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Antique candlestick style telephone
Candlestick phone

The telephone has been the most popular method of personal communication for over 100 years. Today, more than a billion phones are in use across the world, connecting over a quarter of the world’s population.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. His first words into his new invention were a call to his assistant: “Mr Watson, come here. I want you”.

Traditional rotary dial black telephone
Traditional rotary dial telephone

The telephone’s basic technology has changed little since 1876. A telephone changes the sound of your voice into electrical signals and sends them along wires to the telephone exchange. From here, the signals are sent to the telephone of the person you are talking to, where they are changed back into sounds. Signals also travel from the other person’s telephone to yours, so you can hear their voice.

What has really changed is the design of the actual telephones.

Candlestick phones in the 1920s were the first to have a dial which could be used to call numbers via automatic telephone exchanges. Before that you had to call an operator at an exchange and asked to be connected to another phone.

A selection of phones from 1990 : Garfield, Lips and Sports Car
Novelty phones (1990) -
click to enlarge

By the 1930s most phone cases were plastic, and phone design changed little until push-button phones became common in the 1980s.

Modern telephones with fast and easy-to-use push button dialling have microprocessor memories which can store and re-dial numbers and divert calls.

Twenty years ago, tiny communication devices that could fit in the palm of everybody’s hand only existed in science fiction films. Now mobile phones are almost taken for granted. Somebody standing in the street in Europe thinks nothing of chatting with a friend in Asia or America.

Portable phones became common in Europe in the 1980s, using cellular radio networks first used in the USA and Japan in the 1970s.

This was made possible by many technologies coming together: plastics, improved radio techniques, better batteries, computers and above all, the microchip.

Mobile phones are connected to the ordinary telephone network by radio. Low-powered radio stations link the moving telephone to a computer network that keeps track of where the telephone is and what it wants.

A modern portable phone available from John Lewis
Portable telephone (2004)

To avoid interference, neighbouring radio stations use different frequencies, but the credit-card-sized telephone is able to tune instantly from one frequency to another, maintaining continuous contact between users.

With mass production, mobile phones shrank from the size and weight of an encyclopedia to pocket phones that could easily be taken everywhere. Designs progressed from ugly black bricks to shiny, curvy lifestyle accessories in a rainbow of colours and personalised messages. Now you can even take pictures with them and connect to the internet.


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