By Jim O’Neal
In 1861, a German schoolmaster named Johann Philipp Reis built a device he called a telephone. Apparently, many Germans tend to credit him with the invention instead of Alexander Graham Bell.
The one thing that Reis’ device didn’t do was work. It only produced a series of clicks like a telegraph might. After his death, it was discovered that when the device got dusty or dirty, the contact points were able to transmit speech with remarkably clear fidelity. Reis had kept his equipment impeccably shiny and clean in the finest Teutonic tradition.
Three other men, including American Elisha Gray, were close to perfecting their versions of a telephone when Bell made his famous “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you” breakthrough in 1876. Gray actually filed a patent caveat (a sort of holding claim) on the exact same day Bell filed for his patent. Alas, it was a few hours too late and Bell prevailed.
Bell displayed his invention at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, but it did not attract much attention. Most people considered it a novelty with no real understanding of its purpose.
Bell tried to explain what it did by writing: “The telephone may be briefly described as an electrical contrivance for reproducing in different places the tones and articulation of a speaker’s voice so that conversation can be carried on by word of mouth between persons in different rooms, in different streets or in different towns. … The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus is that it requires no skill to operate the instrument.”
It is not clear how much this helped, but some expect cellphone subscriptions to soon exceed 7 billion – or more than the total population of Earth.
Reach out and touch someone.
P.S. An interesting obscure fact is that Thomas A. Watson had about 40 patents himself and one was for the bell that rang with a call. For the first seven years, people had to pick up the phone occasionally to see if anyone was on the line.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].