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Dialing it up

Hudson Cooper - Columnist
Posted 4/8/21

The telephone has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up we had one telephone in the house. It hung on the wall in the kitchen, so it was easily accessible. Years later a …

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Dialing it up


The telephone has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up we had one telephone in the house. It hung on the wall in the kitchen, so it was easily accessible. Years later a second phone was added in my parent's bedroom. Both were rotary models.

I had my first rudimentary version of a telephone thanks to the Campbell Soup Company. I took two empty cans of their chicken noodle soup and connected them with a 20-foot piece of thin twine. I gave one can to the boy who lived next door.

By talking into the empty cans, we were able to have a conversation between my bedroom and his. Unknown to us at the time we were demonstrating how the telephone carries people's voices over a distance.

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for inventing the telephone. Although others were tinkering with a similar product, his telephone is generally accepted as the one that got the ball rolling. His telephone converted sound to an electrical signal using a water-based liquid transmitter. The vibrations were then converted to sound by receiving the impulse on a drum like membrane.

In his Boston laboratory Bell spoke the first words ever transmitted via a telephone. On March 10, 1876 he said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Thomas Watson was his assistant who had the receiver in the other room. I often wonder if those were indeed the first words ever spoken over the telephone. Since the device had no ring to indicate a phone call was being made maybe Mr. Watson heard his boss saying some profanities when he thought his first few attempts failed.

Soon the telephone went through a myriad of improvements until its usage spread in countries around the world. They existed as landline telephones which will be discussed in the remainder of this column. I will save the discussion of mobile cell phones for another time.

Landline telephones initially communicated through a metal wire. Eventually that transmission improved through fiber optics. To get an idea of the popularity of landlines I consulted Dr. Stefan E. Rogers, author of the book “The Number You Have Dialed…” He told me that a survey done in 2003 showed that worldwide there were about 1.260 billion telephone lines. China led the world with 360 million while the United States got the silver medal with 260 million.

Dr. Rogers then gave me a basic education as to how a landline telephone works. The speaker's voice travels in small sound waves which are converted to electrical energy. That energy travels along wires and then is converted back to sound waves producing speech heard by the receiver.

That sounds simple enough, but I still wondered how a landline call to friends in Europe gets transmitted. It seems impossible that a call from Liberty, New York can be heard instantaneously by a friend in Paris. The telecommunications travel through cables that run on the ocean floor from continent to continent. So, when you dial up Pierre in Paris to ask the universal conversation starter “Hey, what time is it there?” your electrical signal passes sunken ships and coral reefs. It also zips past wildlife like lanternfish, bristlemouths and cookiecutter sharks. And yes, the cookiecutter shark is real, existing on ocean floors that support warm currents.

With the rapid pace of developing technology landline telephones are disappearing as affordable cellular phones increase in popularity. Future generations will have to go to museums to see how their ancient ancestors used landline phone booths and even had to wait for something called a “dial tone” to make a phone call.

I can even imagine that someday even cell phones will cease to exist. They might be replaced by implanted chips in your body. An incoming call will be announced by a quick beep heard in your ear. Then by simply squeezing your earlobe you can answer the call and ask, “Hey, what time is it there?”


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