Germany marks first phone call anniversary – 15 years before Bell

Move over, Alexander Graham Bell, Germany is marking the anniversary of the first phone call today – a century and a half after Johann Philipp Reis first transmitted a spoken sentence over a cable.

Germany marks first phone call anniversary - 15 years before Bell
Photo: DPA

The age of telephony was not hailed with Bell’s summons to his assistant, “Mr Watson come here – I want to see you” in 1876 – but by the surreal sentence “The horse does not eat cucumber salad” spoken on October 26 back in 1861 by Reis.

It was a nonsense phrase which Reis made up during a presentation of his early telephone model – to prove to the audience that listeners on the receiving end of his device were not parroting a memorized dialogue.

His physics project, bearing the title, “On the transmission of sounds over optional distances through the switching of galvanic electricity,” which involved a wooden earpiece complemented by a piece of sausage skin to recreate the eardrum, started the string of long-distance communication devices that have revolutionized the transmission of voice and data messages.

Aged just 27 when he transmitted the cucumber salad sentence, Reis was unable to develop his invention further and it remained a one-way device. He died of tuberculosis aged 40.

It was not until the 1870s when Scottish-born American Bell introduced his invention, which could be held alternatively to the mouth and the ear, that the telephone took off and conquered the world market.

One of the first public telephone networks was established in Berlin in 1881, comprising 48 members who used a crank handle for dialling.

The conversations had to be manually forwarded by a switchboard technician, a position soon dominated by women because their higher voices were easier to understand than male tones.

Initially, the telephone was met with scepticism. A very early telephone directory published in Berlin was dubbed the “book of fools.”

Though the first phones were luxury items, more than one million people were registered in Germany by 1910. Today the country has 39 million fixed-network lines and three times as many mobiles.

The phone became a cultural and historical asset in film, theatre and music. Deutsche Telekom reports that Marlene Dietrich, completely enamoured by the invention, rang up monthly telephone bills exceeding 15,000 DM.

Rock musician Bob Dylan was also inspired by the phone in his piece “Long Distance Operator“ and wrote the line “Well, my telephone rang, it would not stop“ into his ballad “I Shall Be Free.“

The telephone also snared major roles in film, for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Dial M for Murder,“ in which Grace Kelly as Margot Wendice is murdered during a phone call. And of course, in Steven Spielberg’s famous science fiction film “E.T.“, the alien, stranded and heartbroken, says, “Phone home!“

Even though operator girls quickly disappeared, telephones remained expensive into the 1990s. Bundespost – Telekom’s predecessor – posted an appropriate instruction onto its telephone booths: “Keep it short.”

Finally, though, the telephone, through digitalisation and market liberalisation, spurred by the wide-spread prominence of mobiles, took over everyday communication.

The clunky box models disappeared, and with the final market opening in 1998, phone prices tumbled, expanding access.

Mobiles began to outpace landlines as the consumer pool increased. Last year, 1.6 billion mobile phones were sold, with every fifth phone being a smartphone, according to market research firm Gartner. Industry association Bitkom estimates the global market for telecommunications, including device manufacturers and network providers, to have a volume of €1.5 billion.

Today’s do-everything mobile phones have little in common with Reis’s original voice transmitter. In fact, voice communication seems to be becoming merely a nice by-product of the modern data communication world which includes text messages, Facebook and Twitter.

Nonetheless, frustrated listeners may often cite the one element of calling that has remained true to Reis’s invention when they admonish their phone partner to “speak into the mouthpiece – I can’t understand you!“

DPA/The Local/emh

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