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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Worldwide - Long Distance Communication

When his wife developed severe arthritis and partial paralysis in the mid 1850's, Antonio Meucci, a cash-strapped Italian émigré living in the Clifton Section of Staten Island, New York, in the United States, created a permanent wired communications link between his wife’s room and other rooms of their house, and his office workshop in a neighbouring building. He subsequently demonstrated this device, which he called the teletrophone, in 1860, and experienced a brush with fame when the invention was written up in a small Italian-language newspaper.

Telephone BoothDespite the attention, and the initial promises of financial backing by potential investors, Meucci did not rise above poverty or relative obscurity. Nothing ever came of the investments promised him after the demonstration of his invention. Meucci himself didn't have $250 to file for a definitive US patent, nor did he speak English well enough to navigate successfully through the sea of paperwork involved. As a consequence, he died a pauper in October 1896—nearly 105 years before the US House of Representatives would officially recognize him as the inventor of the telephone, an honour traditionally bestowed upon Alexander Graham Bell.

While Meucci developed his telephone device, in Germany, a technical genius named Johann Philipp Reis was working on the transmission of sound via electrical current. Like other inventors of his era, Reis saw the equipment used in telegraphy as being the key to sound transmission, and set out to demonstrate his Telephon in 1860.

In October 1861, Reis announced the results of his tinkering through a paper entitled On Telephony by the Galvanic Current, which he read to members of the Physical Society in Frankfurt am Main. The invention saw a short burst of attention before interest fizzled. It became apparent that while Reis' invention could indeed transmit sound, particularly music, the Telephon could not clearly transmit the sound of the spoken word, and was thus too impractical to become a widespread commercial success. Reis died of tuberculosis in 1874, a mere 2 years before Alexander Graham Bell would file for a US patent on the invention of the telephone.

Only a few people kept their eyes on this new technology. Elisha Gray, a son of Barnesville, Ohio and a patented inventor in his own right, played with the idea of sound transmission and constructed a rudimentary telephone for which he filed a caveat notice of intent for patent with the United States Patent Office on 14 February 1876. By not registering for an outright patent, however, Gray left the door open for someone else to file an official patent for the invention.

Inventor: Alexander Graham BellAlexander Graham Bell of Boston, Massachusetts would not make the same mistake as Elisha Gray. On 14 February 1876, only a few hours before Gray filed his patent caveat, the Scotland-born Bell filed for a patent with the United States Patent Office. He positioned this "new" invention as a mere augmentation to telegraphy, as had the other inventors, and he was soon the target of multiple lawsuits.

The most common allegation against Bell asserted that he was stealing information and ideas from other inventors to further his own goals. Newspapers such as the 4 December 1891 issue of The Rochester Herald openly accused the Bell Telephone Company, a company founded by Bell in 1877, of having too cozy a relationship with the US Patent Office.

It was even whispered that Bell had modified the contents of his own patent right at the office, after having come across information produced by Gray. These allegations were thrown out of court, however, and the taint of them was buried under the mountain of new technology that Bell’s company helped produce.

 Telephone components The Bell Telephone Company, hoping to patent anything and everything that might prove useful, pulled a variety of skilled people into its orbit. One such person, Bell’s collaborator Thomas Watson, worked on improving methods of electrically transmitting speech. In addition to building Bell’s prototypes, Watson himself created a receiver, the basic foundation of which is still in use today.

The Bell Telephone Company patented that receiver, as well as Watson’s "polarized ringer," and the hand-crank for powering outbound calls.

Although the public initially rejected the telephone as strange and somehow unnatural, people awakened to its many uses. Slowly, firms in the US and Europe began manufacturing telephones and their related parts for public sale. The Bell Telephone Company spread into Eastern Canada.

Wooden wall telephone As the new technology crept northward to Canada from the United States, purveyors of it encountered poor weather and a government bent on saving money. Telephones could operate on standard telegraph lines, but communications in Alberta had barely reached the stage where telegraphers could reliably send coded messages.

 


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