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The history of phones: 1876-2024

A collection of phones of various older models

We’ve come a long way in 148 years

If you happened to be alive when the telephone was first invented in 1876, there’s no way you could possibly have predicted where we’d end up a century and a half later.

While the earliest telephone was a method for transferring speech electronically across vast distances, modern smartphones do that and so much more. In fact, these days the speech function has taken a backseat to the smartphone’s nominally auxiliary functions as a games console, camera, media player and text messenger.

How did we get here? Here’s the history of phones to bring you up to speed.

When was the telephone invented?

We’ve picked the year 1876 as the official birthday of the telephone as we know it. While others, including Antonio Meuicci, Charles Bourseul and Philipp Reis, could stake a claim, Alexander Graham Bell was the one to claim the first U.S. patent in 1876. Bell’s ownership seems like the most settled version of history – especially as it was more practical than rival designs.

Or, as Wikipedia puts it, “Bell did for the telephone what Henry Ford did for the automobile”, and Bell’s telephone system went from strength to strength in those early years, hosting 5.8 million phones by 1910.

“Although not the first to experiment with telephonic devices, Bell (and the companies founded in his name) were the first to develop commercially practical telephones around which a successful business could be built and grow,” the entry continues.

Despite being patented in 1876, it would be a further 39 years before Bell would make the first coast-to-coast phone call.

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The history of landline phones

Just proving the concept isn’t enough to make an invention a success, of course, and it took some time before the telephone was truly dominant.

In the years that followed Bell’s patent in 1876, telephones went from connecting directly from one building to another (functioning somewhat like an intercom) to connecting multiple lines via a telephone exchange and switchboard.

The first telephone exchange opened in New Haven, Connecticut in January 1878, listing just 21 subscribers, but things moved quickly. By the end of 1880, around 49,000 telephones were operational in the United States.

In 1885, this early success would see Bell’s company — The American Bell Telephone Company — merge with others to create the American Telegraph and Telephone Company, or AT&T as it’s known today.

This business proved enormously effective, with Bell’s telephone system hosting 600,000 phones by 1900 and 5.8 million a decade later. All the while, the technology was improving, allowing (prohibitively expensive) international calls. In 1927, the first US to UK service was set up via radio phones, and in 1934 the first calls from the US to Japan were made.

It was around this time that the first steps towards video phones were made – something that wouldn’t really take off until the internet era with Skype and FaceTime.

In 1930, AT&T made the Iconophone, and in 1936 the public videophone network emerged in Nazi Germany – complete with a 45 x 45cm camera image. A number of false starts followed, but these dedicated devices would all ultimately meet the same fate, until the webcam and broadband internet made video chat fast, cheap and widespread enough to be a viable means of communication.

Regular landline phone uptake would continue to expand rapidly over the century, however, reaching 30 million American subscribers by 1948 and 175 million by 1980.

Image of a persons hand dialing a landline telephone

But despite seeming insurmountable, by then the device that would ultimately supplant the landline was just beginning to emerge as viable.

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History of mobile phones and the rise of the smartphone

Early mobile phones began to emerge in the 1940s, but they bore little resemblance to the devices everyone has in their pocket today and were more akin to two-way radios.

The first ‘proper’ handheld smartphone arrived in April 1973 from a familiar company: Motorola. The handset weighed around 2kg and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce.

“We had to virtually shut down all engineering at our company and have everybody working on the phone and the infrastructure to make the thing work,” Martin Cooper, whose team invented the phone, told the BBC back in 2010.

But despite the huge R&D costs, this wasn’t the first commercially available handset. That would be the DynaTAC 8000x a decade later, which would set you back $3,995 in 1983 — or over $12,500 (~£9,835) in today’s money.

Early mobile phones were good for the same thing as landlines: voice calls, albeit with the freedom to make contact from outside the home. But in 1992, a new feature was added: the text message. The first SMS message was actually sent in the UK: the words “Merry Christmas” sent to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis. Jarvis, reportedly, didn’t reply.

Another landmark to set mobiles apart from landlines arrived in 1998: downloadable content. Sure, paid ringtones are a world apart from the sophisticated app stores we have today, but they proved a concept: that people would be prepared to pay for software to make their phones unique to them.

By now, the arrival of pay-as-you-go contracts was making mobile phones more affordable, with handsets now available for under £40. For power users, the first BlackBerry handset arrived in 1999, equipped with push email and a built-in keyboard, delivering a whole new way for business users to get work on the road. A year later, Nokia made mobile phones mainstream with the release of the 3310 – a phone that would go on to sell 126 million units worldwide.

But it’s another forgotten name of the mobile world that introduced the first camera phone: Sharp. The Japanese company launched the J-SH04 with a 110,000-pixel CMOS sensor in 2000 – this, however, wasn’t sold outside of Japan. It was Nokia, in 2002, who brought the first camera phone to European markets: the Nokia 6750.

