Though innovations are fast and furious right now, telephones took their time as they evolved since the days of Alexandar Graham Bell. Below is a look at telephones through the years.
Telephones in the Late 1800s
After the telephone was invented in 1876, it took some time to construct the infrastructure needed for the telephone to become a viable communications tool.
The first telephone lines, switchboard, and telephone exchange were built in 1877 through 1878. By 1881, there were almost 49,000 telephones in use; AT&T was formed in 1885.
Telephones in the Early 1900s
Rapid growth in telephone use took place in the early 1900s. For example, at the turn of the century, there were about 600,000 telephones; five years later, that number swelled to 2.2 million, which more than doubled by 1910 when it reached 5.8 million.
The phones themselves looked dramatically different than they do today. Typical phones of the day were wall-mounted wooden boxes with exposed bells and separate mouth pieces and receivers and no rotary dial or a keypad. In order to place a call, the caller spoke to the operator who “switched” the call manually via the switchboard. Though used for decades, this system was cumbersome and slow.
Telephones in the 1930s
Rotary dial phones began to emerge in the 1930s, freeing callers from having to speak to an operator and wait for her to connect the call. The numbers on the dial sent a corresponding number of pulses over the phone lines, allowing the call to be connected without operator assistance.
Phones with rotary dials looked different than non-rotary telephones. One such design was called a “candlestick” phone with a body that looked like a candlestick with a dial in the middle, a mouthpiece on top, and a side-mounted receiver.
Telephones in the 1940s
The 1940s brought several telephone innovations including the concept of cellular communications and the North American Number Plan in 1947. This number plan, which is still used today, assigns phone numbers (area code, prefix, and line number) to the North American region.
By 1948, the number of telephones in the United States had reached 30 million.
In 1949, the Model 500 telephone was introduced by AT&T. What made this phone special? It was the first to combine a ringer and a handset. It is a cultural icon today.
Telephones in the 1950s
The 1950s were notable for laying the groundwork for direct long distance calling. The first such call, which was a test, took place in 1951. It took most of the decade before this option became available nationwide.
In 1956, the first transatlantic telephone cable was installed, alloing for international telephone service between the United Kingdom (and via various European links to other Western European countries) and North America.
Telephones in the 1960s
In the 1960s, there were more than 80 million telephones in the United States. Innovations included the first T1 system, a commercial digital transmission system which would later replace analog telephone lines.
The first pager, called “Bellboy,” arrived at the Seattle World’s Fair. This pager would send a tone to alert users to call in to retrieve their messages.
The first touch-tone telephone arrived in 1963. Instead of dialing a rotary dial, callers would simply push buttons that corresponded to the telephone number they were calling.
These phones looked much like the classic Model 500, but in place of the dial they featured the numeric keypad.
The 1960s also ushered in the 911 emergency phone system — about 30 years after Great Britain introduced its 999 emergency phone system in the 1930s.
Telephones in the 1970s
Portable cell phones became a reality in the 1970s, with the first portable call being made by Motorola’s Martin Cooper to a rival at Bell Labs. Fiber optics also arrived this decade, primarily for military use. By the late 1970s, a joint test by AT&T and Bell Labs of a new cellular phone system took place.
Telephones in the 1980s and 1990s
In the 1980s, there were more than 175 million telephones in the United States.
In 1982, the first commercial cellular phone service was approved by the FCC with commercial service becoming widespread throughout the United States by the end of the decade.
Remember the movie Wall Street starring Michael Douglas in Wall Street with the giant cell phone? Those original cell phones were clunky, but they were status symbols of the time. In the mid-1980s, there were about 24,000 cellular subscribers.
Pagers were quite popular in the 1990s, as were two-way radios in business settings. Cellular phones became less cumbersome and more affordable during the 1990s.
The first “smartphone,” IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, arrived in 1992 — 15 years before the iPhone. About 50,000 units were sold. Though it had a touchscreen, this phone was large and ahead of its time.
The first “clamshell” cellular phone (or flip phone) arrived in 1996 called the Motorola Startac.
Meanwhile, Voice over Internet Protocols began to be developed in the mid-1990s, allowing users to make voice calls over the Internet.
In 1999, the first two-way pager, the BlackBerry 850 arrived to the delight of business professionals and executives. Though quaint by today’s standards, this device supported email and web browsing.
Telephones in a New Millenium
By 2000, the United States was home to 100 million cellular telephone subscribers, which represents huge growth over just 15 years or so. Landlines, while still in use, were no longer the only option, and many people dropped them completely. Cellular phones changed rapidly. Some looked like mini computers with full QWERTY keyboards. Color screens and built-in cameras began to appear.
A new device, called a Personal Digital Assistants (PDA), emerged, blending phone service with email, mobile web browsing, calendar, and note-taking functions. BlackBerry dominated this market.
In 2007, the first iPhone arrived.
Today, more than half the world uses a smartphone to do just about everything including: making phone calls, participating in teleconferences and video calls, sending emails and text messages, accesing the Internet, watching television, managing their tasks and projects, doing business, taking photos and videos, and much more.
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