The Telephone in the United States

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Brian Colitti


MAJ Jung

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The Telephone in the United States
Wired communication has been popular in the United States since the 19th century when the telegraph was invented. This allowed messages to be carried longer distances significantly faster than traditional mail services. The telegraph sparked a tremendous revolution in the US and, decades later, the telephone was born. Used as a way to transmit sound messages in real time along a continuous connection, the telephone has had a long-lasting impact on the entire world. Starting out with limited popular support, the telephone quickly gained hold as a necessary communication method in the United States. Since its founding, the telephone, or “phone,” has transformed into something much more than the original design. In order to see the full effect of the telephone in the United States, it is important to think about its history, use, impact, and transformation to what it is today.

An important aspect about the telephone today is its extensive history and its rapid adoption into society. Alexander Graham Bell, a renowned inventor, used the idea of the telegraph to question how to transmit sound over a wire. Starting in 1876, Bell faced much adversity while getting his patent for the telephone approved. After increased popularity and use of the system, the first switch board for connecting calls was invented in 1877. At first, the telephone system only supported connections in the Northeastern US. Just three years later, there were already 49,000 telephones in use throughout certain areas of the country. Smaller inventions and ideas for the telephone were sprouting about all over the place, such as the phone book in 1878 and the pay phone in 1889. After AT&T created a monopoly over the phone service in 1907, government regulations tried to eliminate its control, but eventually settled for controlling the monopoly under the FCC (Imagining the Internet & Bellis). The invention of the mobile phone was the next big invention to hit the United States, coming about with radios after WWII. Further innovation led to mobile phones on trains, handheld phones, and even the smart phones of today (Farley). Throughout history the telephone has shown its rapid success, but how was it used as an information technology in the United States?

The people of the United States quickly adopted the phone system and spread its vast capabilities. Today telephones are used for polls, emergencies, talking to loved ones, making appointments, and even ordering food. In the early stages of the telephone, it was only used by a small number of wealthy people to communicate as a novelty. The true power of the telephone showed when it showed potential for use in business. Once phones were popular enough, people could make monetary transactions over the phone with banks, they could order parts from the mechanic shop, and could even set up meetings at a moment’s notice. Even the more pestering uses for the telephone developed, such as telemarketers who called people in the home to solicit products (Imagining the Internet). Perhaps one of the best uses for the phone was the invention of an emergency service line, where citizens could call in and report a crisis. Now telephones, particularly mobile phones, are used for sending text messages and pictures to communicate without actually talking. The telephone’s uses are virtually endless, and its constant development makes it increasingly effective every day.

Another important thing to think about regarding telephones is how they have impacted people. Since their creation, telephones have changed life in the United States exponentially, giving people the power to send sound over long distances. No one predicted the future better than John J. Carty when he said this in 1891: “Someday we will build up a world telephone system, making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language or common understanding of languages, which will join all the people of the earth into one brotherhood.” This is true because the telephone, in under a century, was able to connect all parts of the world vocally despite the distance. The most obvious advantage of telephones is that communication is much faster than that of its predecessors, such as telegraphs and letters. Although conversation may feel less personal than face-to-face communication, the capability to communicate orally over long distances has changed the way people interact for the better. On top of that, the telephone has created jobs like telephone wire repair, phone manufacture, and desk jobs at telephone companies. Also, the aforementioned emergency phone service has had an unparalleled impact on the life-saving and crime-stopping abilities of US citizens (Kang). On the other hand, phones create the risk of privacy invasion, such as switchboard operators listening to conversations, other people in close proximity listening to the conversation, and wiretapping by the government or criminals. In addition to these things, the postal service lost a lot of business out of the telephone’s invention, which is probably why the government wanted to take over the phone service (Imagining the Internet). These are all how the telephone has impacted people in the US, but how have people impacted this technology?

Surprisingly, people have had just as much of an impact on phones as it has on them. The United States being principal to its creation and development, the telephone has come a long way because of Americans. To start, the telephone itself developed almost sequentially after the printing press, telegraph, and the radio. After these, the telephone developed into the mobile phone, the cellular handheld phone, blue tooth and hands-free devices, text messaging devices, and “smart” phones. This is all thanks to the ingenuity of people, who have also consistently made these devices smaller. To give an idea of how fast people adopted this technology, from the years 1910 to 1980, the number of telephone subscribers in the US rose from 5.8 million to over 175 million. Additionally, there were 25 million cell phone users by 1995 (Imagining the Internet). Also, the phone service’s calling system and methods have grown. In the telephone’s early history, the user would call an operator, who would then connect him to his recipient. Later, with the invention of the “Strowger Switch,” users could connect automatically to the other person by tapping a button on their phone in a series, generating a phone number to dial. Other inventions that people created for telephones include the Yellow pages for business, “Caller ID” to see who is calling, and answering machines to accept and record voice messages for playback (Bellis). These new inventions and advances in the telephone illustrate how people have impacted the telephone and transformed it into a completely different technology.

In the long term, telephones revamped communication and took it to a whole new level. This is mainly because of improvements in timing and flexibility to fit virtually any need. The telephone is so versatile, that it serves as a necessity in almost every career field. A white collar business person in an office uses the telephone to do business every day just like a farmer needs a phone to order food and grooming supplies for his animals. Compared to other technologies, like the postal service, the phone service offers an easier way to reach someone and get more information to them while saving large amounts of time. The evident downfalls of the telephone are its lack of portrayed visuals, such as body language (Kang). In addition to this, nothing physical can yet be sent over a wire. This is why the postal service is still used for packages and anything other than words being sent. The long term effects of the telephone are evident, and this is why it has stuck around and developed into what it is today.

In order to understand the full effect of the telephone in the United States, it is important to think about its history, use, impact, and transformation to what it is today. The telephone started out as just a way to transfer sound over a wire, and many people did not see a clear use for it. After a short amount of time, the phone service started gaining popularity and necessity in the US. Its use in business has changed economies for the better and has helped in industrialization and communication between professionals. People today need telephones to do business and remain in contact with the people they know. It has become a point of dependence for the American people, and some would argue that a large majority of Americans could not survive without a phone of some sort. This is how important telephones have become, for better or for worse. All in all, the telephone is a masterful communication device, and will not be going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Telephone." About. About Inventors, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. .

Farley, Tom. "Mobile Telephone History." Telecom Writing. Telektronikk, 4 Mar. 2005. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. .

Imagining the Internet. "1870's-1940's Telephone." Elon University School of Communications, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. .

Kang, Daljinder. "The Impact of The Telephone on Society." The Impact of The Telephone on Communication. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. .

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