We thought we would start out by talking about the “tin can telephone”, or “lovers phone”. Before the invention of the electromagnetic telephone or telegraph there were mechanical acoustic devices to transmit sound to distances further than normal speech. These devices would transmit sounds through pipes, wires or string. One of the earliest known experiments with this acoustic device was conducted by the British physicist Robert Hooke. An acoustic string phone is said to be made by him as early as 1667 according to his works “Micrographia” where he says “I have, by the help of a distended wire, propagated the sound to a very considerable distance in an instant” How this worked is someone would talk into their can which would cause the bottom to vibrate. The sound waves would then travel through the string to the other tin can which would cause the bottom of that can to vibrate in a similar fashion, producing a sound similar to the one produced at the other end.
Here is a firsthand account of how a mechanical acoustic phone worked from Harry J Curl told to him by E.T. Mahod in Kansas City, Missouri :
“In 1879, when I was sixteen years old, my father and I built a pole line one and one-quarter miles long between the railroad station at Elwood, New Jersey, where he was employed as Agent, and our farm, in order to establish what I believe to be one of the first telephone lines in this section of the country. We went into Philadelphia to buy some wire. We didn’t want to use iron wire and the only copper wire available was #50 soft drawn, which we bought. We suspended this wire from the poles with string loops and at each end connected up an acoustic telephone. These telephones were available in Philadelphia as toys. They had no batteries associated with them and no way of signalling over them. They operated by direct physical impulse. When my father wanted to call home, he would start calling ‘hello’ into his telephone and when we heard it we would answer. The transmission was good and we had no difficulty in hearing. We used to invite the neighbors in to hear vocal and instrumental music from the railroad station one and one-quarter miles away. This was the first telephone experience that I had.” (Jacobs, Bill. Acoustic Telephones, TelefoonMuseum.com website. Retrieved January 1th 2017)
This might not seem like a big accomplishment now, but imagine how “out of this world” this seemed to E.T. and his family. They were able to communicate with someone a mile away, which was not possible before this time. Before the mechanical acoustic phone they would have had to walk or run to talk with someone and now they could do it from the comfort of their own home.
Can you think of any scenarios where people might still use a mechanical acoustic telephone? Any scenarios where this might be a better option then a modern telephone? To start the conversation about the history of telephony we thought we had to start at the begging. Come back next week for our next installment.