that sound waves could be reproduced in a continuous, undulating current.


"My God, it talks!"

Bell introduced the telephone to the world on March 10, 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It is said that Brazil's Dom Pedro exclaimed, "My God, it talks!", as Bell's voice filled into the hall. The first words to travel through the wires were "Mr. Watson--come here--I want to see you."

Two years later, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first US president to have a telephone in the White House. His first call was to Bell, who was waiting 13 miles away. The president's words were reported to have been "Please speak more slowly."


The same year, Bell set up the first telephone exchange in Connecticut and by 1884, long distance connections were made between Boston, Massachusetts and New York City.

After the invention of the telephone, Bell continued with explorations in communication. He is said to have invented the photophone-transmission of sound on a beam of light, the precursor of fiber optics. He also invented techniques for teaching speech to the deaf. In all, Bell was granted 18 patents in his own name, and 12 others, which he shared with partners. Bell died on August 2, 1922 in Nova Scotia.


The impact

The telephone was not an overnight success. Many even saw the telephone as a toy; some dismissed it saying it would be an invasion of privacy. But despite these hurdles, the telephone began catching the public imagination. Telephone exchanges began to appear, though the initial years were fraught with several problems including transmission difficulties.

But soon enough the telephone began to change the landscape of society. The invention of the telephone resulted in the rapid dissemination of information; it ushered in the most critical component - speed. With increased speed in access of information, technological and scientific advancements also began to expand.


The telephone had its impact on the social and economic fronts. On the social side, it altered people's personal lives, enabling them to communicate on a long distance basis, to their near and dear ones. Isolated farmhouses could now be in touch with the town. Emergency services, like being in touch with hospitals began to save lives. The impacts were many.

On the economic front, apart from establishing the telecommunication industry, it networked companies and businesses, changing the way people conducted their business. It ushered in efficiency, cutting costs and time.


As historian and author of 'History of the Telephone' Herbert Casson wrote - "Who could have foreseen what the telephone bells have done to ring out the old ways and to ring in the new; to ring out delay and isolation and to ring in the efficiency and friendliness of a truly united people?"