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The Telephone

Michael Faraday, a self-taught English physicist and inventor operating in the early 19th century, is most famous for his discovery of electromagnetic induction. However, he also made another, albeit lesser-known contribution to science that would have an equally important impact in the hands of German scientist Johann Philip Reis.

Faraday demonstrated the vibrations of a metal diaphragm—the technological equivalent of an eardrum—being converted into electrical signals. Reis used this information to build a primitive telephone, but could never give his device the range or clarity it would need to be a viable means of communication beyond his laboratory.

Experimental telephoneBoth Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell subsequently took this information and developed their own transmitter and receiver technology, continuing the work Reis had started. Since both of them were firmly wedded to the idea of developing a new kind of telegraph, neither man had a true conception of what he had designed at first.

Even if Bell and Gray had been excited about their inventions, it was unlikely the public would have shared their elation. Most people were reluctant to trust this new technology, and few outside its devotees had faith or interest enough to see to it that work in the area be continued.

Wall telephoneAs a consequence, the two boxes Edmontonian Alex Taylor purchased from the Consolidated Telephone Construction and Maintenance Company of London England a few years after the initial patents were filed differed little in composition from the first successful telephones.

Rather, the earliest manufacturers worked to better individual aspects of the telephone, slowly making major changes to its method of operation only after Almon Strowger—a sometime soldier, teacher, and undertaker from the United States—patented his automatic exchange technology in 1891.

Most phone technology went virtually unchanged, however; Thomas Edison’s handset, for example, withstood the test of time through successive generations of phones for over 100 years.

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