These are all what we would call ‘feature phones’ – or, less charitably, ‘dumb phones’ – today, but in 2003 something happened that would pave the way to smartphones as we know them two decades on. The 3G standard was adopted worldwide, offering mobile internet, albeit at a price, to the masses.

Early smartphones were hit and miss when it came to usability and often were supplied with styluses, keyboards or keypads for control. But that all changed in 2007 when Apple released the first iPhone – a somewhat leftfield follow-up to the hugely successful iPod.

Even though it was backwards in some ways (the first iPhone launched without 3G support and was locked to O2 in the UK), with the inclusion of multi-touch, Apple proved smartphones could be designed for use with just the fingers and a touchscreen. From here, others went from dismissing the iPhone as an expensive status symbol to quickly mimicking its main selling points.

Android phones would eventually be among these rivals, but it took some time before they were ready for the big time. The first Android phone – the T-Mobile G1 – wasn’t exactly an iPhone killer, when it arrived in 2008 with its physical keyboard and trackball. Nonetheless, the stage was set for the Android vs iOS battle that still rages on to today. For a bit of T-Mobile history, the company was first founded in 2003 and then bought by Google in 2005 for $50 million.

That year, 2008, also saw the arrival of app stores for Android and iOS, bringing third-party apps to smartphones and allowing developers access to the camera and GPS for all kinds of ground-breaking software, even if early apps were more on the novelty end of the spectrum. Today, both stores host more than two million apps, with the likes of Uber, Spotify, Tinder and TikTok changing the way we get around, consume media and find partners.

The next big milestone arrived in 2009 when 4G arrived, offering download speeds of up to 150Mbits/sec, nearly a 2,000% increase on 3G’s 7.2Mbits/sec data rates. To take advantage, WhatsApp emerged the same year, allowing users to send messages via the internet and save on their monthly text allowance.

A young woman smiles while using her smartphone

Over the following decade, a number of big players from the early days of mobile phones would be squeezed out by the likes of Apple and Samsung. Palm, BlackBerry, LG and Microsoft would all back off smartphones in the 2010s, with Microsoft’s $7.2 billion purchase of Nokia failing to make the Windows Phone OS a serious rival to iOS and Android.

In recent years, we’ve seen the wide rollout of 5G increasing download speeds to more than 100 times’ faster than 4G (2018), and the arrival of foldable screens, allowing for innovative form factors like phone/tablet hybrids (2019).

But generally speaking, innovation in the smartphone space has slowed in the last decade. Speeds have become faster, graphics have reached console levels and phones have now replaced digital cameras for most people. In other respects, a handset bought today isn’t that dissimilar from one bought five years ago.

However, there are signs that that could be beginning to change again.

Future phone trends

Where the mobile phone goes next is hard to predict. There are, after all, more active mobile phone subscriptions than there are people in the world making the market truly saturated. New smartphones are offering diminishing returns in terms of reasons to upgrade, which has manufacturers eying up the next big thing to shake up the market all over again.

Google, Samsung, Apple and others are all banking on artificial intelligence (AI) to make a big difference. You can see the early fruits of this approach in handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S24 and Google Pixel 8, which both lean on AI to summarise web pages and convincingly edit photos in real time with minimal human intervention. With AI advances coming thick and fast, it’s hard to envisage all the possibilities, making it an exciting frontier to keep an eye on.

Foldable displays could also take off in the next few years after a slow start. So far, these have come in two types: tablet-sized devices that fold down into regular-sized smartphones (like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 and Pixel Fold) and regular-sized smartphones that fold in half when not in use, like a 21st-century flip phone (think the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 and Motorola Razr 40 Ultra). So far, uptake of foldables has been limited, thanks to their high price of entry, but as that falls with time, it’s likely the market share will grow to match.

A young man holding a foldable smartphone

Thinking outside of the box, it’s possible that the whole form factor of the phone could change, and there are two diametrically opposed directions being talked about here.

The first, with the societal impact of screen addiction being discussed openly, is for something that’s less immersive. Humane’s AI Pin is a (somewhat flawed) early example of this, replacing the phone with a small AI-powered box you attach to your clothing. It’s powered by voice, and projects text onto your hand when you really need to see something but it doesn’t have a screen.

What about something more immersive? Augmented Reality (AR) could transfer much of the phone’s features to a screen in front of your face in a pair of smart glasses. Yes, that has failed before with Google Glass, but the technology has come on in leaps and bounds over the last decade and it looks like manufacturers are ready for a second go. Meta’s Ray-Ban Stories show how camera tech can be a lot less conspicuous in 2024, and according to the analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple is aiming for AR to replace the iPhone in the next decade.

That may seem like pie-in-the-sky stuff, but if we can learn anything from the 148-year history of the telephone, it’s that things can change rapidly when the right innovations are made.

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