How one invention transformed the way we talk

It is hard to imagine a world without telephones. But once upon a time, it simply wasn't possible to dial a number and speak to someone! Let's go back to where it all started.


Is this when the telephone was born?

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There is a lot of debate over who truly invented the telephone.

While Alexander Graham Bell is credited with doing this, many argue that someone else got there first - an Italian called Antonio Meucci (1808-1889). On 28 December 1871, he took out something called a caveat, which is an official document to say that he intended to patent a new invention. A patent is something that you need if you want to make sure that no one steals an idea you've had, but a caveat was much cheaper. Unfortunately, Meucci didn't renew his caveat for the idea after 1874.

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A Scotsman leads the way

Bell filing paperwork

This picture shows Alexander Graham Bell handing over his patent paperwork

On 7 March 1876, the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell was granted his patent for the telephone, which meant - legally - it was his idea.

He actually made his first experimental phone in Boston in America. He was fascinated with turning electricity into sound and, by 1875, had come up with a simple receiver that could do this. Once he was granted a patent for his telephone device, it developed quickly. On 10 March 1876, he spoke his first words on his newly invented phone, which were to his assistant saying: "Mister Watson, come here, I want to see you."

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Mister Watson, come here, I want to see you.

Alexander Graham Bell, 10 March 1876


The UK gets in on the action

The British Newspaper Archive


A description of the meeting between Queen Victoria and Alexander Graham Bell was reported in a local newspaper on 17 January 1878.

After a demonstration to the British government the previous year, Bell first showed his telephone invention to Queen Victoria in January 1878.

The meeting took place at Osborne House and reports suggest it went very well indeed. The Queen was a big fan. On 16 January 1878, a member of her staff wrote to Bell afterwards to tell him "how much gratified and surprised the Queen was at the exhibition of the telephone. [...] The Queen would like, if there is no reason against it, to purchase the two instruments which are still [at Osborne House], with the wires, &c., attached."

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Bonjour! This is London calling!


On 1 April 1891, a phone link between London and Paris marked the birth of overseas phone calls.

This was made possible by building a cable that went underneath the English Channel, linking up England and France. It was the first sub-sea cable linking two countries. It wasn't the most efficient way of speaking to people in France though. Only two people could make a call at the same time and they had to make the calls from special booths in London. But it was an important moment in the development of telephone communication.


Phone calls go automatic

Getty Images


This photo shows women working as switchboard operators at the Manchester Telephone Exchange around the year 1900

When you pick up the phone to speak to someone, you are automatically connected to them - but this wasn't always the case.

Believe it or not, every early phone call that was made had to put through by hand! Many people worked as telephone operators whose job it was to connect calls. But in 1912, Britain's first automatic exchange opened, which meant people could phone each other without needing to go through an operator. Some areas took a while before they made this switch to automatic. The last UK manual exchange, which was on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, only switched to automatic in 1976!


The Speaking Clock is born

British Telecom handout

Jane Cain

Jane Cain was the first voice behind the British Speaking Clock. So far, five people have done the job. Jane's voice was used from 1936 to 1963.

Eh? A Speaking Clock? This might all sound a little bit peculiar. What's wrong with a watch or looking at your phone to tell the time?

Well, on 24 July 1936, BT launched the British Speaking Clock, which still receives millions of calls every single year. It's very simple. If you dial 123 from a BT landline phone, you will be told the time. It was originally designed for people who did not have a watch or clock to hand. Lots of people still use this service as it is extremely accurate. When it was first introduced, it cost one penny to ring the Speaking Clock from your own house or tuppence to do it from a public phone box.

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999, what's your emergency?


999 was chosen because it would be easy to dial on old-style phones. This poster showed people how to dial it.

On 30 June 1937, 999 - the world's oldest emergency service - was born in London.

Only London had the number at first. It took until 1976, when all the telephone exchanges were automated, before the whole country could call it. Before this, people had to go to a special police box to contact the emergency services. Being able to call from their own phones meant they could get help much more quickly. The number got 1,000 calls in its first week of operation. Today the service gets around 560,000 calls a week now - that's around 30 million calls a year.

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Queen makes first automatic, long-distance call

Press Association


Here is a picture of the Queen making the historic phone call to Edinburgh, as The Duke of Edinburgh watches

Up until this point, an operator was still required if you needed to make a long-distance call. But on 5 December 1958, all that changed.

The Queen made the first long distance call that did not require an operator when she rang the Lord Provost of Edinburgh from the central telephone exchange in Bristol. Bristol to Edinburgh might not seem that long a distance nowadays - when we can easily make calls to the other side of the world if we want to! - but this was a very important development at the time. The Queen started her call by saying: "This is the Queen speaking from Bristol. Good afternoon, my Lord Provost."

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It's time to go mobile!


The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was the first commercial hand-held phone. It looks antique compared to mobile phones nowadays!

35 years ago, the very first mobile phone hit the shop shelves - the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (not the catchiest name, is it!).

It took 10 hours to charge it up completely. With that, you could chat on the phone for 30 minutes before it would run out of battery and it could hold 30 phone numbers - so it wasn't quite as good as mobile phones nowadays to say the least. Because it was such a revolutionary piece of technology, it cost over £2,300! You could buy more than 3 iPhone 8s for the cost of one of those!

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Where are we now?


Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a world without landlines and mobile phones.

The latest figures show that now there are over 26 million homes in the UK that have landlines, and two in every five children aged 8 to 11 have their own smartphone. With more of us using our phones everyday for everything from calling and texting, to taking photos and sharing our lives with our friends - and with new phones hitting the shop shelves every single year - there is no doubt that the story of the telephone is far from over.