A man uses Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone in telephone history

The Landline Lowdown: From carrier pigeons and smoke signals to the very first telephone

Take it from us: It’s hard to imagine a world without cell phones. But each Tuesday, we’ll be doing just that in the Landline Lowdown, a three-part series on the history of telecommunications. From the carrier pigeon all the way into the digital age, we’ll be looking at a different chapter in the history of telco.

If it weren’t for Alexander Graham Bell, there’s a decent chance that the mobile device you use to text friends and family every day would simply be a carrier pigeon that you send out into the blue skies, hoping it’ll schlep your message away to the right person.

Alright, alright — that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Society probably would have advanced beyond the carrier pigeon with or without Bell’s handy dandy telephone. But it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without modern telecommunication tools like cell phones, tablets, and even home phones.

In the span of just a few centuries, the world has witnessed a major transformation in the way we communicate. From the early days of the telegraph, in which messages traveled across great distances through a system of wires, dots, and dashes, to Bell’s revolutionary invention of the telephone in 1876, the seeds of a global communication network were sown. The telephone, with its ability to transmit the human voice in real-time, opened up a new era of instant connectivity, bridging gaps and bringing people closer together.

Fast forward to today and we find ourselves in a world where the modern cell phone has become an indispensable companion. These pocket-sized devices not only allow us to make phone calls but also serve as powerful computers, enabling us to access the vast expanse of information available on the internet, stay connected through social media, capture memories with high-quality cameras, and so much more.

Join us on this journey through the history of telecommunications, as we delve into the innovations and milestones that have shaped our present-day connected world. From early experiments with electricity to the rise of wireless communication, we’ll explore the fascinating story behind the evolution of telecommunications and its profound impact on our society.

What Did People Do Before Telephones?

Communicating across long distances hasn’t always been as simple as tapping a few keys on your cell phone and hitting “Send.”

Invented in March 1876, the telephone has been around for just a fraction of human history — and more modern iterations like the standard home phone and the cell phone have been around for an even shorter period of time. This all raises the question: How did people communicate with faraway peers before the telephone?

Before humans had harnessed the power of electricity, postal service was the primary method for communicating across long distances. Ancient civilizations also used tools like drums, smoke signals, and hydraulic semaphores to send messages from afar, but these were of course quite limited in the messages they could convey — sending mail by post was the most reliable form of communication that allowed people to record and send messages using written language. (Which is an admittedly more effective communication tool than… drums). Eventually, however, humans would move on to more complex and flexible mediums — like carrier pigeons.

When were carrier pigeons invented?

Carrier pigeons also played an important role in sending messages in the pre-electricity era. Homing pigeons are unique among the animal kingdom for their ability to navigate home even after traveling long distances. Message recipients could transport their own carrier pigeon to a postal center to pick up a message and the pigeon would instinctively return home. Carrier pigeons played an important function in many different industries — from journalism to the stock exchange — well into the 19th century.

Carrier pigeons flying away from home base
Carrier pigeons were invented long ago — but they’re still used today in a handful of situations.

Of course, humans are a little bit more reliable than birds. 

The ancient Persians and Assyrians are credited with inventing the earliest known postal services, wherein government officials would send out messengers to deliver written declarations to their citizenry. Similar systems sprouted up across the world, allowing people to send pre-recorded messages to one another across long distances. Mail — whether by mailman or pigeon — was the main means people had to communicate with those far away from them.

Still, neither the pigeon post nor courier systems are forms of telecommunication per se. However, they did serve as important predecessors to the modern networks we take for granted every day.

More complex tools: The telegraph

The first electrical communication network was developed in the early 1800s. At the time, people were finally beginning to control and make use of electricity for various inventions — including the telegraph. A handful of ingenious inventors developed their own iterations of this tool, but perhaps the most well-known today is Samuel Morse. 

Using a telegraph, a message sender could transmit a message to a local operator by way of a codified electrical signal. That signal was relayed in the form of clicks and taps that represented individual letters — more commonly known today as Morse Code. The operator could then transcribe the message in written form (a telegram), which would be delivered to the recipient as promptly as possible.

Telegraph operators working at a long desk
Telegraph operators click clack away at their desks.

Though it’s certainly not the fastest way to get a message across, it allowed humans to communicate faster and further than ever before — instead of waiting a few days for a letter to be delivered via post, people could send a message across the country in just a matter of minutes. In the 1850s, a telegraph cable was put up to stretch across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting the United States and Europe. This was the very first international telecommunication network.

The telegraph quickly became all the rage — news services used it to break news faster in more remote areas, railroad companies used it for traffic control, and family members could communicate with distant relatives. In 1920 — less than a century after the invention of the telegraph and the development of a global telegraph network — more than 150,000,000 messages were sent via the Western Union’s telegraph network, the premiere telecommunications network in the United States at the time.

When was the first telephone invented?

While the telegraph was having its star moment, another device was still in development: the telephone. Although people would still send millions of telegraph messages well into the 20th century, a steep decline was not far off.

a portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone
Thanks to this guy, we have landline telephones today.

The invention of the telephone is credited to Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish-born scientist and inventor who was deeply fascinated by sound and speech. Bell’s breakthrough came in 1876 when he successfully transmitted the first intelligible speech over a wire. His famous words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you,” marked a pivotal moment in the history of telecommunications.

Bell’s telephone operated on the principle of converting sound waves into electrical signals that could be transmitted over a wire and converted back into sound at the receiving end. This groundbreaking technology revolutionized communication by allowing people to have real-time conversations over long distances, eliminating the need for written messages and the delays associated with the postal service and telegraph.

The early telephones were relatively simple devices consisting of a mouthpiece, a receiver, and a manually operated switchboard. To make a call, users would turn a crank on the telephone to alert the operator, who would then establish a connection between the calling and receiving parties by manually connecting the appropriate wires on the switchboard.

Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone
This is what the first telephone looked like — not much like the landlines we’re used to today, is it?

Initially, telephones were primarily used for business and professional purposes. Companies, government agencies, and wealthy individuals were among the early adopters of this new technology. However, as the telephone network expanded and became more accessible, it began to reach a broader audience.

The proliferation of telephones required the development of a comprehensive infrastructure to support the growing demand for connectivity. Telephone poles were erected, and miles of telephone wires were laid to connect homes, businesses, and communities. Switchboard operators played a crucial role in manually connecting calls, ensuring that messages reached their intended recipients.

As the popularity of the telephone soared, advancements in technology led to significant improvements in both the design and functionality of the devices. Manual switchboards gave way to automatic exchanges, allowing users to directly dial telephone numbers and establish connections without operator assistance. This innovation further democratized telecommunications and made it more convenient for people to communicate with one another.

As you probably already know, the telephone didn’t just transform individual communication — it also had a profound impact on society as a whole. It revolutionized business practices, enabling faster and more efficient interactions between companies and their customers. It facilitated the growth of industries such as telemarketing and customer service. Moreover, the telephone has come to play a crucial role in emergency services, providing a lifeline for individuals in need of immediate assistance.

The next chapter in the history of telecommunications would witness the advent of wireless communication, marking yet another significant leap forward in the evolution of telecommunication technology. But that story — and the details on the landline’s rise to prominence — will have to wait for the next installment of the Landline Lowdown.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Landline Lowdown, where we’ll take a deeper look at the rise of the home phone and wireless communication. Until then, remember to hold your cell phone near and dear and thank goodness it’s not a carrier pigeon.