Without question, Alexander Graham Bell’s master invention changed our lives and revolutionized the way we communicate. But science is never satisfied, and so we began a steady stream of improvements to the telephone that took it from rotary dials and operators to the unique problems of autocorrect and Siri’s witty retorts. Today, we take a look back at the ever-evolving history of the telephone.
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First we coiled the cord, keeping it from tangling up our important papers, then we learned to keep our babies from teething on it, and then we removed it entirely. We created area codes so that we could make long distance calls without relying on operators and we replaced the rotary dial with buttons to make the process even faster. Some innovations didn’t catch on, like the picturephone, and some, like the carphone, just needed a little time to reach their full potential. Learn about all these and more in our archive gallery.
Coiling the Cord: June 1916
In the infancy of the telephone, discerning businessmen had not the time to deal with getting tangled in its cord, and innovators hadn’t yet come up with the coiled cord solution. They came close, though, with this cord reel that keeps the cord wound up and out of the way without dragging the telephone off the desk. Read the full story in Cord Reel is Telephone Convenience
Don’t Let Your Baby Suck the Telephone Cord!: May 1918
Not because it could hurt the baby, of course. But your little bundle of joy could short-circuit the telephone cord and interrupt Mrs. Henderson from next door while she’s in the middle of delivering the hot gossip. In the early 20th century, PopSci reports that phone operators got several calls from distraught mothers confused as to why their connection was so spotty after Junior’s teething session. Read the full story in Don’t Let Your Baby Suck the Telephone Cord!
The Elastic Telephone Cord: June 1937
An invention we know best from being twirled around the fingers of chatty 80s teens, the elastic telephone cord actually dates from the 30s. The elastic is at the core, while the actual wires are coiled around the outside so the cord can stretch without the wires getting damaged. Then, when it’s not in use, it curls up unobtrusively next to the phone, tangle-free. Read the full story in Nonkink Phone Cord is Elastic.
Long-Distance Dialing Without Operators and Push Button Phones: September 1958
By 1958, one out of five long-distance phone calls being made was done without help from an operator, allowing for faster connection times and the birth of now-famous area codes such as New York’s 212. Big cities like New York have lower numbers because they were easier to dial on old rotary phones. But even as area codes were being created to accommodate rotary phone users, push button telephones were being developed that would make it a non-issue. User tests showed that dialing a number on a touch pad took just half as long as on a rotary dial Read the full story in Do-It-Yourself Long-Distance Dialing
Voiceprints Foil Crank Callers: September 1965
A “sound spectrograph,” invented in the 60s was capable of taking pictures, in a sense, of a voice. These spectrograms are as unique as a fingerprint, and can’t be fooled by you disguising your voice, making it much easier to track down crooks who threaten others over the phone. Other applications for the technology include studying animal communication, or analyzing heartbeats to better identify heart murmurs. Read the full story in Voiceprints: Poison for the Telephone Rat
The Picturephone: December 1965
In 1965, the Picturephone (then described as “The TV Phone of the Future,” which now seems more like a vintagey Skype) was rolled out in select cities. VIPs in Chicago, New York and Washington could watch their counterparts on a tiny screen while they spoke on the phone. In this image, you can see a dapper PopSci editor testing it out with an editor-at-large in Chicago. Read the full story in They’re Still Inventing the Telephone
Cell Phone Reviews: August 1985
In 1985, PopSci compared 36 different cellular phones, models that cost between $800 and $1000 (half the suggested retail price, mind you). We referred to typewriter-sized car phones as “go-anywhere,” but they were already getting smaller. GE released a phone called Star Mini (pictured here), which we called pocket-sized. And perhaps it was, if you were wearing cargo pants. Support for cell phone infrastructure was also on the rise, with the spread of geographic coverage regions for different providers – the cells the phone was named from. Ever looking to the future, the piece ends with a quote from a telecommunications analyst who says “When they invented the transistor, no one ever expected we’d end up with Pac Man. Similarly, cellular could very well end up differently than anyone could have forseen.” Read the full story in 36 Cellular Phones For Car, Briefcase, Even Your Pocket
Cordless Phones Begin to Dominate: April 1989
Thanks to the doubling of available channels for cordless phones by the FCC, channels at a higher frequency that decreased background noise during calls, manufacturers were able to create cordless phones with improved voice quality and battery life that were more than just a novelty. These new phones also prevented phone pirates from using your line to make long distance calls. Soon, grilling dads across the country could have their phone calls interrupted by their sons on the deck, like in this photo by our own John B. Carnett. Read the full story in Cordless Phones – Now They’re Cookin’
Cell Phones Go Digital: January 1990
As cell phones (or car phones as they were still sometimes called) became more popular, reaching three million users, channels got crowded, and there wasn’t always one available when you wanted to make a call. The solution: switch to digital. Digital channels could sustain three callers at once, while each analog channel could only take one. As more powerful digital signal processors were developed, more and more voice signals could be compressed onto one channel, to accommodate the growing number of cell phone users. Read the full story in Cellular Goes Digital
The Original iPhone: April 1997
Way before Siri, a decade before Apple’s cell phone that we know and love existed in even its first incarnation, there was an iPhone. Just not the iPhone. Cidco’s iPhone had some interesting similarities though, with a touchscreen for browsing the Web, and a full keyboard attached at the bottom. Read the full story in Web Phone