nostalgic landline telephone phone booths

The Landline Lowdown: How the landline telephone took the world by storm — and then became a nostalgic reminder of the past

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.

In our journey through the history of telecommunications, we’ve already explored the fascinating origins of long-distance communication, from ancient courier services and carrier pigeons to the revolutionary development of the telegraph by Samuel Morse. And of course, who could forget the groundbreaking moment when Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the first intelligible speech waves over a wire and forever changed the way we connect with one another?

Last week, we talked about the telegraph’s ability to relay messages across vast distances, shrinking the world and bringing people closer together in a matter of minutes, rather than days. As amazing as the telegraph was, though, it had one pretty big limitation that it was never quite able to shake — it conveyed messages through clicks and taps, using a code of its own, slowing down the entire process. There had to be something faster.

Like, say, the telephone.

The telephone, the brainchild of Alexander Graham Bell, was a true marvel of its time. With the simple act of converting sound waves into electrical signals and back again, it allowed people to hear each other’s voices, almost as if they were in the same room together (kind of). Gone were the days of waiting for written messages to be delivered or deciphering Morse Code. Real-time conversations over long distances became a reality, forever altering the course of communication.

This week, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the rise of the home phone and the evolution of telecommunications as it expanded beyond business and into the hands of everyday people. We’ll explore how the telephone network expanded, with miles of wires connecting homes, businesses, and communities, all overseen by dedicated switchboard operators. Witness the transformation as manual switchboards gave way to automatic exchanges, empowering users to dial telephone numbers directly and experience the convenience of effortless communication.

Of course, that’s not all — the story doesn’t end with the home phone (and if it did, we probably wouldn’t be here today!). Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the realm of wireless communication. From early experiments in wireless telephony to the birth of the cell phone, stay tuned for more in the Landline Lowdown, where we’ll uncover the moments that paved the way for our beloved pocket-sized companions that do so much more than just make calls.

Join us as we continue our trek through the captivating history of telecommunications. From the spoken word traveling across miles to the wonders of wireless connectivity, our quest to understand the roots of our connected world takes us closer to the dawn of the mobile age.

Now, without further ado:

How the Telephone Killed the Telegraph Star

Once Alexander Graham Bell had his eureka moment, the telephone quickly began to shape the world of communication, but not without facing some initial challenges.

At its inception, the telephone was used mostly for business purposes. Companies, government agencies, and wealthy individuals were among the early adopters of the technology — after all, it was quite expensive to manufacture a telephone and get it connected (things weren’t so simple as scanning a QR code for an eSIM or popping a GSM SIM card into your smartphone’s SIM tray). Nonetheless, people instantly recognized the potential of carrying real-time conversations over long distances, and it soon became the predominant mode of long-distance communication.

In the video below, the folks at National Geographic take a look at the work that went into creating an international telephone network out of copper wires and a little bit of ingenuity:

The telegraph was still used quite widely well into the 20th century. However, the telephone’s ascent reined in the decline of the telegraph — by the 1940s, it had become far cheaper to call someone long-distance than it was to send a telegram. 

The once dominant clicks and taps of the telegraph wires were slowly drowned out by, well, human voices. As the telephone network expanded and became more accessible, the need for telegraphy diminished, giving way to a new era of communication. Still, the telegraph held on strong for a while — the last telegram sent via the United States’ Western Union network was sent in 2006, after 150 years of telegraph communication.

Kind of like ChatGPT and machine translation have disrupted industries today, the telephone had a hugely transformative effect on the way that workers did their jobs. News services, for instance, seized the opportunity to break news faster in remote areas, reaching audiences like never before and conducting interviews with valuable sources via telephone technology. Railroad companies, meanwhile, utilized the telephone for efficient traffic control, ensuring safer and smoother operations. 

And once it became more affordable for the average person to use, families rejoiced as they could communicate with distant relatives and loved ones with unprecedented ease.

As the popularity of the telephone soared, a comprehensive infrastructure had to be developed to accommodate the growing demand for connectivity. Telephone poles stretched across cities and towns, and miles of telephone wires crisscrossed the landscape, connecting homes and businesses. Crucial to the functioning of this telecommunication web were the switchboard operators, who skillfully connected calls, ensuring messages reached their intended recipients.

a quintessential example of the phone booths we're nostalgic for today
The phone booth was once a common sight, performing much the same function as cell phones do today — a phone that you could use when you were out and about.

The landline telephone became a central fixture in homes across the nation, establishing itself as a vital part of domestic life. In the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon for households to have a single landline phone, typically located in a common area such as the living room or kitchen. However, as the century progressed and telecommunication technology advanced, the number of landline phones grew exponentially. By the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that there were over 150 million landline phones in the United States alone.

Phone booths also rose to prominence during this era. These iconic glass-enclosed structures lined streets and populated public spaces, offering individuals the opportunity to make calls on the go. Whether it was a businessman sealing a deal, a teenager gossiping with friends, or a traveler reaching out to loved ones, the phone booth provided a private and convenient means of communication.

Landlines on the Decline? Not quite.

But by the turn of the 21st century, it was beginning to look like the phone booth was ready to go the way of the telegraph.

As we entered the new millennium, wireless technology began to take center stage. The popularity of wireless home phones soared, offering the convenience of wireless communication within the household. These wireless home phones paved the way for a significant transformation – the rise of the cell phone.

The cell phone quickly established itself as a means of unparalleled convenience in communication. No longer tied to a physical location, people could carry their phones wherever they went, ensuring that they were always within reach. The cell phone’s mobility and real-time connectivity revolutionized how we stayed in touch with family, friends, and colleagues, turning communication into an effortless and immediate experience.

an early example of the first cell phones

Early cell phones, however, were far from the sleek, pocket-sized devices we know today — people certainly weren’t walking around with iPhones in their pocket. No — these early devices were bulky, with pretty unfriendly user interfaces. As a result, the landline phone persisted in many homes, coexisting with cell phones, as their features were still limited and their convenience not yet fully realized.

But with time, cell phone technology advanced rapidly. The early 2000s saw the emergence of smaller, more user-friendly cell phones like the Blackberry and the LG Chocolate Touch. As these sleeker, more refined devices rose to prominence, so too did cellular networks begin to expand. Only when this second wave of cell phones gained popularity did the landline’s dominance begin to falter.

By the early 21st century, cell phones had evolved to the point where they could now replace the landline altogether. With improved call quality, better battery life, and a growing array of features, cell phones became an all-in-one communication and computing device. They were no longer just a means of making calls; they now offered text messaging, internet access, cameras, and various applications, making them essential companions for modern life.

Still, the landline holds on strong to this very day — it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact, small businesses and senior citizens still overwhelmingly rely on the landline phone. While cell phones are generally better for personal use, landlines feature the bare necessities, so they remain popular among folks who don’t need talk and text or other extraneous features.

But that’s a story for the next installment of the Landline Lowdown. Stay tuned for next week’s blog post, in which we’ll discuss the rise of those ubiquitous smartphones that we rely on today.