130 Years of the Telephone - A Brief History of the Telephone and Information Transmission

March, 2006 marked the 130th Anniversary of the invention of the Telephone. During this span of time, telephone technology and the processing of voice/analog/digital communication have gone through monumental changes.

While many inventors had been working on the idea of sending human speech by wire, Alexander Graham Bell was the first to succeed in this endeavor while working on improving the telegraph. Another gentleman by the name of Elisha Gray also invented a device that could transmit voice through wire, but he was three hours too late registering his device with the patent office.

For a little perspective on American history; at roughly the same time Mr. Bell invented the telephone America was still settling the West. The United States was preparing to celebrate the American Centennial - the 100th anniversary of the U.S. America had 38 states, 46 million people, and some 30,000 miles of railroad track providing regular travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Below highlights important milestones in the invention of the telephone and the continual evolution of voice and data transmission.


  • On March 10, 1876, at the age of 29, Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone's fundamental operating principle when he and his associate, Thomas Watson, were working in their lab experimenting with a new type of 'liquid transmitter'. Through the instrument Mr. Bell spoke to his assistant and said, 'Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.' And, Mr. Watson declared that he had heard and understood what Mr. Bell had said. This historic event was the first successful experiment with transmitting voice through wire. And shortly after that on July 9, 1877, the first telephone company, 'Bell Telephone Company', was founded in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • 1877 One of the first private citizens to have a telephone was Mark Twain. He, and President Rutherford Hayes, the nineteenth President of the U.S. in 1877 but the first President of the Telephone age. There was a phone booth installed inside the White House just outside the Oval Office. A telephone would not sit on the President's desk until Herbert Hoover was President in 1929 - 53 years after the invention of the telephone.

  • Atlanta's first telephone arrived and was installed in the new 'Atlanta Railroad Depot' connecting it to the dispatcher's office in the 'Western & Atlantic Railroad' building nearby. These telephones were 'point-to-point' Box telephones. The receiver and transmitter were the same device, much like an intercom system. There was no bell or ringing device to get the recipient's attention. One had to either yell into the Box phone or rap on the receiver/transmitter with a pencil or finger to get the attention of the person at the other end.

  • 1878 The first phone books appeared and were printed in sheets at first since there weren't very many subscribers at the time. As more people subscribed to telephone service it became necessary to print directory listings in books.

  • The first telephone switchboard Operators were teenage boys. Young women, who were believed to be more well-mannered than boys, were preferred to fill those positions. Emma M. Nutt was the first female employee for the Bell Telephone Company. She was hired at the Boston exchange September 1, 1878, and continued until her retirement in 1915. Her 37 years as an operator began a tradition of long service.

  • The earliest telephones were all connected to each other. Everyone who shard the same line could listen or talk to each other. Privacy became an issue since it was so easy to listen in on another conversation. Also, any two people speaking tied up that line for as long as they were talking, thus, denying service to other subscribers on that line. Identifying the intended recipient of a phone call was done by 'ring-pattern'. The Switchboard allowed people to have private conversations.

  • The first commercial telephone switchboard opened in 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut with eight lines and twenty-one subscribers.

  • The rural (country) switchboard was almost always installed in the home of the local operator.

  • 1879 The first telephone numbers were issued in Lowell, Massachusetts. Before that the operator had to memorize or look up people by their proper names to connect them.

  • The Forming of Southern Bell

    James M. Ormes was sent to the Southeastern states by Bell Telephone Company in 1878 to survey the potential for telephone expansion in that region, and to head off the growing competition of Western Union Telegraph Company, which was entering the telephone business. He negotiated the famous "Ormes contract" which bound Western Union to withdraw from the southern territory and on December 20, 1879 'Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph' (formerly known as The Atlanta Telephonic Exchange) was founded in Atlanta, Georgia covering the seven states of Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. 'Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph' resided in the top floor of The Kimball House hotel located at 8 E. Wall Street (later, 21 1/2 Marietta Street). The switchboard was later moved to 78 South Pryor Street in 1894.

