Telephones in the Late 1800s


On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell successfully completed the first telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson, telling him: "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." They were simple words that heralded a revolution in communication history. Despite a controversial race to the patent office between Bell and rival Elisha Gray, by the end of the following year, there were 3,000 telephones in operation.

Bell's First Telephones

  • Because he'd won the race to patent the telephone, Bell had a monopoly on all aspects of the technology, including the instruments themselves, until it expired in 1894. The initial contract for making the telephone sets went to Charles Williams Junior of Boston, Massachusetts. Already an established and leading telegraph instrument maker, he rented out his top floor to Bell and employed Bell's famous assistant, Watson, as an instrument mechanic. Williams continued to be Bell's sole maker of telephones until he couldn't keep up with demand in 1879. His first popular telephone was called a Williams Coffin because of its appearance, and, by mid-1878, the Bell Company had 10,000 telephones in use.

Early Telephone Developments

  • Bell and Watson's first short chat had taken place through a crude device that looked like a wooden shoe box with listening and talking holes at each end. The biggest problem with this first phone was the fact that the user had to turn his head very quickly from ear to mouth to communicate. By 1878, Watson had created the Williams Coffin phone, more efficient due to a wooden handle for transmitting and receiving that could be passed between ear and mouth. In 1879, the "Blake transmitter" improved efficiency even further and remained the basis of telephone designs for the next three years.

1882 Western Electric Telephone

  • In 1882, the same year that Bell, a Scotsman, was granted U.S. citizenship, his company bought into Western Electric, which in turn became the sole manufacturer of Bell's telephone equipment. Its new telephone was a "three-box" wood-mounted device: a top box contained the switch hook, magnets and bells; a middle box held the Blake transmitter; and a bottom box housed the wet-cell batteries. Although this design was developed into a two-box version, it stayed more or less the same until the turn of the century.

Telephone Designs

  • Telephone sets began to look more attractive in the 1880s with the rising popularity of the desk phone, and versions of it were eventually made by Kellogg, Western Electric and Bell and European firm Ericsson. They were "non-dial" telephones, and the user would be connected directly to an operator on lifting the arm. They were finished in black gloss paint over brass or other metals. Handsets combining a transmitter and receiver in one easy-to-hold handle first appeared in France in about 1882, the most popular of which was called the "Eiffel" or "Skeleton" telephone. Not only were the curved, fashioned legs elegant, they housed the magnets for the telephone's generator. Ericsson was the major manufacturer of this telephone until the mid-1930s.

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