How old is the phone

October 1861: The invention of the telephone

lemoLiving Museum Online
    • "Philipp Reis. The inventor of the telephone"

> Review

On October 26, 1861, the 27-year-old physics teacher Philipp Reis (1834-1874) presented a device for the first time in the Physikalischer Verein zu Frankfurt am Main that could transmit speech with the help of electric current - he called it a "telephone". Since the sound transmission still showed considerable fluctuations, his invention was initially underestimated. Fifteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) applied for a patent for the first telephone in the USA. In 1881 the first local exchanges for telephone calls were set up in Berlin and Mulhouse in Alsace.

To illustrate his lessons, Reis built simple models for his students. The replica of an auricle inspired him to invent the telephone: "Prompted to do so by my physics lessons, in 1860 I took up work on hearing tools that I had already started earlier and soon had the pleasure of seeing my efforts rewarded with success I succeeded in inventing an apparatus by means of which it is possible to make the functions of the auditory tools clear and vivid; but with which one can also reproduce sounds of all kinds through the galvanic current at any distance. - I called the instrument the telephone ", reported Reis in his memoirs. He derived the name "Telephon" from the Greek terms "tele" (German: fern) and "phonae" (German: sound, voice).

Reis designed his phone based on the human ear: he stretched a membrane made of pig intestine, which served as an eardrum, over the exit opening of an auricle carved from wood. The platinum plate attached to the membrane and a platinum pin simulated the ossicles. This platinum contact was part of a battery operated circuit. If you spoke into this ear, the membrane would start to vibrate and produce a modulation of the current. The acoustic vibrations generated in this way were transmitted in current pulses and received via a coil and a rod. "The horse does not eat a cucumber salad" is the first sentence spoken by Philipp Reis over the phone during experiments in his house. With such bizarre, spontaneously spoken sentences, he wanted to counter the suspicion that the texts for transmission had been agreed upon or learned by heart.

"About telephony through galvanic current" was the lecture that Reis gave to the Physikalischer Verein in Frankfurt am Main in October 1861 and which he also published in the club's magazine. During this first public demonstration of his invention, in addition to voice samples, he transferred the then popular song "Muss i denn zum Städtele out ...", as he had found in his domestic experiments that instrumental music was much easier to transfer than the human voice. Nonetheless: The set transmitted a few tones, but there were considerable fluctuations. Due to the unreliability of his telephone, the invention was generally underestimated and the device was viewed more or less as a toy that was at best suitable for the transmission of music. Between 1861 and 1863 Reis improved his telephone and sold devices made according to his designs to physical collections and institutes all over the world. But he was denied a resounding success during his lifetime. Philipp Reis died of tuberculosis on January 14, 1874.

The further development of the telephone shifted overseas. On February 14, 1876, the Scottish deaf-mute teacher Bell applied for a patent for his telephone in Boston. On the same day, just two hours later, the patent claim was received from Elisha Gray (1835-1901), the chief executive and shareholder of the largest manufacturer of telegraphic equipment in the United States, the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. Bell won the race for the telephone patent not least because he firmly believed in the commercial possibilities of linguistic communication. And he was to be proved right: as early as 1879 there were telephone exchanges in 20 cities around the world.

It was not until 1881, when almost all cities with more than 15,000 inhabitants in the USA had a telephone network, that the first telephone exchange in Germany with eight subscribers was put into operation on a trial basis. From then on, developments also advanced rapidly in Germany. In 1910, 10 million telephones were connected to the exchanges worldwide, 941,000 of them in Germany alone. In 1930 there were around 3.2 million telephone connections in Germany. The first cordless mobile phone came on the market in June 1983. It was over 8 inches long and the battery was empty after half an hour of talk time. Today there are around 100 million cell phone contracts and 39 million landline connections in Germany alone.

© German Historical Museum, Berlin