The Telephone in History: How Telephone Innovation Shapes Human Behavior

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash


Twenty years ago, we had to write down the number of our family to make a phone call with a landline telephone. We maintained an address book where we would individually write down each person’s contact information, including phone numbers and addresses. When we expected to contact someone, we had to find his or her number in our address book, then push buttons to dial numbers, then wait for somebody to pick up. Nowadays however, we have smartphones to make phone calls easier. This didn’t happen quickly. There was a long development from the first invention of telephone calls. The whole telephone system connect us and the user experience of making a phone call is much easier. The whole communication system played a significant role in shaping society.

The Interaction

The development of the telephone shapes our behavior and how we interact with people. People today process a voice call and communicate with electronic devices. This matters because people can better communicate emotions by listening to each other’s voices. People can feel the tone of voice and pitch. It allows people to get an immediate interaction. The telephone is an extremely valuable and important innovation because it allows for a verbal exchange of information by conversation. People don’t need to spend a lot effort to communicate with each other. By understanding the interaction behind the technology, we can learn to understand how the technology shapes our behavior and culture.

People’s lives and behavior were shaped by the development of the telephone. In recent telephone history, communication has changed significantly. The interaction between people and devices is very different today. For example, in 1950, when people wanted to make a phone call, the the first step was find the number from the address book, then use a rotary telephone to dial the number. They had to wait for someone to pick up the phone. If no one picked up the phone, they had to call again later. Today, we have a mobile phone, which allows people to make a phone call easily. We can check the contact on our phone number contact book, then press the phone shape button. Every step has become more intuitive. If we missed somebody’s call, the phone will show the missed call and we can call them back later at our convenience.

The History of Telephone: Early Years

The age of voice communication was born on March 10, 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell made the first call in Boston. Bell said to his assistant Thomas Watson: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” This telephone call is the most famous call. Prior to this first phone call on June 2, 1875, Watson had found the initial voice transmitting accidently from Bell in another room after he tried to stop the telephone wire from vibrating. On February 14, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell registered the patent number 174,465, which was considered the most valuable patent in the world. In the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, Bell demonstrated his big box telephone to Dom Pedro, the emperor of Brazil. He was shocked and said” My God, it talks!” The telephone looked like a big bulky box (see figure 2). The phone apparatus had to be carried to one’s mouth with both hands in order to talk into it. Thomas Edison also changed the way to speak into the telephone. At that time, people used to say “Are you there” and waited a time for response. Edison thought it was waste too much time and then changed the way to speak and said “Hello.”

In 1876 Elisha Gray developed a telephone prototype in Highland Park, Illinois. Some authors dispute that Gray should be considered the true inventor of the telephone because Alexander Graham Bell took the idea of liquid transmitters from him. Bell’s telephone patent was sustained in court decisions thereafter. In 1878, the first telephone exchange was built in North America. In this age, large companies used switchboard operators to switch calls. The operators participated in the calls.

[Figure 1.] The sketch of the voice transmitting concept by Bell. The voice creates a sound wave and passes through the membrane to create a vibration. Telephone: Bell’s sketch of a telephone, Image, from Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed November 16, 2018,
[Figure 2.] The big box telephone was demonstrated by Bell in Boston. Ellen Stern and Emily Gwathmey. Once Upon a Telephone: An Illustrated Social History, HARCOURT BRACE & COMPANY, 1994, P33
[Figure 3.] In the file,The Nation at your Fingertips, back to 1880. The man demonstrates how to use the wall phone with his wife. Western Electric Recording, A Bell System, The Nation at your Fingertips, Scanned from a 16mm print held by the Library of Congress, 10mins, 1951,

The wall phone

In 1878, the butterstamp telephone was invented. The phone was fixed to the wall. The receiver-transmitter didn’t allow users listen and speak at same time, they might miss something when they moved the phone from their mouth to their ears. The wall set telephone was invented in the same year. This model allowed users to listen and speak at the same time.


In the film, Western Electric Recording, A Bell System, The Nation at your Fingertips, the users had to pick up the receiver that hung under the wall phone. The man rotated the ring on the wall that allowed him to call the operator. The man and woman received a letter that may have included the phone number to call.


The man had to hold the phone in his hand and he dialed with his other hand. After the phone connected, they talked to the transmitter that hung on the right side of the phone.


They waited for the operator to pick up the phone then the two people were connected to talk.


The man and the woman were really excited to connect with the person they were trying to call. The woman had a nervous emotion at same time.

[Figure 4.] In 1907, AT&T launched a wall telephone. The wall telephone had improved the design to help users to talk into the transmitter. Britannica Academic, s.v. “Telephone: AT&T magneto wall telephone, 1907,” accessed November 16, 2018,
[Figure 5.] In 1897 the candlestick telephone includes a receiver and transmitter, which was a major improvement. The receiver hangs on the hook. When users pick up the receiver that completes the circuit. The circuit system is still used in some places. Britannica Academic, s.v. “Candlestick phone,” accessed November 16, 2018,

Local Social Life in the Early 1900s

Before the telephone was invented, women could not easily reach out to people beyond immediate vicinity. The telephone development might spurred local activities.

The telephone allowed subscribers, especially women, to maintain social events, for example, ordering food and calling a doctor. Women organized activities easily by telephone more often. According to Lana Rakow’s, professor emerita of communication at the University of North Dakota, women living in rural area set up activities such as church socials and coordinating social club meetings.

Telephone allowed people to make a personal call, helping them to create new social network when they lived in a isolated region. One of the concerns at this time was people might rely on telephones to maintain their relationships instead of face to face communication. A sociologist of technology, Peter Berger, claimed that “the coming of the telephone began the unraveling of social processes. People became willing to accept physical separation as long as contact is not the same as being there, and it creates a different kind of society.”

The Rotary Phone Telephone

In 1950, the direct-distance dialing (DDD) was invented. From AT&T’s promotional film,The Nation at your Fingertips, shows the prototype of DDD in Englewood, New Jersey, which is the first town had a self DDD system. In the film, the family finally could call her daughter directly without an operator. DDD was one rule of North American Numbering Plan, which was devised by AT&T in 1940.

At the beginning, the woman had to open her address book to find her daughter’s number. The number included alphabets because the phone exchanges. The woman had to dial the number by rotating the dial. After her daughter picked up the phone, her mother could speaker to her. Before the DDD innovation, in the early 1880, users had to rotate the bar first, and then the boy operators would answer the call and help users and they were able to connect their friends or family.


The woman in the film repeats the number she dials. When users use the rotary phone, it is easy to get lost what they dial. Especially when dialing 0, they spend more time on dialing. If user dial the wrong numbers, they can push the prongs then dial again.


Users have to insert their finger to the opening then dial to the metal stopper. Users can feel the longer sound rotation when they dial a greater number. Users have to remove the finger and place the finger again.


Somebody would pick up the phone and the caller would hope they dialed the correct number.


During the dialling, they expected to connect their family or friends directly.

[Figure 6.]In 1953, the desk plastic black phone became the first popular model in America, which was manufactured by Western Electric. “Telephones through Time” Smithsonian.

Sorry, Wrong Number

The operator system had operated almost 50 years. In 1948, one of the scene in the movie” Sorry, Wrong Number”, which directed by Anatole Litvak, shows the woman is trying to connect to her husband from the operator. She complained to the operator that she had been waiting for over 30 minutes. She accidently heard the person occupy her line and heard a murder plan on the phone. It is unbelievable that users have to wait for the long to connect to the people they want to talk to. The operators would sometime connect the wrong number to the wrong people. The director Anatole Litvak used this phenomenon to develop the story that we can understand the context at that time.

The Mobile Phone

In his 2012 book, The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything, Michael Saylor breaks down the mobile computer history into five waves, from the first wave: The Mainframe to the Fifth wave: Mobile Internet. From the road toward mobile computing, Sony played the most significant role for the commercial lithium-ion battery to fit this battery into various size of devices. Toshiba engineer Fujio Masuoka also discovered and invented the flash memory to replace hard drives. The first cell phone was created by Motorola’s vice president Martin Cooper in 1973. In the early years, cell phones only had voice call and voicemail. Followed by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone(NTT) releasing the first generation (1G) communication technology, people were allowed to make mobile telephone calls but not to text each other. People usually left voicemails if someone couldn’t answer the phone. The next improvement was SMS (short message service), which allowed people to text short 24–28 character messages to each other.

In September 2000, Nokia launched the most commercially successful mobile device, the 3310. Looking at the interface more closely, there is only a dial and hang up function key in the top of the middle. Users use this function key to finish calls. It is might not be intuitive for people are used to using a smartphone. The newest 3310 (2017) changes the call key to replace the cancel key on the left of the old phone. By comparing two different mobile phone generations, we can understand how the technology shapes our behaviors and we also shape how the technology device will look like.

The signal and battery icons are pretty much the same as the icons show on smartphones nowadays.

The small size allows users to use one hand to dial and text message. The menu button is the call, hang up, and answer button. The user can send the simple pre-installed messages to others.

It allows users to dial to any service anywhere. They probably need to know the numbers first or get them from other sources such as websites, magazines or TV.

Users were allowed to move everywhere to use the phones to communicate with others. People had more flexibility to contact each other.

[Figure 8.] The most popular smartphone is the iPhone, which was designed by Apple. The up-to-date Facetime application allows up to 32 people to have a video call at the same time. iPhone has changed the way people communicate and interact with each other.

The Smart Phone

In 1992, the first smartphone came out on the market by IBM, which was called the Simon Personal Communicator.The first smartphone has large screen and a pen, which allowed users to send email and make notes. In 1997, the Nokia 9000 Communicator started the new era of smartphone. The first clamshell design that allowed users to use the full QWERTY keyboard when it opened.

2000 to 2008 :The Era of the Camera Phone

Sharp created the first camera phone J-SH04(J-phone), which was the first cell phone included a camera function. Users could use this cell phone to take pictures and send them by email with 3G system. Japan was a leader for the camera cell phone. That made mobile culture become more popular in Japan.

Passengers were not allowed to make phone calls on the train so then passengers used text messages and email as alternatives during this time. I could see many young people text each other by using text message and cute emojis. It is still popular right now, so Japan is at least ahead of the communication behavior revolution by 10 years.

The Video Call

The development of the smartphone and 4G (fourth generation cellular system) allowed us to have very clear face to face video calls, specifically with the iPhone. The interaction became easier, which we can simply say “ Hey Siri, call my mom”. The voice assistant automatically dials the call for you. The third party applications even allows you make a video call without having numbers, you simply need to add your friends accounts and profiles.

iPhone provides the more possibility to make a video call. It can be Facetime, Skype, Message, Line, Wechat..etc. Each application has different interfaces and functions to use it.

The front camera and the internet determine the quality of the video call.

You can see people’s emotions by seeing their face and gestures instantly in real time and have a more intimate connection and dialogue.

You can feel like you are physically with the person since the vivid video communication exchange mimics an in-person kind of feeling.


It seems like the newest technology always changes our behavior and people always have a concern about it. From the telephone development history, we can understand how technology starts as an option, but then eventually becomes a necessity — from the privilege to the general. If people don’t have access to the newest technology, they can easily become culturally isolated. On the other hand, follow by the technology innovation, our expectation for communication speed becomes higher and higher. For example, in 1980 we could understand that people don’t immediately pick up the phone and can wait for few days to call again. Nowadays however, we are looking for people to respond faster within a day or even immediately. The human desire for communication connectivity never stops and we hope it will continually get better and better.



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