From UBC Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Invention of the Telephone


The telephone is an instrument used to transmit and receive sounds, most commonly the human voice. The word telephone comes from the Greek words tele meaning far and phone meaning voice. The telephone works by converting sound waves into electrical signals and by converting electrical signals into sound waves. The history of the telephone is controversial because although many inventors were involved in performing pioneering experiments in voice transmission over a wire, only Alexander Graham Bell obtained a patent for the telephone in March 1876. (

Alexander Graham Bell who was born in Scotland worked as a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. As a professor, he trained teachers in how to teach the deaf mutes how to speak and he performed research with speech and electricity. The first bi-directional transmission of speech was made by Bell to his assistant on March 10, 1876, which was followed by the first long distance phone call which was made by Bell to his assistant on August 10, 1876. Then, Bell created a primitive telephone and a patent was obtained for it on January 30, 1877. This telephone transmitted weak sounds and one needed to place one's ear close to the earphone to be able to hear. Bell went on to produce commercial telephones, made many improvements to them, and laid the ground work for the development of the telephone industry(

The telephone was a very important invention of the nineteenth century which helped improve communications between people at a distance. The first telephone exchange that linked many people who had telephones together so that they could communicate by telephone was implemented in Hartford, Connecticut in 1877 and the first telephone exchange that linked two cities was implemented in 1883. This exchange connected the cities of New York and Boston. (


The telephone provided a big change to existing methods of conversation at the time of its invention because both parties involved in a conversation no longer needed to be in each other’s presence to communicate. Reciprocity, which is the back and forth communication between individuals having a conversation would be eliminated in general when machines were involved according to Franklin (1999, p.42) due to the distance between the individuals involved in the conversation. However, through the use of the telephone, reciprocity is preserved because the telephone allows for “genuine reciprocity” (Franklin, 1999, p.140) whereby the basic makeup of a conversation: people talking to each other and listening to each other and responding to each other is possible.

Broadcasting Medium

Early in the twentieth century, the telephone was used in an innovative way as a real-time two-way broadcasting medium for broadcasting sporting events: “A reporter on a sports field could describe an important match and the phone brought back to him the cheering and booing of those who listened to the phone on this giant party line, connected just for the occasion” (Franklin, 1999, p.106). At this time, many thousands of people could partake in this type of sports broadcast. During this same period in France, the same telephone technology was used to broadcast operas (Franklin, 1999, p.107). Broadcasting over the phone today is a form of one-way communication whereby users listen to recorded messages, (for example: voice mail messages) but are unable to interact with these messages (Franklin, 1999, p.107).

Telephone Operators

Telephone Operators played an important role in the history of the telephone by providing the human connection between telephone electronics and the community: “the operator’s role was that of an operating and trouble-shooting engineer as well as that of a facilitator” (Franklin, 1990, p.107). As technological advances were made in the telephone industry, the need for the human point of contact of the telephone operator was significantly reduced as the industry became increasingly automated, making the role of the telephone operator increasingly redundant. Modern telephone technologies such as the ability to host a conference call and retrieve voice mail have enabled telephone users to be independent and not need to depend on a telephone operator for help executing these functions. Franklin (1990, p.110) states that technical designers were inconsiderate concerning operators’ needs because as their jobs became increasing automated, they were left with “fragmented and increasingly meaningless work.”


Ong (1982, p.3) describes the invention of electronic equipment including the telephone as the beginning of an age called Secondary Orality, “which depends on writing and print for its existence”. Secondary Orality combines the characteristics of both literate and oral societies whereby telephone technologies encourage relaxed, informal, immediate conversations and foster a sense of a close-knit community (Ong, 1982, p.133-134). Ong (1982, p.134) also states that telephone technologies are promoting literacy through the production of printed books because they “are essential for the manufacture and operation of equipment and for its use as well”.


From a teaching perspective, Bates and Poole (2003) describe the telephone as a two-way synchronous communication technology that provided equal opportunities for all students to participate in learning. The telephone is “good for clarification, diagnosis of learning difficulties, student feedback, discussion, and argument” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.54). The telephone necessitates that students attend class at the same time, which fosters a “sense of community” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.54). The use of the telephone was applied to education in the 1980s at many universities in the United States. These universities offered remote classroom teaching whereby a teacher at one campus taught in real-time to other campuses in other parts of the state. The motivation behind this initiative was to offer the same educational opportunities to all students in the state regardless of where they were located (Bates and Poole, 2003, p. 123). Although the use of the telephone in teaching allows for two-way synchronous communication among the professor and the students, “the remote classroom model generally is based heavily on the transmission of information, with limited opportunities for interaction and discussion unless the total number of students at all sites combined is relatively small” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.125-126).


The invention of the telephone provided an important device for facilitating human communication. No longer did people need to be co-located beside each other to be able to converse. Through the use of the telephone, people could have equally meaningful conversations at a distance, all the while preserving reciprocity. The telephone early on was also be used as a broadcasting medium like the radio, but also allowed for the audience to respond to the commentator, which made it a two-way broadcasting medium. Today, the telephone is used as a one-way broadcasting medium for transmitting recorded messages. Telephone operators played an important role in directing telephone calls and performing troubleshooting activities as well. However, their work became increasingly redundant as the telephone became increasingly automated. Literacy was promoted through the use of the telephone due to the fact that people need to read and write in order to manufacture and operate telephone technologies. Although the telephone has been used to facilitate teaching, it is not the best medium for teaching due to the fact that discussions and interactions can be difficult to manage when classes contain a large number of students.


Bates, A.W. & Poole, G. (2003). Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education, Foundations for Success. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Driscoll, M.P. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Franklin, Ursula. (1990). The Real World of Technology. Toronto: Ananci Press Inc.

Ong, Walter (1982). Orality and literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.