A Brief History of the Telephone

The history of telephony is rooted in work that was being done in the mid to late 19th century by a number of researchers, which was primarily focused on improving the abilities of telegraphy. Specifically, much of the focus was on enabling telegraphy to carry more traffic. In this research, a number of researchers realized discovered how sound could be sent over wires.

The telegraphy industry was not interested in the development of this line of innovation. They compared telephony unfavorably to telegraphy, feeling that telephony was inferior because it lacked the ability to leave a permanent record. Furthermore, some industry actors felt that their investment would be better served focusing on the further automation and development of telegraphy. These industry opinions show the influence of the technological paradigm that framed contemporary thought on the development of technology. For many industry professionals, the telephone had no obvious use and was therefore not worth investing in.

Early technical limitations on telephony negatively affected users’ abilities to carry on two-way conversations. This contributed to the broadcast paradigm that was imposed on the technology, leading some affiliated actors to believe that telephony would be eventually used for broadcasting audio content such as music, drama, and news.

Alexander Graham Bell had a long-term vision of point-to-point telephony. He had also conceptualized social uses for the telephone, unlike many of his professional counterparts who perceived strictly functional uses. He used advertising as a tool to create public awareness for how to use this technology. This could be considered part of the innovation process (Haddon, 2006). With the diffusion of the technology, it gradually began moving from professional spaces into residential spaces. In the 1930s, the phone’s use as a tool for socializing began to increase considerably.

Some of the early optimism on the social potentials inherent in the telephone included ideas on how telephony would help enable global democracy; help overcome social problems; and create new communities. Conversely, much of the negative discourse focused on how the telephone intruded into the private sphere, risking the publicization of personal information; threats to children and a lack of ability to monitor children’s behavior; enable new forms of crime; and making the “maintenance of social distances” more difficult (Marvin, 1988).

References

Haddon, L (2006), ‘History of ICTs’, Media Technology and Everday Life MC409′, London School of Economics, London, week 4.

Marvin, C. (1988) When Old Technologies were New: Thinking about Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford. (especially the introduction and pp.63-108)