Who should be credited with inventing the telephone? This question is
still hotly debated to this day. But at the end of the 19th century,
the argument was mainly between countries trying to claim this important invention as their
Painting: "Pioneers of the telephone: Philipp Reis" (1990) by Gottfried Helnwein (*1948)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
The American Alexander Graham Bell is commonly regarded as the inventor of the telephone. But as many as 16 years earlier, on October 26, 1861, the 27-year-old physicist Philipp Reis unveiled his “telephone” to members of the Physikalischer Verein in Frankfurt am Main.
Picture postcard: "Philipp Reis, inventor of the telephone" (1913) by Reichsdruckerei BerlinMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
Drawing of Philipp Reis in his "laboratory" (from Artur Fürst, "Weltreich der Technik" (The Empire of Technology), Volume 1, Berlin 1925) (1925)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
“I managed to invent an apparatus (…)” that made it possible to “reproduce all kinds of sounds using galvanic current and at any distance – I called this instrument the 'telephone’.”
Philipp Reis, June 1868
The human ear, with its drum and its ossicles, served as a kind of prototype for Reis’s first model in 1860–61.
A membrane, a movable lever, and a contact spring converted the sound waves of speech into electrical oscillations.
The objective of Philipp Reis’s telephone experiments was the electrical transmission of sounds and speech.
Photograph: "Transmitter by Philipp Reis" (since 1886)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
Between 1861 and 1863, Philipp Reis experimented with various materials and designs as he worked on his transmitter. He was gradually getting closer to the final design for his telephone.
Transmitter and receiver by Philipp Reis (1863)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
the transmitter, which Reis called the "telephone”…
…and the receiver, which Reis referred to as the “reproduction apparatus.”
…and the receiver, which Reis referred to as the “reproduction apparatus.”
Transmitter (microphone) from the telephone by Philipp Reis (1863)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
In order to convert acoustic oscillations into electrical impulses, Reis placed a membrane made from a pig’s intestines inside his transmitter, and this was mechanically stimulated by the sound waves associated with speech.
The membrane was coupled with an electrical contact, which was closed by the vibrations. The electrical current varied with the pressure exerted on the contact.
Receiver from the telephone by Philipp Reis (1863)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
Reis made his receiver from a knitting needle, a wire coil, and a wooden box. It used the principle of magnetostriction to reproduce the sounds and words transmitted.
When the electrical impulses from the transmitter flowed through the coil, this created a magnetic field and the needles inside the coil started to oscillate. The wooden box used as the resonance body amplified these and rendered them audible.
Accompanying letter from the company J. Wilhelm Albert (1863) by Johann Wilhelm AlbertMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
From 1863, Philipp Reis asked the mechanic Johann Wilhelm Albert, based in Frankfurt am Main, to manufacture a small production run of his telephones. These handmade individual pieces of apparatus featured slight deviations and so each one was, effectively, unique.
Transmitter and receiver by Philipp Reis (1863) by Johann Wilhelm AlbertMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
In order to prove his telephone could actually transmit speech, Philipp Reis arranged a demonstration using nonsensical sentences such as "The horse does not eat cucumber salad" or “The sun is made of copper.”
However, the apparatus created by Philipp Reis was not yet suitable for phone calls in the sense of a 2-way conversation.
Sound generator for telephone tests (1872 - 1873)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
The verdict of his contemporaries was rather mixed, with people failing to see the potential of the invention.
Philipp Reis was discouraged by a lack of recognition in professional circles. Only in 1872–73 did he return to work on the telephone, when he built a new type of receiver.
This development went largely unnoticed too and the physicist died in 1874, never knowing the eventual emergence of the telephone in Germany.
Newspaper article: "The New Bell Telephone" from “Scientific American" (06.10.1877) by New York, Vereinigte Staaten von AmerikaMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
16 years after the first public demonstration of the Reis telephone, reports reached Germany of a new American invention.
In an issue of Scientific American from October 6, 1877, a feature profiled the latest telephone from a certain Alexander Graham Bell.
As far back as 1875, Alexander Graham Bell had been conducting experiments with his assistant Thomas A. Watson on the electrical transmission of information.
He was familiar with the lectures written by Philipp Reis and perhaps even the apparatus itself.
Wire from the first telephone tests by A. G. Bell and T. A. Watson, with handwritten confirmation of authenticity from E. Berliner (1881) by Emil Berliner (1851 - 1929)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
This seemingly truly inconspicuous collection of items—a rolled-up, evidently aged piece of wire, a business card, and a handwritten note—is nothing less than a relic of the history of technology: Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson used this wire for their first telephone speech tests in 1875.
Wire from the first telephone tests by A. G. Bell and T. A. Watson (1875)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
"This piece of wire is part of the test line used by Prof. A. G. Bell and T. A. Watson in the first tests and all subsequent tests up to the final development of the Bell telephone. The test line in question was set up from room 13 to room 15 at No. 5 Exeter Place Boston in August 1875 and remained there until Mr. Watson removed it himself on July 8, 1877. Mr. Watson gave me 6 feet of wire, and I cut off a piece measuring around a yard.
E. Berliner, Hanover, June 10, 1881."
The news from America sparked the interest of Heinrich von Stephan, who was the Postmaster General of the German Reich. He duly ordered 2 units for test purposes. Even before the Bell telephones reached Berlin, he was given a couple on October 24, 1877, by Henry Fischer. Fischer was his counterpart in London and happened to be in Berlin in connection with his work.
Wood engraving: "Heinrich von Stephan on the telephone" (from the magazine "Daheim") (1877)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
The first tests in Berlin were conducted as early as October 25, 1877. Then, on October 26, the very first telephone conversation in Germany took place between Stephan’s office at Leipziger Straße 15 and the main telegraph office in Französische Straße.
This historical sectional model gives an insight into the inner workings of a Bell telephone: the rod magnet, coil, and membrane can clearly be seen.
As early as October 1877, the Berlin-based company "Telegrafenbauanstalt Siemens und Halske" made the first Bell telephone under its own name—quite legally, as there was no patent protection in Germany.
Bell telephone (1877)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
On November 12, 1877, the first telegraph office with telephone technology was opened in Germany and featured Bell telephones manufactured in Germany.
Initially, the new medium of telephony was only used within the postal service for the transmission of telegrams. There were no public telephone networks in Germany until 1881.
The Horse Does Not Eat Cucumber Salad: How Philipp Reis Invented the Telephone
A virtual exhibition by the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.
Curator: Lioba Nägele
All objects from the collection of the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.