|An Early History of the Telephone 1664-1866
By Daniel P McVeigh
With a telegraph placed in Madrid and servants waiting in Aranjuez, Spain holding live wires ready to receive the electric sock, an insensitive Francisco Salva deploys a cruel but effective communications system. This device, constructed in 1796, consists of 44 wires that allowed 22 characters to be transmitted. The signals are generated by electrostatic machines which transmit at a distance of 30 miles leaving the poor servants jumping at every shock. Salva later reconstructs the device by displaying sparks as the signals are sent, rather than have innocence victims hold the live wires. This was the way in which the impact of technology would go throughout the 19th century. If you happened to be poor, you were in for a wicked shock.
A Look at the 19th Century
If you were born penniless in the early 19th century, modern technology was more likely to entomb you rather then empower you. In 1750 only 15% of the population lived in cities, however by the time Phillip Reis invented the telephone in 1860, nearly 80% lived in urban areas. Developments in the steam engine had allowed the factory, which had previously been powered by a water wheel near a stream or river, to move into the city. At the turn of the century, the ratio of women and children to men working in the factories of Europe and the newly formed United States was four to one. They labored long hours for small wages in the gas-lit sweatshops and factories. Lifespans were short. Even if you owned a manufacturing business, you'd still only make it to 35 or 45 years of age. Indecent housing, flooded basements, overcrowding, overflowing cesspools, contaminated water supplies, poverty, and hunger allowed diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, rickets, tuberculosis and scarlet fever to thrive. Unfortunately the great strides in modern transportation accelerated the spread of cholera from India in 1816 to the ports of the Philippines, China, Japan, the Persian Gulf then north toward the Ottoman and Russian empires killing thousands by 1826. This is only the first of 5 major cholera epidemics. Although anatomy had been intensely studied and well documented, medicine was still breaking from the Dark Ages. Great strides were being made in every area from bedside philosophy in the hospitals of France to the education of interns in England. These were all very encouraging steps but it would be another 70 years before medicine would begin to contain and manage major public health issues.
The Groundwork, The Instrument Makers
Traditionally perceived as scientists, Robert Hooke, Chladni, Sir Charles Wheatstone and Herman Helmholtz pursued acoustic and physiological research which lead to the creation of musical instruments. These instrument makers shaped devices throughout history for creative artistic self-expression as well as to scientifically measure, control, manipulate, and extend their reach over nature.
Their investigations created in both the context of art and science provided a base of knowledge for Philipp Reis as he invents "Das phone" in 1860 or as we know it today the telephone. We shall trace these ideas and experiments from 1664 to 1865 to show how these people and their instruments contributed to that base of knowledge.
Robert Hooke's Communication Systems and Musical Instruments
Before we move forward in the 19th century we need to look back at Hooke's acoustic research in the 17th century. From 1664 to 1685 an instrument maker named Robert Hooke used wooden frames on hill tops, ear phones, stretched wire, and cylinders to construct communications systems. Robert Hooke is known to many as a scientist who published micorgrafia and participated in the great Oxford movement which resulted in the foundation of the Royal Society. What is not well known about Robert Hooke was his research in acoustics and communications. It is this research which is interesting to the history of the telephone. Although Hooke did not use electricity to transmit sound, he still animated that idea of the "transmission of sound over a wire or string" was indeed possible long before the invention of the telegraph. He also developed a fairly complex system with the concept of communicating one's mind at great distances. These are two fundamental ideas, which would evolve over the next two hundred years and lead to the invention of the telephone.
Robert Hooke's Acoustic Experiments and Acoustic Inventions
Hooke conducted a serious amount of research in acoustics. Regarding the experiments where sound is transmitted over wire or string, he writes:
"We shall tomorrow make a good experiment of the velocity in the vibrations of a sounding string, in which I shall acquaint you by the next"
In another instance Hooke remarks of his astonishment about the fact that sound is traveling over a string, which rounded a corner. These experiments were to show "the number of vibrations of an extended string, made in a determinate time requested to give a certain tone or note. [By this] it was found that a wire making two hundred seventy two vibrations in one second of time sounded G Sol Re Vt in the Scale of all Musick".
Using this research, he was able to construct various musical instruments. In September 1672 he noted in his diary that he had invented an easy way for "a musical cylinder with pewter tips pinched between cylindrick rings" to send sound. Today if we saw this device we would call it a string phone, although it was not clear from Hooke's notes that his intention was to speak through the device. What is clear is that the device was created for the purpose of making music.
Conversations about his acoustic experiments with other colleagues are noted in Hooke's diary. One entry on Saturday, January 15th 1675 is of particular interest:
"To Sir Chr. Wrens,
Dr. Holder and I discoursed of musick, he read my notes and saw my designs, then he read his which were more imperfect. "I told him but sub sigillo my notion of sound that it was more nothing but strokes within a determinate degree of velocity. I told them how I would make all tunes by strokes of a hammer. Showed them a knife, a camlet coat, a silk lining. Told them that there was no vibration in a pulse of sound, that was a pulse propagated forward, that the sound in all bodies was the striking of the parts one against the other and not the vibration of the whole. Told them my experiment of the vibrations of a magical string without sound by symphony that touching of it which made the internal parts vibrate caused the sound-that the vibrations of a string were not Iscrone but that the vibration of the particles was. Discoursed about the breaking of air pipes, of the musick of scraping of metal, the scraping the teeth of a comb, the turning of a watch wheel. Compared sound and light and showed how light produced colours in the same way by confounding the pulses."
(Robinson and Adams, ed, Pg 211)
In April of 1668 Hooke constructed 3 forms of an ear trumpet with the intent of helping the deaf or hard of hearing. He presented his inventions to the Royal Society. The effectiveness of the device was discussed at each meeting resulting in Hooke deconstructing and then reconstructing his device in what was thought by the members to be a more efficient model. We see these recommendations here in the log of the royal society.
Ear Trumpet Apr 2nd 1668
Mr. Hooke produced a glass receiver for the improvement of hearing. Being tried by holding the neck of it to the ear, it was found that a stronger sound was conveyed by it, than would have been without it. It was ordered that at the next meeting there should be brought a better and larger receiver for hearing.
Ear Trumpet Apr. 9th 1668
Mr. Hooke produced two receivers, one of which was of latten, and of conical figure, the other of glass and round, both sharp at one end. Being applies to the ear, the former was judged best for the increasing of sounds: Mr. Hooke was ordered to take them home, and then try further by himself, particularly during the silence of the night, and to bring in an account of their effects.
Ear Trumpet Apr. 16th 1668
Mr. Hooke produced again the large conical tin receiver for the magnifying of sounds; which being tried was found to make words softly uttered at a distance to be heard distinctly; whereas they could not be so heard without this instrument.
(Gunther, Vol. XI Pg. 330-331)
Edison would recreate this experiment and device 200 years later and call them original.
The Megaphone consisted of 6' feet 8" long paper tubes, which connected to the ears with a speaking trumpet in the middle. Although this was a very simply constructed device a human voice at full force could be heard a mile and half to two miles away. A whisper could be heard up to 1000 feet away.