Phones: a brief history

They’re ubiquitous. People holding phones as they walk, rarely looking up. People sitting around on their phones on public transport, at social events, on lunch break, connecting them to their cars, connecting them to their devices. No longer are they simply for ringing people, now there is little they cannot do.

But as we all know, it wasn’t always like that.


1876: the first patent

Alexander Graham Bell is credited with the invention of the telephone, mainly because he was the first to patent it in the US (after winning a legal battle against Elisha Gray who simultaneously developed the technology). However, the development of technology that could carry sound over long distances was the result of cumulative research efforts by many individuals who contested the credit for telephone development. You can read more about all of them here.


1877: commercialisation

In mid-1877, the Bell Telephone Company was created to commercialise the new telephone. The first telephone line was also created, running from Boston to Sommerville. The company lasted a couple years before becoming the American Bell Telephone Company and the International Bell Telephone Company … two highly successful businesses that gained incredible profits through their decision to lease telephones rather than sell them in order to gain subscribers to this new system.

It was obviously a great success, as evidenced by the fact that they had nearly 50,000 operational telephones by even 1880. However, this success lead to many accusations of monopolising the telephone industry and it divested its international interests in 1925 following government regulation.


1879: phone numbers

Early phones had originally functioned by requesting the operator connect the caller to a specific name of another phone holder. But with such great early expansion of telephone use, it became impractical to run this system and made the training of telephone operators difficult as they would have to know names of individuals.

With an outbreak of measles in Lowell, Massachusetts, there was a fear that all the telephone operators would become sick and there would be no-one prepared to take on the role in their absence. They decided that by assigning numbers to each phone, it would be far easier for a new operator to fill the role. These early numbers were only 1 to 3 digits long, as there were no more than a couple hundred subscribers in any one area.


1912: direct dialling

This was the first time that a phone call was made without going through an operator to connect the caller and receiver. It was in Britain and allowed people to dial a number and be automatically connected to that number. However, the implementation of this system was slow … in fact, the last operator-connected phone call was made as late as 1976.


1891-1958: overseas phone calls

1891 was the year that the first overseas phone call was made- from London to Paris, as the result of an undersea telephone cable. Unfortunately, only two people could ever talk at once using this system. These calls also required operators until December of 1958, when the system was first automated. This really set the ground work for being able to call anyone anywhere.


1965: cordless phone

It was a great idea … avoiding all the wires hanging off the regular phones. Unfortunately for inventor/musician Teri Pall, his cordless phones could only transmit calls over the distance of a couple kilometres and interfered badly with aircraft communications. Not much has really changed in that regard, as anyone who’s ever flown knows- you have to switch your mobile into aircraft mode!

The signals could also be picked up by a nearby cordless phone due to limited frequency channels, creating hassles for neighbours trying to speak on their phones at the same time.

By the 1980s the technology had been improved and the idea of a cordless phone was catching on in popularity. More than a million were sold in the US during 1982.


1983: the mobile phone

Weighing over a kilo, costing nearly $3000 USD, a 10 hour charging time for 30 minutes battery life … this invention may not have seemed like the future at the time. However, it was actually incredibly popular, despite numerous challenges, including a lack of security and a requirement to stay in the same area while talking (as you couldn’t switch cell coverage as you can today).


1993: the first text messageĀ and the first smartphone

Instant messaging from one person to another. It was accompanied by the introduction of prepaid mobile phone plans which quickly appealed to the younger generation.

The first smartphone was called IBM Simon. It was pretty basic, including a calendar, address book, notes, email and a few apps and sold around 50,000 devices after it’s introduction.


2008: advanced interface

And this was the beginning of the technology we use today. Apple released the iPhone in 2008 and changed the game altogether. While touchscreens had been around previously, the iPhone had a far higher quality of processing and meant that it could be used almost in lieu of a computer for performing day-to-day tasks. Today touchscreen smartphones have become ubiquitous and contain almost everything you could possibly want in a single, light-weight handheld device.




3 thoughts on “Phones: a brief history

  1. You’ve implied the iPhone was the first touchscreen phone, even though you list the IBM Simon as the first smartphone – it also had a touchscreen. Part of the reason Apple doesn’t have as massive marketshare outside of the US is that it didn’t bring anything ground-breaking to the market at a price point that was accessible. By units sold, it has 10% of the global market. By revenue, it’s in the lead, but that’s because they don’t make budget phones. At all. It would be like saying Bulgari is the biggest watch maker in the world, which sure, one watch from them costs as much as a couple thousand mid-budget Seikos, but you wouldn’t say that Bulgari is dominating the watch market and the main influence on the market. Ok, actually, you might if you had a strong Western bias (I just went to a watch exhibit that didn’t even acknowledge the existence of quartz watches….). Anyway, back on my point, the Asian market didn’t notice the iPhone at the beginning because they already had the LG Prada and HTC Wallaby. What Apple brought to the market was multi-touch gestures on a phone and the elimination of all secondary inputs other than touch, which, to be perfectly honest, I’m still not a fan of, and we can see the market isn’t entirely unified on that front with models like the Samsung Note or the secondary market for capacitive pens.

    A lot of the features we now associate with smartphones came out of the Japanese market, even without touchscreens. NFC, mobile payments, GPS navigation, and emoji were all standard in the Japanese market from the late 90s. My 2003 Japanese flip phone that I paid all of $20 for had predictive typing (a feature of Chinese-character based software for decades), GPS maps, nfc, games as robust as Diner Dash, NFC, emoji, and mobile payments. Multitouch came out of tech academia and, oddly enough, the French electronica scene (Apple literally simply bought Fingerworks, who had developed a multi-touch screen for performance).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the clarification. I meant to indicate that the iPhone had in some ways revolutionised the smartphone scene with the quality of its interface. I have updated the post to reflect this and appreciate the feedback šŸ™‚


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