3 Takeaways from the Invention of the Telephone

Takeaways from the telephone's invention
Photo by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash

Everyone probably remembers from middle school that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. However, the other nineteenth century technologies that came before the telephone (the telegraph, improvements to multiple telegraphy) and after the telephone (the switchboard, the telephone exchange, long distance calling) are equally influential and important.

In fact, the more I read about the innovators, the private companies and the milieu of the nineteenth century, the more amazed I am about the infinite and ever-changing possibilities of the communications industry.

Each invention dramatically changed our civilization. The telegraph made the world faster. The telephone made the world closer. The telephone exchange made the world smaller.

My intention, however, is not merely to recount the science behind and the history of these inventions, but to extract from the story of telecommunication, important takeaways on what drives innovation, and how SIPSTACK fits into the story of innovation.

After all, isn’t the purpose of history to learn from it?

The Electric Telegraph

“The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion.”

Alexander Graham Bell

The invention of the telegraph changed the world by achieving two very significant feats.

The first feat is obvious. By enabling the immediate transmission of messages between long distances, it severed communication’s dependence on transportation, and made the world a smaller place.

The second feat is awe-inspiring. The invention of the telegraph spawned further technological development. Developments in multiple telegraphy and telephony were founded on the scientific principles that made the telegraph a possibility.

This brings me to the first big takeaway.

BIG TAKEAWAY #1: Technology is built on the shoulders of giants.

Thomas Alva Edison used the principles behind Joseph Stearns’s Duplex (a telegraph that could simultaneously send and receive one message over a single wire) to invent the Quadruplex (a telegraph that could simultaneously send up to four messages over a single wire).

Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray used the principles behind the telegraph to invent the Harmonic Telegraph, which was capable of subdividing a telegraph line into several channels.

While each inventor was driven by the need to make his predecessor’s work obsolete, none of them could’ve afforded to reinvent the wheel. Each scientist had to begin where a predecessor left off, and find inventive ways around problems that had felt unsolvable in the past.

Each new invention makes the next one possible. Nobody creates in a vacuum. We all need a community of thinkers to excel.

The Invention of the Telephone

“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”

Yuvan Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Once multiple telegraphy was a reality, it was simply a matter of time before inventors would leapfrog to the idea of transmitting speech over an electric wire.

In the summer of 1874, both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray were working on developing a system that could subdivide a telegraph into ten or more channels.

Their approach to the problem, however, was very different.

While Bell saw the creation of the telegraph as a stepping stone for the creation of the telephone, Gray was driven by the prospect of acquiring a large sum of money from The Western Union for making significant improvements to multiple telegraphy.

The Telephone Exchange

More than a decade after the first commercial manual telephone exchange had been developed in New Haven by George Coy, a telegraph manager, Almon Brown Strowger would yet again change the field of telecommunication by inventing the automatic telephone exchange.

While the science behind the automatic telephone exchange is quite straightforward, the story behind the invention is soaking in entrepreneurial spirit.

Strowger was not motivated by some altruistic need to make the world a better place. He was an undertaker trying to reclaim his business. Strowger’s competitor’s wife worked at the local telephone exchange and directed calls asking for Strowger’s services to her husband. When complaints to the telephone company proved to be futile, Strowger took matters into his own hands and created an automatic switchboard that voided the necessity of human interaction (in this case, misdirection) to complete a call.

This brings me to my second big takeaway.

BIG TAKEAWAY #2: Innovation is often powered by personal motivation.

The stories of Bell and Strowger show that the grandest and best ideas emerge when we’re trying to solve for ourselves first.

Making the Telephone Ubiquitous

The history of the pure sciences is peppered with tales of scientists who questioned the nature of reality and challenged long-held beliefs about the inner workings of the universe.

Innovations in technology, however, have always been sparked and nurtured by private entities. Just as artists were commissioned to create paintings and sculptures during the Renaissance, private companies offered lucrative commissions to inventors who improved their technologies.

If efforts to improve the telegraph were sparked by Western Union, efforts to make the telephone ubiquitous were driven by AT&T. Even when an independent creator developed an innovative solution, AT&T made every effort to acquire it.

The first impediment to the expansion of the telephone was distance. As the physical distance between the two telephones increased, sound became more distorted. This problem was solved by George Ashley Campbell, an AT&T Engineer who developed loading coils that would keep the signal clear as it traveled over long distances. Because Michael Pupin, a professor from Columbia University patented the invention before Campbell, AT&T bought his patent for $435,000.

Transcontinental telephony, however, required an even more reliable system than loading coils. When Lee Dee Forest invented the triode vacuum tube and the regenerative circuit, AT&T acquired their technology by negotiating through an intermediary, even though Forest was not keen on selling his invention to AT&T.

It was AT&T who announced the intention of creating a transcontinental telephone system. Once they’d acquired Forest’s technology, they dispatched teams of workers through blizzards and unknown terrain to string the first continuous telephone line between the coasts.

This brings me to my third big takeaway.

BIG TAKEAWAY #3: Innovation is fuelled by private companies.

While companies such as The Western Union, Bell Telephone Company and AT&T encouraged innovation because it directly impacted their bottom lines, their competitive spirit is directly responsible for the evolution of telecommunications.

The Impact of Innovation in a Post-Pandemic World

The history of the telephone shows us that innovation emerges from the tug of war between private companies and their endeavor to be the best and offer the most competitive services.

The pandemic has shown us that communications is perhaps the biggest marker of a successful business. Businesses that have adapted their communication technologies to support remote work have survived; businesses who have resisted change have not.

As we head into a post-pandemic world, the landscape of the communications industry will continue to evolve at a massive rate.

SIPSTACK helps you stay ahead of your communication needs by

  • Cultivating a community that builds, develops and improves on existing technologies
  • Encouraging collaborators to address issues particular to them, and then making those solutions accessible to everyone
  • Building platforms where companies can innovate freely and share in each other’s innovations.

Become part of our origin story. Partner with SIPSTACK to stay ahead of the game.

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