BRIDGING THE GAP: Communication and Telephones

White and brown rotary telephone - photo by Louis Hansel | Unsplash

How does one impart his or her thoughts to another? Communication allows people to let others know what they were thinking or feeling, as well as what happened to them. Like many things, communication has evolved and continues to do so.

Pigeons with messages attached – photo by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine | Wikipedia

Ancient peoples inscribed their thoughts and day to day activities on cave walls and stone tablets. Eventually, they made use of materials that are lighter and more portable such as papyrus, parchment and paper. With these, they were not only able to preserve thoughts, memories, and events but also allowed for the transportation of information to a person in another place. Messengers were sent on foot or by horse to deliver messages. Some would exchange messages by placing tiny pieces of paper into small tubes attached to the leg of pigeons, owls, and other birds trained as messengers. People sent letters to each other via post.

As centuries passed, ways to produce multiple copies were invented. The block printing of the Chinese and Gutenberg’s printing press created an avenue that allowed writing to be produced in bulk. With these inventions, producing copies became easier and cheaper and allowed the masses access to information formerly owned exclusively by the elite who were once the only ones who could afford to pay scribes. The emergence of printing also gave birth to newspapers and other printed materials.

Letters sent through post takes time. Producing a print also took time. How does one communicate with another who lives miles away when the message needs to be delivered immediately, say at least within the hour? In comes the telephone. The telephone allows one to communicate with another as though they were talking face to face even if they are continents apart. But how did the telephone come to be?

Give Me A Ring: A Brief History of the Telephone

Experimental Telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, 1876 – photo by Museums Victoria

Antonio Meucci was supposedly the one who invented the telephone. But instead of getting a patent, he took a caveat, which was cheaper. It was a document that stated his intention to get a patent for his invention. He took a caveat in 1871 but after 1874 was not able to renew it.

Alexander Graham Bell, the Scotsman who is known to have invented the device took a patent for the telephone in 1876. The patent made the telephone, legally, his idea. Bell was fascinated with transforming electricity into sound. While in Boston, he was able to come up with a receiver that does exactly that. He spoke his first words on his invention on March 10, 1876. The words he uttered were to his assistant and they were “Mister Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

Alexander Graham Bell makes a call – photo by

Bell showed his invention to the British government the following year. In January 1878, Bell did a demonstration of the telephone to Queen Victoria at the Osborne House. The queen was so pleased with his presentation that she purchased two devices, with the wires and all its attachments.

The 1st of April 1891 marked the birth of overseas phone calls. England and France were linked via a cable under the English Channel, which is the world’s first subsea cable. It wasn’t as efficient as making calls nowadays, as only two people could make a call simultaneously, and these had to be done at special phone booths in London or Paris. Nevertheless, it was an important development.

Previously, phone calls had to go through operators. Britain was the first to have automatic phone calls in 1912. It took some time before every place had access to automatic phone calls. In the UK, the last manual phone call was in Scotland’s Isle of Skye. They didn’t switch to automatic until 1976.

Motorola DynaTAC 8000x – photo by Engadget

1983 marks the emergence of mobile phones. The very first mobile phone was released by Motorola and it was called the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. Unlike today’s mobile phones, this model needed 10 hours to be fully charged and a call that lasts 30 minutes could completely drain its battery. It was so revolutionary at the time that it cost £2,300.

Dial It Down: Telephone Parts and How They Work

What makes a telephone and how do they work? Telephones are composed of a power source, a dialler, a switch hook, an anti-sidetone circuit, a transmitter, a ringer, and a receiver.

Power Source

Experimental Telephone, single electro-magnet and could be used both as transmitter and receiver, Alexander Graham Bell – photo by American History Museum | Smithsonian Institution

Transmitters in earlier experimental telephones generated the electric current that powered the telephone circuit. The current was generated by an electromagnet that is activated by the speaker’s voice. But because distant receivers could not produce audible speech with this system as it could not create enough voltage, Bell changed the system’s design. His patented design had transmitters that operated on a direct current that came from an independent power source. The first ones used batteries found within the telephones. Local switching offices started to generate the current in the 1890s supplying the current by a two-wire circuit known as the local loop.

As time passed, cordless phones emerged and these returned to using their own individual power sources. Small batteries found in the handset power the low-wattage transmitters. Contact to the base unit is required to recharge said batteries. The base unit is attached to a transformer connected to an electric outlet which in turn powers the base.

Anti-Sidetone Circuit

The anti-sidetone circuit reduces sidetone or the distracting sound of the speaker’s voice coming through the receiver. It accomplishes this by splitting the transmitter signals along two paths and interposing a transformer between the transmitter circuit and the receiver circuit. It also allows for impedance matching between the telephone circuits (low electrical impedance) and the telephone lines (high electrical impedance).


