In a world where almost everyone has a mobile phone glued to their hand, it's strange to think about the humble beginnings of the first telephones and how far phone technology has advanced in the past 150 years.
The rapid pace at which phones are developing has created one of the biggest divides between generations. Children are having their lives documented through the camera of smartphones, while older generations still cling to their corded landlines.
98% of households in the UK have a mobile phone, while 73% of households have a landline. Phones provide one of the fastest ways of contacting other people and are used in everyday life by the majority of the population.
Continue reading to find out who invented the first telephone, how the technology has developed, and the timeline between the first 'coffin' phone to the smartphones that most people have come to rely upon so heavily in modern times.
Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell is credited as the 'father of the telephone'. His design was the first to be patented nearly 150 years ago on 14 February 1876. The first words spoken through his telephone were "Mr Watson, come here, I need you", which Bell said to his assistant. The inventor was delighted when his assistant rushed to him and relayed that he had heard and understood the message. Bell's lawyers immediately set out to patent his design.
However, Bell wasn't the only person who was trying to invent such a device. Another inventor, Elisha Gray, also created a similar design, but he narrowly missed out on claiming the first telephone patent. In a twist of fate, Gray visited the US Patent Office only a few hours after Bell, which cost him the fame of being the named inventor of a device that would change the world.
Hundreds of other inventors challenged Bell's patent, with five of these disputes reaching the US Supreme Court. However, Bell's claims were upheld in what was one of the longest patent battles in the history of the United States.
In recent years, historians have delved deeper into the development of telephones. Attention has turned to Italian engineer Antonio Meucci, who invented a similar device to telephones. His invention had the ability to turn sound into electrical signals over a decade before Bell patented his design.
Back in 2002, the US House of Representatives found that Meucci's invention was so important that it could have challenged Bell's right to the first patent. Further evidence has found that Bell also plagiarised key components of his design, which questioned Bell's right to claim credit for the invention of the telephone.
In 1877, the year after Bell patented his telephone design, the first regular telephone line was installed between Boston and Somerville, Massachusetts. In the following years, more and more lines were installed as the sales of telephones rose. By 1880, the United States had around 47,900 telephones.
Bell demonstrated his invention to Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight in 1878. He made calls to London, Cowes and Southampton, which were the first long-distance calls to be made in the UK. The Telephone Company Ltd was formed in the UK in the same year and had the capacity to install 150 telephone lines throughout the country. One of the first lines to be installed near London was in Haye's Wharf on the south bank of the Thames to Hay's Wharf Office on the north bank.
The first telephones were nicknamed 'coffins' due to the shape of the rectangular mahogany boxes that were mounted onto walls. Users had to turn a crank which would generate an electrical signal that would alert the telephone operator. They would then be able to speak to the operator and say with who they wanted to be connected.
Due to the expenses of these early telephones, they were largely installed in public places such as stores, where local residents would have to visit if they wanted to ring someone. In 1890, the wall-mounted phones were replaced by 'candlestick' phones which were free-standing and allowed users to place them wherever they liked. The early 1900s saw many households purchase their first telephone, although they were largely out of the price range of the working class.
As automated switching was introduced, people could dial and get connected straight to the person they were contacting rather than going through an operator.
The first 'modern' telephone was invented by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss in the 1930s. The Model 302 had a ringer installed in the phone, rather than being a separate component. The cradle was also led horizontally across the telephone and allowed users to speak and listen using the same handset.
Electrical telephones weren't introduced until 1960, at which point there were around 80 million telephones in the United States. Telephones weren't as widespread in the United Kingdom, and by the end of the 1960s, more than half of households in the country didn't have a telephone. This soon changed as the technology developed and the price of telephones lowered.
In 1962, the first satellite that allowed people to contact telephones anywhere in the world was launched. The rotary dial phone was also replaced by telephones with buttons in 1963. Just two years later, the first wireless phone was released. Buttons such as '*' and '#' were also added.
From the 1960s onwards, telephones were reduced in size and went from having a square base to a slimmer, more rectangular design. Italian designers Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper created the Grillo Cricket, which had a clam-shell shape that influenced the style of modern flip phones.
During the 1980s, many phones became wireless and began to shrink during the 1990s. In 2007, the first iPhone was released and transformed the phone by adding a variety of different applications. This turned the phone from a simple talking device to a tiny computer that gave its user access to a calculator, GPS and much more with a few quick taps on the touchscreen.
