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Teaching Guide: Exploring the Invention of the Telephone

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, The Invention of the Telephone, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. According to the tribute, what role did Antonio Meucci play in the invention of the telephone? How does this compare to the statements made in Bell's telephone patent drawing and oath? What impact did Bell’s patent have on the way we understand the history of the telephone?
  2. Compare the telegraph register, the telegraph sounder, the experimental telephone, the “large box” telephone, and the diagram of Alexander Graham Bell’s speaking telephone. How did the technology for the telephone evolve over time? What was the relationship between the telegraph and early telephones? Which specific innovations influenced the telephone’s development?
  3. Read the excerpt from The History of the Telephone. What is Herbert Casson’s purpose in telling the story of Bell’s invention? What is his perspective on the history he narrates?
  4. Using the photograph of Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating the telephone, the photograph of Alexander Graham Bell in New York calling Chicago, and the photograph of Alexander Graham Bell and others at the opening of the first transcontinental telephone line, explain the purposes of public and private demonstrations for Bell and his invention. What did these demonstrations make possible?
  5. What does the photograph of Thomas Edison’s parlor phonograph tell us about the relationship between Bell’s work and the work of Thomas Edison?
  6. Consider the photograph of Alexander Graham Bell in New York calling Chicago, the photograph of the first telephone office in McGraw, New York, the photograph of operators working the switchboard, the photograph of Alexander Graham Bell and others at the opening of the first transcontinental telephone line, and the photograph of workers in the Orange Central Office. Once the telephone was invented and demonstrated, how did it evolve from being a novel invention to an industry, a technology infrastructure, and a part of Americans’ daily lives? In what time frame? How did the telephone create jobs for women?

Classroom activities

  1. Organize students into two teams and ask them to prepare for a debate on the following topic: “Resolved: Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.” Students on each team should use the sources in this set in conjunction with additional research about the invention of the telephone and its technologies and come up with a working definition of what it means to be the “inventor” of a technology. The class should then stage the debate, which should include opening statements, presentation of key points, and closing arguments for each side. A panel of impartial outsiders can judge the debate and decide which team makes the best presentation of arguments and evidence.
  2. After examining the sources in this set, ask students to write a short essay on the impact of the telephone in response to the following prompt: How did the telephone change conversation, etiquette, and privacy in the twentieth century? How have technological advances in cell phones changed these ideas further in the twenty-first century?

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