1877 Carbon Telephone Transmitter, Blake Edison Era Microphone – photo by WorthPoint

The transmitter is basically a tiny microphone placed in the telephone handset’s mouthpiece. It transforms the voice’s vibrations into variations in the direct current.

Traditional carbon transmitters were developed in the 1880s. A fixed electrode is separated from the diaphragm-activated electrode by a thin layer of carbon granules. In the 1970s, they developed a modern electret transmitter. Instead of a carbon layer, it makes use of a thin sheet of plastic with one side coated with a conductive metallic coating. The plastic maintains an electric field between the coating and metal electrode while separating them from each other. Speech vibrations generate fluctuations in this field which then produce small voltage variations which are then amplified for transmission.

Switch Hook

This is what connects the telephone to the direct current supplied through the local loop in earlier models. Contact with the loop is broken when the telephone is said to be “on hook.” Contact is re-established when it’s “off hook” or when one lifts the receiver. The dial tone (two simultaneous tones of 350 and 440 hertz) signals this restoration of contact. In later models, the hook is replaced by a cradle that holds the combined handset. More modern electronics, a system of transistor relays have replaced the mechanical metal contact operations.


The LM Ericsson Dialog from the 1960s that remained popular in Sweden up until the 1980s – photo by Wikipedia

The dialler is used to enter the number of persons one wishes to call. This generates signals that activate switches which establishes transmission paths to the party being called.

Diallers developed in the 1890s were called rotary diallers. It is rotated against a tension spring and then released and returns into position. The rate of return is controlled by a mechanical governor. A switch opens and closes with the return rotation and produces pulses in the current flowing to the switch office. The number of pulses indicates the number being dialled.


The receiver is the earpiece of the handset. In early models, this separated from the transmitter which was attached to the base containing the switch hook. It operated on the electromagnetic principles known at the time. It converts electric current into sound waves. Years of improvement in the electromagnetic systems changed how receivers worked. In 1951, they had a piston drive the diaphragm – a central cone attached to a ring-shaped frame to obtain efficient response over wide ranges of frequencies.


Vintage Western Electric 127F Telephone Extension Ringer Box – photo by Ben S. | Pinterest

As the name suggests, the ringer alerts one of an incoming call by ringing or emitting a particular audible tone. Early telephones had ringers that consisted of a magnet, a metal clapper, and two closely-spaced bells. A switch that applies a mechanical damper allows one to mute the ringer’s volume.

In the 1980s, modern electronic ringers were introduced. The current passes through an oscillator, which adjusts the current to the precise frequency that activates the piezoelectric transducer. The transducer is a crystalline device that responds to an electric current by vibrating.

Head on the Phone: Collecting Antique Phones

There are three types of antique telephones that are seen as collectable. Wood wall phones were produced from 1876 up through the Second World War. Candlestick phones which were produced from 1890 through 1920 are quite in demand. Lastly, desk sets were manufactured starting the 1920s, with models as late as the 1960s and 1970s.

Wood Wall Phones

Stromberg Carlson Wood Wall Telephone – photo by Oldphoneworks

The first wood wall phones became available to the public in the early 1900s. Most of these had their own batteries to power transmission. They also had a magneto that generates the required electricity to ring the bells of the party one is calling. The manufacture of magneto local battery phones was discontinued by the 1940s in the US. Canada’s rural nature called for a need for these types of phones and so there were still a few manufacturers who continued to produce these types until the 1960s. Local battery magneto phones continued to be used even in the 1970s. There are of course different models of wood wall phones.

Two Box Wall Phone

These were the predecessors of the ‘common battery’ wall phones. They contain a magneto that was charged every time the crank was turned. Manufacturers of two box phones include Western Electric, Couch & Seeley, and The Williams Electric Co. Aside from the phone’s condition, parts and components that are unusual add value to the piece. A piece that would be considered more valuable will have a receiver that is not the standard pony (i.e. milk bottle receivers) or has plastic or glass windows on the box. Since most are made of oak, a walnut two box wall phone will definitely be more valuable. Most sell for about $125 to $450.

Fiddleback Wall Phone

Antique McKinley School Fiddle Back Wall Mount Phone, circa 1890 – photo by 1stDibs

As the name suggests, these phones have a back shaped like that of a violin or fiddle. These were manufactured by Century, Western Electric, and Couch & Seeley from the mid-1890s to early 1900s. The earlier models had local battery components while the later Fiddlebacks had common battery components.

The Bell System’s Western Electric No. 85 Fiddleback was like a modern landline, which was powered by the local telephone company and therefore had no need for batteries or a magneto.

The value of these models increases based on the kind of components they have. Rarer types of components mean higher value. A Fiddleback is priced from $100 to $450.