  • 1884 The only long distance call available in the state of Georgia was from Atlanta to Decatur. The cost was 15 cents for 5 minutes.

  • 1889 The first public coin telephone was installed by inventor William Gray at a bank in Hartford, Conn. It was a "postpay" machine (coins were deposited after the call was placed).

  • 1897 The Western Electric No. 5 Coin Collector, the first automatic "prepay" station, went into use in Chicago, Illinois. The coin slots accommodated nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and silver-dollars.

  • From 1894 to about 1900, six-thousand independent phone companies sprang up. The confusion and chaos that resulted from incompatibilities in phone systems, led to the founding of the "United States Independent Telephone Co." which set standards in the telecom industry.

  • 1891 The dial telephone was invented by a man named Almon Strowger of St. Louis, Missouri. Mr. Strowger, a mortician, developed the method of direct dialing because he felt exchange operators were diverting his business calls to his competitors. The dial phone was not put into service until 1905 when Dial Switching Equipment went into development.

    Dial Switching equipment replaced Operators in the Central Office. This device allowed automatic dialing capability for subscribers. The moment you pick up the phone, an electrical connection is made to the switching equipment in the Central office. You would then receive a dial-tone. This dial-tone has the same meaning as the Operator's "number please?" question. The Central office, which used to be full of Operators was now full of these automatic switching devices. Now, all of this switching equipment has been replaced by Computer circuitry.

  • 1895 The Bell System required all operators to answer the switchboard with the request, "Number, please."

  • Placing a Toll call could take as long as 30 minutes to complete the connection since placing such a call could involve as many as 6 operators to do all the switching.

  • 1915 We were able to make phone calls from the East Coast to the West Coast. This was achieved by suspending thousands of miles of copper wire over 130,000 phone poles.

    A. G. Bell placed the first transcontinental telephone call from New York city to Thomas Watson in San Francisco, California.

  • 1919 Southern Bell purchased The Atlanta Telephone Company thus creating one network for the city of Atlanta.

  • 1930s The first colored phones were introduced. The painted finishes were offered in gray, ivory, oxidized silver, statuary bronze and old brass.

  • 1950 Microwave Relay Towers were used to greatly increase the capacity of the phone systems to carry voice, data and TV signals. We were embarking on the 'wireless age'.

  • 1951 Long Distance Direct Dialing allowed customers to dial long-distance telephone calls without operator assistance.

  • 1956 The first Transatlantic Telephone cable was laid. These were coaxial cables buried beneath the ocean floor. The cable stretched from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba and carried 24 circuits.

    In the same year, the first Transatlantic transmission was made by radio-telephone. This was possible because of a newly developed electronic component called a 'vacuum tube'. Essentially, a vacuum tube amplifies electrical signals. Over distance, electrical signals degrade. The vacuum tube solved this problem.

  • 1962 The launching of Telstar I satellite revolutionized telephony and Television. Conversations and TV pictures were produced with greater clarity. More than 1/2 of all voice communications between the US and other continents are transmitted by satellite.

  • 1963 Touchtone telephones were first offered to subscribers.

  • 1977 Lightwave systems for carrying voice and data transmissions are far more efficient than copper cable. Fiber optic cabling requires fewer repeaters, is cheaper to produce than copper, lighter, and does more work than copper with less material. The signal cannot be disrupted by outside sources like electricity, rain, humidity, or other things that tend to damage conventional copper wire signals.

  • 1980 Digital Cellular Telephones offered better quality of sound, lower cost over analog technology and more channel capacity.

  • 1988 The first Fiber-Optic Transatlantic cable linking Europe and North America. The 3,150 mile long cable could handle over 39,000 simultaneous phone calls.

  • 1999 Most sensitive geolocation technology accurately locates to within 15 feet Wireless 911 phone calls.