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A Kid’s History of Telecommunications

Telephones have been helping people communicate with each other for more than 100 years. Before they were invented, there was no way to speak to another person without being in the same place as him or her. People who lived far away from their friends and family members had to wait days, weeks, or even months to receive written letters from them in the mail. When telephones became available, people could get in touch quickly for the first time in history. They also thought that it was really exciting to hear someone else’s voice speaking to them from the other end of the line. Phones have changed a lot since they first appeared. They not only look much different, but are easier to use and can do many more things than they could before. Today, telephones are still changing and giving people new ways to communicate and entertain themselves. Now that they can connect to the Internet, phones are also becoming a useful learning tool for children and adults.


Invention of the Telephone

According to legend, the invention of the telephone was really an accident. In the 1870s, Alexander Graham Bell was trying to discover how to send more than one message at a time over a telegraph wire. In the process, he realized that he could use an electrical wire to send the sound of the human voice from one place to another. After he had done some final tinkering, Bell filed a patent for his “electrical speech machine” at the national office near Washington, D.C. (Patents are licenses that the government gives inventors to keep other people from taking credit for their ideas.) This machine later became known as the telephone. Although Bell has always gotten credit for inventing the telephone, a professor named Elisha Gray actually invented a similar contraption at around the same time. In fact, Bell barely beat Gray to the patent office in 1876. If Gray had arrived there just a few hours earlier, his machine would have been recognized as the first telephone instead! It is also important to note that in the past ten years or so, an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci has started to get more recognition for creating a telephone before Bell or Gray did. Since Meucci was never able to pay for a patent, though, Bell still holds the title of “official inventor” of the telephone.

The Telephone – This page talks about Alexander Graham Bell and how he came to invent the telephone.
Who Is Credited as Inventing the Telephone? - This section on the Library of Congress website discusses all of the individuals behind the idea and invention of the telephone.


Rotary Phones

The earliest telephones were large boxes that attached to the wall. It was impossible to make calls through them without speaking to an operator first. In the early 1900s, a new type of telephone became available. This phone was much smaller and allowed people make calls to each other directly. It became known as the rotary phone because of the round dial at its center. At first, rotary phones could only hang on the wall. Later on, it became possible to place them on desks, countertops, and tables. Rotary phones were popular in homes and offices through the 1970s. Some people still like to keep them in their homes as antiques.


Touch-Tone Phones

Touch-tone phones first became available in 1963, but they were not common in households and businesses until the 1980s. These telephones were expensive to manufacture early on, and this meant that they were also expensive for the public to buy. In fact, telephone companies only made a small number of touch-tone phones at first because they did not think that most people would want to pay such high prices for them. Touch-tone phones became more affordable after a few years, and companies began manufacturing more of them. Once this happened, the rotary phone became a lot less popular. People liked touch-tone phones better because they were much easier to use. Manufacturers continued to make improvements to the touch-tone telephone, and by the 1990s most new telephones were cordless.

Touch Tone Telephone Overview – This page explains the mechanics behind touch-tone telephones.
Century’s Top Interfaces –This page discusses important inventions from the 1900s and includes information on the introduction of the touch-tone telephone.


Cellular Telephones

After the touch-tone phone became standard in homes and offices , people and companies became interested in creating telephones that could work from anywhere. The first cellular phones appeared in the early 1980s, but they were so bulky that most people either carried them in their briefcases or kept them in their cars. Early cell phone users did not think of their telephones in the same way that today’s cell phone users do. At first, people mostly used their cell phones for business or emergency calls. By the early 2000s, though, this was no longer the case. Cell phones became smaller and more popular. People began to use them for personal calls. Within a few years, users could send text messages and take pictures and videos with their phones.

Cell Phone Technology– This page talks about the science behind cellular phones.
 The Evolution of the Cell Phone  – This presentation discusses the history of cell phones and the principles of physics that allow them to make and receive calls.
A Brief History of Mobile Communications (PDF) – This paper talks about how rapidly cell phones developed and how they became a part of everyday life.



Now, cell phones are even more advanced. Many people own cellular phones that allow them to connect to the Internet, check and write emails, find directions to places, and scan their tickets for concerts and sporting events. Younger students can play educational games on these types of phones, and high school and college students can use them to do quick research. Some people even download programs that allow them to start their cars and open their garage doors from their phones! Phones that can do all of these helpful things are known as “smartphones.” So far, the Apple iPhone and the Android have been the most popular types of smartphones.

Smartphones – This page from Northwestern University outlines the basics of what smartphones can do.
Smartphone Technology Now a Tool in Ophthalmology – Smartphones are already a valuable tool in medical research and testing. This article explains how eye doctors are using applications on smartphones to perform vision tests.


What’s Next?

The telephone can already do more things than Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, or Antonio Meucci could have imagined. Still, the designers at cell phone companies can’t stop thinking about what phones should be able to do next. Most people expect their phones to connect to the Internet more quickly and take better pictures someday, but others have bigger dreams. Some cell phone companies and users expect phones to be able to take blood pressure readings and measure heart rates in the future. It is also possible that phones will be able to tell what kind of mood a person is in. Wearable computing is already with us today in the form of monitoring technology that connect via bluetooth to iPhones and Android devices as well as Google Glass. Technology is always changing, and the possibilities for phones may be endless!

Cell Phones: Future Tech – A section on this page discusses how quickly cell phones have already changed and talks about whether cell phone technology will ever stop developing.
Smartphones Might Soon Develop Emotional Intelligence – This page talks about how someday, smartphones might be able to read users’ moods after recording their voices.
Eye-Tracking Smartphones – This article discusses how smartphones are already becoming capable of tracking users’ eye movements and asks whether this could become a violation of people’s privacy.
Smartphone App for Alzheimer’s Care – Researchers at the University of Utah are developing a smartphone application that will provide suggestions for Alzheimer’s patients and the people who care for them in their homes. This “app” is a response to predictions that there will be fewer professional caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients in the future.
An Interview with the Google Glass Team – Researchers and members of the Google Glass product team from Google discuss the future of wearable computing devices and how they see the technology evolving.

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