Picture Frame Front Wall Phone

These are known for the decorative routing around the mouthpiece. Functionally, they are no different from plain front phones. These are local battery phones and were manufactured from the early 1900s to the 1930s by companies including Western Electric and Century. Earlier versions of this model had a cathedral top – an arched top where line terminals are attached. Later generations dropped the cathedral top and exposed terminals.

Values of these types depend on whether it’s operational or not, as well as its cosmetic condition. Models with fewer reproduction parts used in the restoration are preferred by collectors and each piece is priced from $100 to $400.

Candlestick Phones

Also known as ‘upright desk stands’, these types of phone gained popularity in the 1880s. A candlestick phone consists of a base, stem, receiver, and mouthpiece. Originally, candlestick phones had wooden bases and receivers. They later made them from nickel-plated brass and hard rubber parts. Eventually, they replaced the Bakelite mouthpieces with those made of glass or porcelain. This was due to fears of contagious diseases like tuberculosis. Glass and porcelain were thought to be more sanitary as they could be removed and cleaned by boiling.

Potbelly Candlestick Phone

Potbelly Candlestick Telephone with Pocket-Watch Receiver – photo by Morphy Auctions

These candlestick models are known for the bulge on their stick, resembling an old pot-bellied stove. Sought after brands include Couch & Seeley, North Electric, Western Electric, and Samson. Like with other phone models, unusual components add value to the piece, regardless of brand. Some models have large round dials in the centre, mouthpieces often come in black but there are also those made of white porcelain. Aside from the standard pony receiver, there is also the long pole receivers, both of which are usually seen in potbellied models.

A potbelly model with a cast iron watchcase receiver (it resembled a pocket watch) was able to fetch $4,200 at auction in 2012 despite its frayed cord, worn nickel plating and missing base plate. Another model with a porcelain mouthpiece and a central dial sold for $2,700 at the same auction. For this type of phone, research and proper identification have an impact on value.

Dial Candlestick Telephones

Western Electric 51AL – photo by Oldphoneworks

These were also called the dial desk stands. The term dial candlestick was adopted by collectors. Western Electric was the first to make dial operated phones that coincide with the dial service introduced by the Bell System in 1919. The Western Electric 51AL was introduced in the mid-1920s and was the second dial candlestick phone that was produced. It was similar to its predecessor, the 50AL but with mechanisms that provided more efficient service.

The problem with these models is that they were reproduced in the 1970s. Other than the fake Western Electric markings, reproductions would be made of unpainted brass. Another clue would be the head of the screws that were used. Philips head screws didn’t exist in the 1920s, so a model with such screws is obviously not an original. To avoid buying a reproduction, one must do their research before buying.

Antique Desk Set Phones

These include phones produced after 1930. Also included are 1920s s ringer box models and the Ericofon, Princess and Trimline models of the 1960s and 1970s. Most commonly found phones are the Western Electric 202s (the 1930s), 302s (1940s-1950s), and 500 sets (1960s and 1970s) and other rotary dial phones.

Novelty and Character Phones

Vintage Tyco 1986 Garfield Telephone, 1980s – photo by Etsy

Telephones also come in unusual styles and shapes. Some come in the form of animals and cartoon characters. Most of these resemble toys and may have been designed with the young in mind. They often come at prices lower compared to the price of the phone models mentioned above. Nonetheless, fans of a particular character may find them as a must-have item. Some examples are:

Dodge Dakota Pickup Phone ($29.95, Oldphoneworks), Batmobile (Batman and Batman Returns version, $109.95, Oldphoneworks), American Telecommunications Company Touch Tone Kermit telephone ($129.95, market price), and the Garfield telephone ($59.95, Oldphoneworks) that have made news recently, as a lot of them have been found on a beach in France.

Who You Gonna Call: Helpful References

As mentioned earlier, before buying an antique phone, one must know how to identify an original from a reproduction or fake. Research plays an important part in acquiring the model antique phone that one wants.

One may contact certain associations and organisations that know their telephones. Among these organisations are the Antique Telephone Collectors Association, Telephone Collectors International, Telecommunications History Group, Telecommunications Heritage Group (UK), and the Australasian Telephone Collectors Society, Inc. Stores like the Old Phone Shop sells manuals like the Western Electric Telephone Manual 317 Care and Operation, 1882 Western Electric Catalogue, as well as The Telephone Story poster: Antique Telephone History. The manuals, catalogue and poster may give one an insight as to what parts and materials were used in making the original. The Old Phone Shop also does appraisals, in case one might wish to know the value of the model they have in possession. In conclusion, as with other collectable items, one must be careful in purchasing such items. Being informed is the best way to get a prized item while avoiding losing hard-earned money.