The History of the Smartphone

Do you know how your cell phone works? We all spend a lot of time using them. Some people at GFS are even addicted to their cell phones. We “check” our phones whenever we can, but it’s not just kids: teachers do it too. Cell phones have become a huge part of American culture, so shouldn’t we know how they do what they do?

1876alexandergrahambellThree men claim to have invented the telephone, but only one gets the credit. The first person to work on the telephone was Antonio Meucci. Meucci was born in 1808 in Florence, Italy. After immigrating to America in 1850, he discovered that sounds could be transmitted through copper wire in the form of electricity. The Italian inventor was too poor to file a patent for his “teletrofono”, which meant that anyone could claim the idea as their own. Unfortunately for Meucci, Alexander Graham Bell did just that. The Scottish Bell and American Alisha Gray had their own ideas for a “talking telegraph” and on Valentines Day, 1876, both inventors rushed to the Patent Office to see if they could take credit the invention. Bell got there before Gray, claiming the patent and the glory that would go to whoever became the inventor of the telephone.

So how did Bell’s telephone work? Debuting at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, Bell’s telephone was simpler than you might think. The telephone used a liquid transmitter to allow sound to travel as an electric current. A liquid transmitter is really a metal cone with parchment stretched over it. Bell glued a cork with a needle stuck in it to the outside of the parchment. One end of the needle was in a cup that had sulphuric acid in it. When someone talked into the cone, the parchment would vibrate, which moved the needle, making it touch a metal contact point in the cup. Since the needle was hooked up to a battery, different amounts of current would flow through the contact point and into the wire, depending on how or what you spoke.

At first, Bell’s invention did not catch on. To install a telephone line was very expensive, so usually many families would share one line. Since you would probably have to share a line, people were afraid that others would listen to their private conversations, since all you had to do was pick up the phone to listen in. Eventually people started to buy the telephone and Bell Telephone Company (now AT&T) was born.

As with all inventions, people would improve on the original telephone. In 1877, Thomas Edison developed a newer, better telephone transmitter for Western Union (one of Bell’s rivals). In 1878, the switchboard was developed, allowing many telephones to connect at once.  By 1910, AT&T (Bell Telephone) had 5.8 million telephones in its service. In 1934, AT&T became a “regulated monopoly” and during the 1960’s there were over 160,000,000 connected phones in the world. In 1973, the first cell phone call was made, and in 1983, the first cell phones were on the market. The original cell phone, the Motorola 8000X cost $3,995 to buy. By 1984, AT&T had such a monopoly on the telephone business, it was forced to split up into smaller companies. Finally, the first smartphone was created in 1992 by IBM. The phone, called Simon, could take pictures and had a touch-screen. Finally, the iPhone was released in 2007 and has been reincarnated six times to date. Phones have evolved quite a lot since the liquid transmitter.

How do phones work now? When you talk into your phone, it converts your voice into an electrical current. Your cell signal is picked up by cell phone towers near you and the towers help move your signal to other cell towers near the phone you are calling, eventually relaying the signal to the other phone. However, there are only so many frequencies that cell phones can use. This problem is solved by dividing up areas into different “cells”. This way, the same signals can be used by several different cells at once.

Phones have revolutionized the way we talk, work and play, and they’re still evolving. They have become a quintessential part of the way we live. You can instantly talk to anyone, anywhere in the world. However, great power comes with great responsibility, and lately people have been misusing it. Kids and adults alike are constantly on their phones, not only at GFS, but everywhere. People who have their phones taken away from them can suffer from withdrawal. The Oscar-nominated film Her even deals with a love affair between a man and his operating system. Our infatuation with cell phones hasn’t moved quite that far, but we’re certainly on our way. A 2010 study found that 69% of 11-14 year olds (those are the ages of GFS Middle School kids) own cell phones. That’s seven out of every ten kids. Cell phones first went on the market in 1983, or about thirty years ago. Think how many people will have cell phones thirty years from now. A lot has changed since the days of Antonio Meucci and Alexander Graham Bell, but it makes you wonder: What could be next?

Thanks to:

Alexander Graham Bell: Father of Modern Communication by Michael Pollard