The history of the invention of telephony reads like a captivating detective novel, but even more intriguing are the events that contributed to the worldwide adoption of this technology. In this series of columns on IQ.HSE, Anton Basov, HSE Faculty of Computer Science editor, discusses how telephones have become an integral part of our everyday life. The ninth episode of the series explores the development of the first long-distance, interstate, and transatlantic telephone lines, which suddenly made people thousands of kilometres away feel as close as if they were in the same room together.
Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India, died in January 1901. Her passing marked the end of the 19th century and the Victorian era, of which she was a living symbol both within the empire and across the globe. At that time, there were 2,255,000 telephones worldwide, with 60% of them located in the United States. By 1901, telephony had reached technical maturity: carbon microphones and twisted pair copper cables had improved sound quality, while new switchboard designs had accelerated and simplified the operation of telephone exchanges.
So far, this series has primarily looked at telephone networks within cities, and hardly mentioned long-distance intercity lines. Having significantly improved its performance in big cities, the telephone now sought to interconnect them.
As early as the end of 1880, Scientific American reported that the telephone functioned flawlessly at distances of 100 and even 200 kilometres, foreseeing the potential success of connecting New York by telephone with nearby cities. In January 1881, the first international telephone line connected American Detroit with Windsor in Canada.
In this respect, Europeans were somewhat ahead of the Americans. On January 6, 1878, a test conversation was held over a telegraph wire between Switzerland and Italy. Nevertheless, a full-fledged international line did not materialise in Europe until 1886, when the Swiss city of Basel was connected with Saint-Louis and Mulhouse (then German, now French cities). After that, the number and length of telephone lines continued to increase with Brussels–Paris (300 km), Basel–Frankfurt (320 km), Moscow–St Petersburg (660 km), and Basel–Berlin (900 km).
On April 1, 1891, the telephone connected London and Paris through the first underwater cable laid across the English Channel. The total length of the line, 500 kilometres, was also quite impressive. The longest international telephone line in the 19th century, spanning 1,300 kilometres, was the Berlin–Vienna–Budapest communication channel opened on September 1, 1897.
In the USA, telephone networks expanded even more rapidly than in Europe. In 1892, the telephone network successfully linked New York and Chicago over a distance of 1,500 kilometres, making it the longest in the world. The inauguration of this communication channel took place on October 18, with the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, officiating the event. Indoor photography remained a challenge during that era, and newspapers proudly captioned the picture as being 'taken by magnesium light.'
The New York–Chicago telephone line was the pinnacle of 19th century telephony, and was impossible to surpass at that time. Electrical signals are known to weaken due to the resistance of the wire and other factors. Direct-current telegraph signals, such as the dots and dashes of Morse code could be easily amplified using relays. There was no method at the time to amplify an alternating telephone signal. This imposed a constraint on the range of telephone communication.
The first breakthrough in overcoming the barrier to long-distance telephone communication came through a technology known by the peculiar term of pupinisation after its inventor, physicist Mihajlo (Michael) Pupin, who discovered that the insertion of a loading coil, or inductor, into a telephone line could extend the range of communication.
Thanks to this innovation, in 1911, the communication range doubled (to 3,200 km), allowing the telephone to connect New York with Denver. European achievements were modest in comparison, with the Berlin–Milan telephone line (1,350 km) being the longest in Europe by 1914.
However, the true technological revolution occurred with the invention of a three-electrode lamp—a triode—and the development of an electronic amplifier. The history of the triode merits a separate discussion, but for now, it is sufficient to note that triodes were invented in 1908 by the American engineer Lee de Forest. By 1914, AT&T utilised triodes in the construction of the transcontinental telephone line between New York and San Francisco, inaugurated, once again, by Alexander Graham Bell on January 25, 1915.
Sitting in New York, Alexander Graham Bell said into the phone what he had said decades before: 'Mr. Watson, come here. I want you'—the first-ever phrase transmitted over the telephone in 1876. Watson, sitting in San Francisco, replied, 'It will take me five days to get there now!' The human voice covered a distance that would take a person five days to travel, all in less than a second.
Where does the word ‘ hello ’ come from? Like many things in the world around us, it has been attributed to the famous inventor Thomas Edison. He proposed that a telephone conversation should begin with ‘ hello ’ since it could be heard a few metres from the telephone, eliminating the need to ring a bell. Alexander Graham Bell initially urged people to use ‘ ahoy ,’ a nautical greeting between ships or vessels.
A year later, in 1916, the human voice would cross the Atlantic, and the Eiffel Tower radio station would receive a radiotelephone transmission from Arlington, USA. The transmission would also be heard from the other side of the globe, in Honolulu. However, France could only respond by telegraph as they did not have the electronic amplifiers required to transmit sound.
A regular transatlantic telephone service opened in 1927 and in the 1937 mystery novel The Red Box by Rex Stout, detective Nero Wolfe already calls London 'as if it were his own kitchen.'