No. 748:
Using the Telephone

Today, consumers finish inventing the telephone. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1910 telephones were 30 years old. One European in 150 had one. In America one person in 11 had a phone. That means 13 times as many Americans had access to phones by 1910.

Yet the telephone had come out of Europe. Phillipp Reis built a crude phone in Germany in 1861. He coined the word telephone. Fifteen years later Bell created a far better phone. But he used the work of the German scientist Helmholtz.

How could our phones be so far ahead of Germany's or anyone else's? In 1911 an English writer, Herbert Laws Webb, tried to see why. He blamed European government monopolies. We also had a telephone monopoly. But we'd set up a system of regulation that forced our monopoly to respond to its public. We managed to do what Europe couldn't.

Why had Europe let her phones become isolated from the public? Webb points to the telegraph. The world was solidly wired for telegraphy in 1910. European telegraphs were part of the government post offices.

At first, telegraph companies had turned telephone inventors away. Telegraphy was businesslike. Phones were frivolous.

But the public wanted telephones. As popular appeal mounted, Europe turned around and nationalized its new phone companies. They made them a branch of telegraphy -- cast in the same image. European phones were for business and news. You would never make a social invitation over the phone.

Alexander Graham Bell knew his phones would become a social machine. He talked about it. And a quality of play was always part of his brilliant inventive work. Once he made a phone with a triple mouthpiece so a vocal trio could sing into it.

You see, Webb gave only half an answer to his question: why have European phones done so poorly under European governments? He said Europe had too much investment in telegraphy. They couldn't let telephones compete with it.

The other half of the answer was that we forced our monopoly to answer its public. American consumers shaped the new technology here. I think Webb's contemporary, Carl Sandburg, saw that as clearly as anyone. He wrote:

I am a copper wire slung in the air,
Slim against the sun I make not even a clear line of shadow.
Night and day I keep singing -- humming and thrumming; ...
Death and laughter of men and women passing through me,
carrier of your speech.

In America, the technology was close-coupled to the sounds of death and laughter passing through its wires. That's how we shaped the telephone so quickly to our ears -- and to our hearts.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Webb, H.L., The Development of the Telephone in Europe, London: Electrical Press Ltd., 1911.

The Social Impact of the Telephone (I. de Sola Pool, ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977. (See Chapter 9 for the Sandburg quotation.)

Garnet, R.W., The Telephone Enterprise: The Evolution of the Bell System's Horizontal Structure, 1876-1909. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Marland, E.A., Early Electrical Communication. London: Abelard-Schuman Ltd., 1964, Chapter 11.

Mosco, V., Whose Computer Revolution Is It? The Information Environment: A Reader (G. Walker, ed.). New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1992, pp. 157-170.

For more on the invention of the telephone, see Episode 1098.


From the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica


From the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica