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VoIP Articles  > History of the Telephone - Bell to VoIP

Take a look back at the history of how VoIP technology came into existance. The following article is a condensed version of the History of the Telephone. It covers the last 130+ years of Telephony. It is a good overview of how we finally arrived at VoIP.

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History of the Telephone -- from Bell to VoIP and Beyond
By Lori Wilkerson

Everyone knows the story of Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone. There’s the story of Bell’s first words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” that’s indelibly printed on our brains from childhood. However, what some don’t know is that the telephone was developed in a similar form simultaneously by Elisha Gray, who lost the patent battle by only a few hours in 1876.

Bell was successful primarily because he understood not only electricity and the workings of the telegraph, but had a thorough understanding of acoustics, which most inventors weren’t all that familiar with. While focusing on the mechanics, they weren’t taking into account the unique qualities of sound that made transmitting speech so much more complex than simple clicks of the telegraph. With a background in music and acoustics, Bell could address these issues more readily.

Chance happening plays role in acceptance

The telephone may not have gained such wide acceptance if, as if by serendipity, the Centennial Exhibition hadn’t been scheduled in Philadelphia for only a few months later. Tucked away at a small table in an obscure corner, Bell did not hope to garner much attention until he drew the attention of the Emperor Dom Pedro de Alcantara of Brazil, who was amazed by the invention. Immediately, all the scientists in attendance were clamoring to study the new invention.

At first telephones were seen as a fad that were more for entertainment purposes than commerce, until newspapers and banks began grudgingly using them to convey information quickly by virtue of free phone installations. The publicity from this made them immediately more popular and soon phone exchanges were set up in most major cities.

In the 1880’s metallic circuits were developed that allowed for long distance calls, which grew in popularity slowly because of the cost. Later, in the 1890’s, this was overcome by the development of the party line so that families, especially in rural areas, could split the cost of a line.

Direct dial overcomes operator interference

Until 1891, calls were put through by exchange operators, but this was done away with by a Kansas City man who invented the direct dial system because he was paranoid enough to think that the operators were sending his business calls to competitors. He was an undertaker.

In 1927, the first transatlantic call was made over radio waves. During both World Wars, telephone advancements grew by leaps and bounds because of heavy spending by the Defense Department. Innovations resulting from war-time experiments included Bell Telephone’s first mobile telephone system, which connected moving vehicles to landlines via radio. Surprisingly, this was as early as 1946, a year that also saw the development of coaxial cables for major transmission improvements with less interference.

In the 1960’s, telephones were so much a part of the landscape that Bell Telephone could no longer continue to use the alpha-numeric codes for telephone exchanges (remember using numbers like Normandy-7610?) and switched to longer, all numeric numbers. At the same time, transatlantic cables were being laid to accommodate the increased demand for intercontinental telephone communication.

One of the most important shifts in telephone history was the launch of the first telephone satellite in July of 1962. TelStar was a joint venture between Bell and NASA and revolutionized telephone communications like nothing that had come before. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit could now be used for long distance calls without the need for laying endless lines of cable and did away with the problem of frequent cable damage and repair.

Fiber optics move sound at the speed of light

Fiber Optic Cables were first used for telephone transmission in 1977, when both GTE and AT&T laid Fiber Optic lines in Chicago and Boston. By the mid-1980’s, fiber optic cable was the preferred method of telephone transmission, since it could carry a much higher volume of calls with much less interference. Since it also carries information faster and farther and resists lightning strikes, the advantages soon became obvious to the computer and other industries as well.

When the United States government deregulated telephone service, AT&T, the telephone communications giant, was immediately inundated with competition from MCI, Sprint and hundreds of smaller local companies and soon fiber optic lines were snaking around the country, being dropped along side natural rights of way such as gas lines and railroads. Telephone costs dropped and a new telephone service revolution had begun.

Cellular phones take the next step forward

In 1973, Dr. Martin Cooper of Motorola Corporation made what was probably the first cellular telephone call on a portable handset called the Dyna-Tac. After a successful test run, he took it to New York to introduce the technology to the public. By 1977, the cell phone had gone public, but these first models were cumbersome and generally used by those who were used to keeping in touch by two-way radio. By no means were they considered something that everyone should have or even want. They were initially considered a replacement for the mobile phones already in existence. The difference with cellular was the use of small “cells” for range of service in order to increase the capacity of calls handled, dramatically increasing the number of calls capable of being made by mobile/cellular phone at one time in one area.

The first cellular services used analog technology operating at 800 Megahertz in a continuous wave. Over time, the power needs of callers increased and the industry standard moved to a more reliable 1850 MHz with PCS. In 1988, the Cellular Technology Industry Association was formed to develop guidelines for cellular service providers and steer developments and improvements in the cell phone industry. There are now well over 60 million cellular telephone customers, a staggering number for a service that has been commercially available for only thirty years.

Next stop, digital!

While the majority of users still have analog cell phones, the new frontier is definitely digital. Rather than using a continuous wavelength for transmission, digital chops up the wave into discreet bytes of information and sends them in “pulses” of data. The up side to this is that digital signals tend to be more secure when transmitted than analog. It’s also a more efficient use of bandwidth and provides clearer, cleaner sound quality. If you transmit video clips or photos (like with the new video or picture cell phones) digital is much faster, and will be the choice hands-down when you’re integrating the cell phone and the Internet.

There is a caveat; however, in that digital currently transmits through three different technologies. This can lead to some problems with coverage. If you are on a TDMA (time-division multiple access) system and traveling in an area that has digital coverage that’s CDMA (code-division multiple access), you could run into problems.

The answer for now is the combined analog-digital technology that providers are touting. This offers the great coverage of analog when needed and the great speed and quality of PCS/digital.

Telephone conferencing arrives on the scene

The first real “audio conferencing” could be said to have been the party lines set up back in the early years of telephone use, although at that time the advantages of a party line for multiple users weren’t grasped except as a way to save money. In fact, the fact that several people in different locations could pick up and talk on the line at the same time was considered a nuisance and was actively discouraged as “eavesdropping.”

When party lines were phased out, the idea of multiple conversations were forgotten until businesses began seeking ways to carry on meetings via telephone in order to save travel expenses and link teams together over distances. The concept was revisited with new parameters; this time restrictions needed to be in place, and the lines had to be open only when needed and desired.

Soon companies around the globe were offering to coordinate conference calling for companies based on either flat rates, monthly fees or based on call volume, with a trained operator setting up connections between each participant on a dedicated line so that groups of up to ten could talk simultaneously. Their bulk long-distance rates enabled them to pass savings along to their customers.

Telephone manufacturers like Polycom, AT&T and Panasonic also jumped on the bandwagon, developing office telephone systems that enabled users to dial a client, put them on hold then call up a third party and connect the three callers into one conversation.

The Internet soon brought competition, however, to audio conferencing and the cost of long distance telephone calls. Even with lower rates based on bulk purchasing and group rates, Internet telephony is gaining ground on traditional telephone audio conferencing because it’s so much cheaper.

VoIP, the Internet and the eventual demise of traditional telephone conferencing

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) soon became popular for telephone communications because it avoids the toll charges of standard telephone connections. Dial-up internet connections provided near “toll-quality” voice communications, and with broadband connections the increased data throughput enabled businesses to use VoIP in conjunction with other Internet services like data sharing and video conferencing. With the money saved using VoIP, it seems obvious that using analog phone lines for telephone conferencing will soon be a thing of the past.

Most VoIP audio conferencing technologies give you the capability to network multiple groups or parties from different geographical locations, making it simple to hold an international sales taff meeting. Web conferencing solutions using VoIP from companies such as Voxwire, TTCGlobalTalk and VoiceCafe can provide almost unlimited conference room seats for a meeting, limited only by the bandwidth of the VoIP server.

As the Internet becomes a standard part of any suite of office equipment, analog telephone services, audio conferencing and their equipment will soon become obsolete. Audio conferencing will be done more and more on the Internet using VoIP based web conferencing services offering powerful collaborative services that go beyond just simple voice communications. For placing calls, digital phone services like Vonage and Packet8 that implement VoIP over broadband connections will step in to offer less expensive, more comprehensive calling options to meet the needs of individuals and companies going into the future.

This article on the "The History of the Telephone" reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2004 Evaluseek Publishing

About the Author
Lori Wilkerson is a full-time freelance writer who loves her job because it gives her the opportunity to learn more about the world every day. Right now, she knows a little bit about almost everything, and a lot about audio conferencing, VoIP telephony, and communication system protocols. She has two dogs who are spoiled and one teenager who is not. She does her audio conferencing in pink bunny slippers.


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