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Everything is impossible until it’s not: October Edition

What we’re doing at Strike can seem pretty at odds with the rest of the property industry, but the best inventions have torn up the rulebook. This month we’re looking at the two-way telephone call, and how it changed communication forever.

orange phone

October 9th 1876 marks the first successful two-way telephone conversation. But how did we get there? What did society look like before it existed? And how did it change the world?

The world before the telephone

Running 20 minutes late? Easy, a simple “so sorry, train delayed” (white lie) text will get you out of jail free. But before the advent of the mobile phone you actually had to be on time or your friend would probably just leave, heading home to wait for a message on the house phone.

Before phones were installed in houses, communication existed in many different forms. The innately human desire for communication means we’ve always found ways of conveying messages — smoke signals, written messages carried on foot or horseback, the printing press and the advent of mass-shared text, even Morse Code. But these methods were a far cry from the group chats and zoom calls of today.

One perfect example of how tough communication can be? In the late 18th century in North America, intrepid trappers and traders would travel totally alone into the perilous Rocky Mountains to catch animals for their fur. In order to check their comrades’ wellbeing, they would arrange meetups at a pre-decided location every two years or so (between which time they’d have no communication at all). If their work pals didn’t turn up, they’d have to assume they’d probably been eaten by a bear or frozen in a pile of snow. It’s a far cry from the Monday morning “how was your weekend?” email to a colleague.

How did we get to the invention of the two-way telephone?

But then, things changed — and in fact, there were two different inventors gunning to innovate communication forever. 1876 saw Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray race to finish their designs for the modern telephone, but Bell’s patent came first, so he's the person forever associated with the invention of the telephone.

So how did he get there? Before the telephone was invented in 1876, we had the telegraph, the main form of communication across long distances in the 19th century. The telegraph is attributed to inventor William Fothergill Cooke and scientist Charles Wheatstone in England who were able to communicate by transmitting electric signals over wires linked to a receiver, which operated a pin to point to different letters of the alphabet. Samuel Morse improved on this system, creating a form of language that gave sounds to letters and numbers, which could then be printed onto paper tape and read. In 1844 Morse was able to successfully send the message “What hath God wrought?” from Washington DC to Baltimore.

Then, in 1861 the Western Union built the first transcontinental telegraph line, changing the face of long-distance communication. Suddenly messages could be sent from London to New York in minutes. This transformed globalisation and global politics, as the world suddenly seemed must smaller and more connected.

Bell was fascinated by sound (starting his work with the deaf community), music and cutting-edge inventions. He wanted to adapt the telegraph so that you could send multiple messages over the same wire, before shifting his ambitions to the telephone, a machine that could transmit speech. In 1876 Bell was able to say: “Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you”, to his assistant and by October that year the pair were able to conduct a telephone conversation through outdoor telegraph lines linking Boston to East Cambridge. But the technology was still in its infancy — it took until around 1930 for affluent houses in the UK to have their own telephones.

As of October 2022, 7.26 billion people (91% of the world) have mobile phones."

How has the telephone changed society?

The next major telephone innovation was the mobile phone, first manufactured by Motorola in 1973 and weighing in at around 2 kilograms. Ten years later the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was available in shops, though the battery life was 30 minutes and it cost about £2500 to buy.

Flash forward to now, and as of October 2022, 7.26 billion people (91% of the world) have mobile phones. The interconnectedness of our society has made possible globalisation, recreational travel, business and communication across the world. From the first conversation between Bell and Watson, to the first phone call from the Moon to the White House in 1969, to the text telling your friend that you’re “on your way!”, telecommunication has certainly disrupted the way society functions — and remains one of the world's most impactful innovations.