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Dr. Ralph R. Chase West Texas Collection

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Early Communications - 1870-1900


 Bell and Watson

Bell top, Bell's Patent middle, Watson bottom  

In 1876 an accident in Alexander Graham Bell’s home changed how people live and interact with one another. Bell, a native of Scotland, moved with his family to Boston in 1871. Bell met Thomas A. Watson, a young machinist, and the two worked together on several experiments. On March 10, 1876 Bell and Watson had a breakthrough. The men were in separate rooms in the house. Bell spilled battery acid on his pants and said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” Watson, who had been listening to the receiving telephone, heard Bell’s cry and rushed down the hall. This event marked the birth of the telephone. 

Thomas Watson started working with Alexander Graham Bell in 1874. Watson was only 22 years old when he heard Bell speak to him over the telephone. Bell wanted people to answer the phone “Hoy! Hoy!” as if calling a ship. Watson thought people should answer “Hello”. Watson’s idea took hold. 

Watson added several of his own important ideas to the telephone. One was the crank-activated magneto ringer that gave the telephone its ring. He was just 25 years old when he resigned from the telephone company. 

Patent No. 174,465, the most valuable patent ever issued by the U.S. Patent office, was filed February 14, 1876. The race to file the first telephone patent was tight. Another inventor, Elisha Gray, was on the verge of inventing the electric speaking phone. Gray arrived at the patent office just three hours after Bell’s patent was filed. Gray was going to file a caveat, a formal declaration stating the inventor’s intention to file a patent on an idea yet to be perfected. On the basis of its earlier filing time and on the subtle distinctions between caveat and an actual patent application, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell the patent for the telephone.



 Almon B. Strowger

Almon B. Strowger  

Almon B. Strowger was a undertaker in Kansas City, Missouri who was convinced that the operators in town gave busy signals or wrong numbers when potential customers tried call him, hurting his business. He decided to invent a switchboard that would eliminate the operator. He patented the first automatic dial system in 1891.

The first system had the capacity to serve 99 telephones. To call the number 99, each button had to be pressed 9 times. The first Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange was built in La Port, Indiana. Strowger sold his patent for $2 million and quit the undertaking business.



 How the Phone Works

How the Phone Works  

Bell’s experimental telephones operated much like two cups connected with string. When speaking, there is air movement that can not be seen, but it can be heard. This movement of air when speaking into a cup causes the bottom portion of the cup to move in and out. The in-and-out movement makes the attached string move and causes the bottom of the other cup to move in and out. This movement produces sound heard by the listener.

Designing an experimental telephone that had battery acid as a power source and used wire rather than string gave Bell and Watson a better device for transmitting sound waves. Bell’s experimental telephone had a thin device inside called a diaphragm that moved like the bottom of the cup when struck by sound waves. The movement of the diaphragm increases and decreases the electrical current being sent to the other telephone. The electrical current made the diaphragm in the other telephone move producing sound.

Today sound waves can be transmitted over a greater distance without using wires to connect telephones. Still, at the heart of every telephone today is the same basic function: to transmit sound waves over a distance.  



 Phones of the Period


Alexander Graham Bell Gallows Phone (1876) One of the earliest telephones designed Alexander Graham Bell and made by Thomas Watson. This phone was used as a transmitter and a receiver.

How it works:  The wooden frame is mounted with a harmonic receiver and a tightly-stretched parchment drumhead.  The free end of the steel receiver spring is fastened to the center.  A mouthpiece is arranged to direct the voice against the other side of the drumhead.  This forces the spring to follow the vibrations of the voice and, in this way, generate voice-shaped electric undulations.

Arthur Kruger Company Reproduction of Bell Telephone (1876-1890) A fancier model of the Gallows phone. It is the second model used by Bell and his assistant, Watson.

Arthur Kruger Company Reproduction of Bell Telephone (1876-1900) This is a replica of the phone Bell demonstrated this  in Philadelphia in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition. It was used to send and receive messages. When the Emperor of Brazil saw the phone he exclaimed, “My god it talks!

Arthur Kruger Company Liquid Transmitter Replica (1876-1900)  Bell and Watson were experimenting with a phone like this when Mr. Bell spilled acid on his pants and Watson heard him yell for help.

How it works: When one spoke into the top, it vibrated a drum. The needle moved in a small cup of diluted Sulphuric Acid which acted as the agent to vary electrical currents and transmit sound.

Blake Manufacturing Company Blake Transmitter (1878-1890) Francis Blake invented this solid carbon transmitter. It transmitted the voice more clearly than earlier telephones.

Western Electric Magneto Wall Phone Model # 21 (1898 to mid 1930s) This phone was used for party line communications. This phone introduced the “solid back” transmitter of 1890. The Bell system was able to improve the transmission and began to replace the Blake transmitter.

Gray Telephone Company Desk Paystation (about 1898)  In hotel lobbies, traveling salesmen called upon clients during day and at night placed customers’ orders on this type of paystation. Money slots accommodated nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and dollars.

Western Electric Paystation Coin Box (1899 and after) Called a one-arm paystation because the lever (or arm) on the side of the box had to be pulled down to collect each coin and then allowed to return before another coin could be deposited. The one coin slot accepted nickels, dimes and quarters. The operator had no way of returning the coins once they were deposited, so the customer had to wait until the operator asked for coins in the correct denominations.

Western Electric Magneto Wall Type Paystation (1890 and after)  This phone was used for coin-operated communications.

Gray #11 or #20 Com Box mounted on Kellogg Candlestick Phone  (1876-1900s)

Strowger Early Dial Wall Type Telephone (1897 and after)

Western Electric Grabaphone #19 (1895 and later)  Bell bought a major interest in Western Electric, and a year later it became the manufacturer of Bell Telephones and other equipment.  This fine handpiece, made less than twenty years after the Gallows frame telephone, is an example of Western Electric’s craftsmanship.