Numerous innovations and inventors laid the groundwork for the telephone. Samuel Morse’s telegraph, patented in 1837, used electric signals to transfer coded messages. In 1840, Charles Grafton Page used electrified wire connected to a magnet to produce sound. In the next decades, Johann Philipp Reis and Antonio Meucci developed electromagnetic devices that could transmit music and some voice communication. But it was a teacher interested in sound and speech instruction for the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell, who would combine the power of electromagnetism with a machinery of vibration and thereby establish the basis of modern telephone technology.
On March 7, 1876, Bell became the first inventor to receive a US patent for the technology that powered the telephone. Working with his assistant, Thomas Watson, Bell initially had a different goal in mind: to develop a “harmonic telegraph” that could send a number of messages at the same time, each at its own pitch. But after an accidental discovery, in which Watson electrified a vibrating reed on the telegraph, Bell and Watson created a device using vibration to produce and receive sound waves through electrical signals. In June 1876, Bell traveled to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (the first World’s Fair in the United States) to demonstrate this device to an international audience.
The telephone revolutionized communication. It allowed people to share information with greater speed and efficiency and to connect with one another through conversation in real time. By the turn of the twentieth century, the telephone enabled such communication for ordinary citizens, first locally, then across the continent and the world. This primary source set uses physical objects, documents, photographs, and drawings to tell the story of the invention of the telephone and its transformative impact on modern-day communication.
Additional resources for research
- “Who is credited as inventing the telephone?,” Library of Congress.
- The Telephone, American Experience, PBS.
- “First He Invented the Telephone. Then, Bell Left a Voice Message,” NPR.