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100 Years Before the iPhone: Early Telephone Innovations

Published: January 9, 2017

For once, the word “revolutionary” might have been an understatement. On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs told the crowd at San Francisco’s Moscone Center that Apple was introducing three revolutionary products.

“The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communication device.”

“So… an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone. Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”

Despite the newness of the device, its tiny, virtual keyboard, and its high introductory price of $600, Apple sold over a million units in the first three months.

Soon programmers were extending the usefulness of the phone with thousands of new applications. By the third generation, you could make a movie, hail a car service, find a date, or translate a foreign language. The U.S., and the world, had fully entered the age of the smartphone.

Technology revolutions, like electric lighting and landline telephones, used to take decades to enter the lives of all Americans. The iPhone was not only adopted quickly but also started to become a bigger part of Americans’ lives than anyone could have predicted. Today, average Americans check their cellphones 46 times a day. If they’re millennials, they check it more than 157 times.

The growth of the iPhone is unprecedented, but not all its features are. The idea of adding innovative features to the telephone is almost as old as the telephone itself.

On April 26, 1913, for example, the Post reported primitive solutions to common telephone annoyances.

Telephoning Simplified

To do away with two of the worst irritations of telephoning — the possible missing of an important message if the telephone is left unattended and the “Line busy” annoyance — telephone exchanges now often have a message operator.

A doctor may be forced to leave his office or his home when there is no person available to answer the telephone during his absence, and by so doing he risks missing a call from some patient. Under the new system he tells the message operator at the telephone exchange that he is obliged to leave his telephone unattended and gives her his number. She has his telephone line switched to her own desk, so that any call for his number rings her bell. If a call comes for the doctor she takes the message, promising to deliver it to him later. All that the doctor has to do on his return to his house or office is to call up the message operator and inquire whether any message has been left for him.

The message operator is useful also when the report “Line busy” or “No answer” is given repeatedly to some important call. She is notified that a certain number is wanted and at regular intervals she makes the call. When she finally succeeds in getting the number, she calls up the man who desired it and connects his line.

It may not strike you as sophisticated technology, but the thinking behind this concept evolved in time into call forwarding, call waiting, voicemail, and texting.

Even the idea of a wireless personal phone is not new, as the Post reported in May 31, 1913.

Pocket Wireless Outfits

Man with a early pocket-wireless device

Dr. H. Barrington Cox models his wireless telephone receiver in 1915. If the prototype worked, he planned to someday make it capable of two-way communication. The users had to hold a grounding rod with one hand and an antenna with the other (which would have made texting a real challenge.)  

A pocket wireless receiving station has now been perfected, bringing a little nearer to accomplishment the dream of pocket wireless telephones, though the actual use of the new device is very limited.

The outfit is equipped only for receiving messages and not for sending them. It could be used, for instance, to catch the time signals that are sent out at Arlington or from the Eiffel Tower, in Paris. The instrument measures only six by three inches, and consists of an electrolytic detector, a battery of three volts, two condensers, and a telephone in which to catch the wireless message.

In order to use it one must attach it to some elevated wires, or antenna, which will pick up the message, and also to some metal connection with the ground; so that, even when equipped with the pocket wireless, an enthusiast is liable to have difficulty in finding the necessary wires.

Nor is the idea of accessing information by phone new. In 1952, the Post told readers that Vienna’s phone system offered online information, though much of it was powered by humans.

Telephones That Tell All

Although the United States has the greatest number of telephones per capita, it isn’t world champion when it comes to getting the most from Mr. Bell’s invention. That title belongs to Vienna, where having a phone is much like having a vocal encyclopedia, a nursemaid and an extra right arm.

The Vienna telephone company starts its helpfulness program with such familiar American services as providing the correct time and the weather forecast. It goes on to give subscribers the winning numbers of the national lottery, the latest stock-market quotations, a menu with recipes, skiing conditions at Austria’s winter resorts, and rail, bus and plane schedules.

A Viennese violinist with insomnia can dial A069 at any hour of the night and get the normal “A” tone for fiddle-tuning purposes.

Another number gives the tone common to 1000 vibrations per second, which is handy in case you have steel to test. Industries use this tone to find flaws in metals.

Along with this cluster of services, the phone company maintains its own information bureau. Operators in this department will tell you all about night clubs, concerts, sports events or other Austrian festivities. They will give you the standard width of a baby carriage for twins, the color of a cow’s eyes or the word for nine-down in the daily crossword puzzle.

Children telephone Information for help with their homework, and if the operators can’t answer their questions immediately, they will call back later with the requested data. Information draws the line only at questions on morals and politics.

Recently one operator got a call from a harassed father, who said his wife was in the hospital and that his two young children were driving him the Austrian equivalent of “nuts.”

“Can’t you do something to calm them down?” he asked. The operator got their names and asked to speak to one of them.

Then, dropping her voice to a lower register, she said, “This is Santa Claus speaking, Johann. I understand you are being a bad boy. Don’t you know Christmas is coming?”

This reformed the children, but for the next two weeks the Santa operator got daily calls from Johann, who naturally was eager to mend his fences.

The Vienna phone company started its program for making subscribers happy with extra service in 1947. Since then the information bureau alone has received more than 160,000 calls, including a query that always leaves officials somewhat bewildered.

Several times each day operators are asked, “Would you please tell me today’s date?”

These early solutions might not rival modern smartphones for convenience, but they are a testament to the human race’s ingenuity and dogged pursuit of the next new thing.

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  • Joyce Wallace

    Enjoyed the article. Thank you !

  • Thanks the article is both educational and enjoyable to read.