The Amazing Evolution of the Telephone

By Tom Tortorici

In 1877, many saw the newly-invented telephone as a novelty; just a passing fad. Today, life without our phones is unimaginable.

A society that conversed by letter and telegram couldn’t see, at first, the need for a voice communication network. But then people picked up on the telephone’s game-changing potential for doing business, exchanging gossip, calling an ambulance, and making dinner reservations. Now empowered to instantly share their latest whim, Americans became addicted to being connected.

Over the years, the simple principle of remote conversation has remained the same. But telephones, like most technology, evolved in technical sophistication, at each step enhancing our own reach, convenience, and capabilities. This chronology may be nostalgic for some and educational for others, as we learn how past accomplishments become the foundation for future innovations.

The Beginning - The First Telephones

  • The first phones got their nickname from the shape of the wall-mounted mahogany box
  • Turning the crank generated an electrical signal to alert an operator. Then you’d tell her who you felt like talking to
  • Early adopters of this technical miracle included local stores, where most people would have to go to call their mothers

Phones in Our Homes and Offices

  • When having a phone in the house just wasn’t convenient enough, families could now have one in every room
  • A wall phone in the kitchen freed up counter space, this time with an extra-long cord for talking while making lunch
  • Slim, stylish Trimline phones in designer colors were perfect for bedside tables
  • With the conversion from dialed pulses to touch-tone beeps, the Trimline pioneered button dialing on the handset

Phones On the Go

  • By 1925, there were 25,000 coin-operated public telephones in New York City alone. Local vendors were continually asked for change for a dollar
  • Pay phones were indispensable for salesmen on the road and newsmen reporting hot stories – but also for gangsters running illegal drug and gambling operations
  • Sidewalk phone booths also offered a nice square yard of sheltered privacy for your dime

The Merger of Phones and Computers

  • Feature phones were ‘semi-smart,’ but clunky by today’s standards. What were once devices became apps, as brands competed to add calculators, GPS, games, calendars, cameras, and more
  • Personal Digital Assistant phones like the beloved Blackberry were essential business tools, with a tiny keyboard for email on the run
  • Web-enabled phones, premiering in 1999, started with just a small text display to access weather, flight times and stock prices
  • Flip phones had a clamshell form factor that slipped easily into a pocket or purse. Texting was possible, but laborious on a numeric keypad

It’s impossible to foresee what future phones could possibly evolve into. Our empowering glass slabs seem to be the pinnacle of technology and usefulness. But our ancestors, speaking into those first magical wooden boxes, thought the same thing.

At Computer Museum of America, you can explore the evolution of many different technologies, and learn how far we have come to this point in the digital age. Come see how that powerful little computer (also known as your telephone) you carry everywhere fits into the arc of technology history.


About the Author

Tom Tortorici is a web designer and marketing copywriter with his own collection of media, communications and computing artifacts. He is amazed at what you can find on eBay.

More about his work can be read here.

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