Have you ever held your shiny new smart phone; full of widgets and apps, internet, calculators, diaries and games , but been SO frustrated because you couldn’t actually use it for CALLING someone?!
Have you ever found yourself in the ridiculous predicament where you’re stranded on a beach, desperate to call a friend because your car has broken down, but your all singing, all dancing i-phone refuses to text or call because the signal is out of range (but it can offer you tons of games to play on while you freeze to death overnight)?!
Or similarly, ever been in a terrible hurry for a meeting and tried to text your colleagues to warn of an imminent late arrival, but you can’t get any message written as your screen keeps switching to a 45 degree angle and back again; trying to be helpful in giving you both landscape and portrait aspects for you to write on?! I have a mobile phone I can’t call or message on!! What a bizarre concept (I know I’m not alone..).
Over the space of nearly 150 years, the invention and development of the telephone has been one of mankind’s most significant features in assisting globalisation of communication, whilst simultaneously helping the world generally feel like a smaller place. The experiment which began with a large complicated implement for assisting the study of vocal vibrations within a controlled academic setting has turned into a miniscule hand–held device , able to send video links and messages all over the world. But only when it works , that is.
So, exactly what has happened to this concept over the many years? Having become so advanced and intrinsic to human communication, in recent times it has become an infinitely frustrating device, quite literally too clever for its own words. Where did it all go wrong?
On 10th March 1876 Alexander Graham Bell patented the premier edition of the telephone. The first creator to obtain a patent for an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically”, he had spent many years experimenting with many primitive sound transmitters and receivers. As Professor of Vocal Physiology within Boston University, Bell would train teachers how to instruct deaf students. With this in mind, he had experimented with the phonograph mechanism in recording the vibrations of speech. This apparatus consisted essentially of a thin membrane vibrated by the voice and carrying a light-weight stylus, which traced an undulatory line on a smoked glass plate. The line was a graphic representation of the vibrations on the membrane and the waves of sound in the air.
After Bell and his assistant Watson discovered that movements of the reed alone in a magnetic field could reproduce the frequencies and timbre of spoken sound waves, Bell reasoned by experimenting with a phonautograph, that a skin diaphragm would reproduce sounds like the human ear when connected to a steel or iron reed or hinged armature. On July 1, 1875, he instructed Watson to assisting him in trying out this theory. A second membrane-device was built for use as a transmitter. This was to be the “gallows” phone. A few days later both devices were tried together, one man at each end of the line, which ran from a room in the inventor’s house in Boston to the cellar underneath. Bell, in the work room, held one instrument in his hands, while Watson in the cellar listened at the other. Bell spoke into his instrument, “Do you understand what I say?” and Mr. Watson answered “Yes”. The first representation of a telephone was born.
Although its first form of creation the telephone was cumbersome, clattery and crackly when trying to converse with a friend or relative, its development improved rapidly and by August 1876, Bell was able to make his first successful “long distance” call to a friend in Ontario, some 10 miles away.
In 1877 and 1878, Thomas Edison invented the carbon microphone, used in all telephones along with the Bell receiver until the 1980s. The carbon microphone was also used in radio broadcasting and public address work right throughout the 1920s.
In the 1890s a new smaller style of telephone was introduced, packaged in three parts. The transmitter stood on a stand, known as a “candlestick” for its shape. When not in use, the receiver hung on a hook with a switch in it, known as a “switchhook”. Previous telephones required the user to operate a separate switch to connect either the voice or the bell. With the new kind, the user was less likely to leave the phone “off the hook”. Cradle designs were also used at this time, having a handle with the receiver and transmitter attached, separate from the cradle base that housed the magneto crank and other parts. They were larger than the “candlestick” and more popular.
By 1904 America was the leading communications nation with over three million phones in daily operation. This phenomenon soon also spread to Scandanavia, specifically Sweden and Norway who also became leaders in phone technology and intertelecommunications during the 1920’s and 30’s.
After the 1930s, very significant changes occurred which produced phones resembling the ones used today. The base of the telephone also enclosed its bell and induction coil, and power was supplied to each subscriber line by central office batteries instead of the user’s local battery which required periodic service. For the next half century, the network behind the telephone grew progressively larger and much more efficient, and after the rotary dial was added the instrument itself changed little until touch-tone signalling started replacing the rotary dial in the 1960s.
Around this time, the mobile phone was starting to appear in its infancy. The first can be traced back to two-way radios permanently installed in vehicles such as taxicabs, police cruisers, railroad trains, and the like, and had been used for essential communictions purposes. Later versions such as the so-called transportables or “bag phones” were equipped with a cigarette lighter plug so that they could also be carried, and thus could be used as either mobile two-way radios or as portable phones by being patched into the telephone network.
In December 1947, Bell Labs introduced engineers who proposed hexagonal cell transmissions for mobile phones. These ideas were still largely undeveloped until the 1960’s when Richard H. Frenkiel and Joel Engel also of Bell Labs saw a relevant niche in the market and developed the electronics to format the prototype cellular phone in Canada.
Following years of further trial and error experiments on April 3, 1973 Motorola manager passed a cellular phone call to Dr. Joel S. Engel, in front of reporters at a press conference. This began the era of the handheld cellular mobile phone.
Over the last thirty years, both intranet and internet technology have encouraged further applications and devices to be tagged onto the mobile users wish-list. The designs have changed from large “brick in the handbag” sized phones with buttons, to micro handheld touchscreen slider phones. It is estimated that today around 5.3 billion people subscribe to mobile networks all over the world, requesting an ability to reach global information at the swipe of a screen or the touch of a button. Despite so many networks providing coverage for air space on mobile phones, there is such a high demand for the same coverage in a rapidly moving global society that there simply isn’t the current capacity out there for perfect reception all of the time.
As for my dancing touchscreen… a spokesman for Samsung very helpfully stated it was merely “a design feature, open to personal choice”.
Time to go back to the phonograph maybe.
© Tess Egerton 2011