Motorola publically demonstrated the first portable cellular system mobile phone in 1973. The DynaTAC weighed over two kilograms and measured 23 x 13 x 4.5 cm. By 1983, Motorola launched the DynaTAC 8000x, which was the world's first handheld 'cell phone'. This model weighed around one kilogram and cost what is equivalent to almost $10,000 in today's money.
A full charge of the DynaTAC 8000x took 10 hours, although the battery's charge only lasted for 30 minutes. Many wealthy entrepreneurs and businesspeople bought mobile phones so that they could make important calls on the go.
The first Nokia phone, the Mobira Cityman 900, was launched in 1987 and weighed 800g. In the following year, Samsung launched its first handheld phone, the SH-100. By 1989, the first flip phone was released by Motorola, which was a revolutionary change from the clunky 'brick phones'.
Texting became hugely popular with teenagers from the 1990s onwards, which helped increase sales of mobile phones. This was a far cry from the wealthy corporate types that companies had originally thought would be their target demographic.
The first smartphone, the IBM Simon, was launched in 1994 by Mitsubishi Electric. This device was the first mobile phone to feature a touchscreen and featured several apps, although it never took off in terms of sales. It wasn't until three years later that the first mobile phone without antennae was launched.
It's disputed when the first camera phone was launched, although some believe that it was the Kyocera VP-210 VisualPhone. This device had a front-facing camera that allowed users to take and store up to 20 photos at a time.
Perhaps the biggest revolution for mobile phones was when Apple released the iPhone in 2007. It featured a touch-based interface and removed most of the physical buttons that previous models had. The first Android phone in the following year, although the HTC Dream faced criticism as it lacked functionality and third-party software.
In 2021, 99% of people aged between 16 and 24 years old owned a mobile phone in the United Kingdom. It's predicted that 92% of the overall population own a phone and spend around four hours on their device every day. These staggering statistics demonstrate how ingrained mobile phones have become in everyday life and culture.
Although they are still called phones, most smartphone owners rarely use their devices to ring people. Instead, phones are used to text, browse social media and use search engines such as Google. Many households have stopped using landlines in favour of portable mobile phones that they can carry with them at all times.
During the 1970s, researchers at Bell Labs in the United States started to look into how they could develop a cellular phone network. Their idea was to cover the country with a network of hexagonal cells that would each have their own base station. Mobile phone messages could be sent and received from these base stations using radio frequencies.
The different cells operated on different frequencies so that they didn't interfere with each other. As someone moved from one cell to another, mobile phones could change frequency so that they could seamlessly connect to the nearest base station.
In 1973, Martin Cooper, a Motorola engineer, designed and developed the first handheld mobile phone that could connect with the Bell Labs Advance Mobile Phone System (AMPS).
There was confusion around the mobile phone networks in the US as the government offered contracts to two companies in each city. This meant that there were too many incompatible networks that didn't work efficiently. However, the British government decided to offer contracts to only two companies: Cellnet and Vodafone. These were the two sole companies to operate the first cellular phone networks in the country.
On New Year's Day 1985, Vodafone launched its network and was followed only a few days later by Cellnet. Combined, Cellnet and Vodofone had over half a million subscribers within their first three years of operating. Their networks were also able to reach over 90% of the population.
In 1987, European leaders met together to sign an agreement that would enable mobile phone users to switch from network to network as they travelled through different countries. This agreement was called GSM after Groupe Spécial Mobile, although this later changed to Global System for Mobile Communications.
The GSM transmitted digitally rather than using analogue systems as the first cellular networks had. This second generation was referred to as 2G. It wasn't long after that other countries, including the US, decided to adopt GSM. In 2022, it's estimated that nine out of ten people in the world are within range of a terrestrial GSM network.
In 2009, the 4G network was commercially deployed in Norway and Sweden. The network has since become common all over the world. 5G, the fifth generation technology used for broadband cellular networks, started getting deployed in 2019. It is around 10 times faster than its predecessor and has download speeds of around 10 gigabits per second.
In the 150 years since they were invented, telephone technology has advanced at an incredible rate. From the 'coffin' phones that were mounted on the walls and were shared by numerous people to the mobile technology that gives its user access to the world's knowledge, mobile phones have become a key part of modern society and culture.
Cordless phones gave users the freedom that a blocky rotary phone couldn't. This then opened the way for the development of mobile phones, which used cellular towers and networks so that individuals can move throughout their country and abroad while still maintaining the ability to make calls and send messages.
Smartphones have almost moved past the original purpose of telephones. Many users prefer to message other people than to call them. In fact, most smartphone companies focus on the extra features, such as cameras, memory storage and touchscreen display when marketing their devices.