The modern-day telephone, a device that captures, transmits, and receives sound (usually in the form of conversation) to other telephones, is a device whose origins are actually quite old. The electric telephone is widely thought to have been invented by the American Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, although previously others had constructed similar devices. Coincidentally, Elisha Gray, a contemporary of Bell, filed a caveat or declaration of intent to apply for a patent for his own model within hours of Bell’s filing.1 Rarely mentioned in popular accounts, however, are the efforts of Antonio Meucci or Philippe Reis, the former of which experimented as far back as the 1850s (contemporaneously with Charles Bourseil’s theorization of the telephone in France), and the latter of which produced a “musical telephone” in the 1860s.2
The word ‘telephone’ is comprised of the two Greek root words, tele-, meaning “afar,” and phone, meaning “sound” or “voice.”3 The device is often colloquially referred to as the phone or nowadays somewhat comically as the horn, the latter term perhaps referencing the musical instrument or the cone of a gramophone or phonograph into which one spoke in order to record or through which sound from a recording was amplified.4 Prior to the invention of the electric telephone, various devices, including horns or cones, were used to amplify and emit series of tones as warnings or general signals. According to McLuhan, the term ‘telephone’ originated in 1840 and first referred to “a device made to convey musical notes through wooden rods.”5 With the invention of the electric telephone, the word ‘telephony’ came into general use, but the term had previously designated communication via telegraph.6
Like the telegraph, the telephone is used for communication, generally over distances that hinder or reduce the efficiency of other means of communication. Unlike the telegraph, the electric telephone uses a microphone to capture and convert sound waves to an electrical current. This current is transmitted to another telephone where the signals are reconverted and reproduced by a loudspeaker as sound.7 However, the telephone and telephone networks are also used for the transmission of non-aural, coded information; the Telex, its relative the fax machine, and dial-up modems all rely on telephone technology.
McLuhan argues that the telephone, similar to other media, should be considered an “extension of the ear and voice that is a kind of extra sensory perception.”8 As mentioned previously, McLuhan argues that the telephone is a highly participatory medium9—that is, it requires a large portion of any user’s attention—and can be conceived of as belonging to the third of the three stages or eras of history that are demarcated by the sorts of media prevalent in each. Using McLuhan’s terminology, the telephone is less participatory than the telegraph in that the latter transmits little information relative to the telephone. The telephone, then, is what McLuhan calls a “cool medium,” a medium that reproduces sound through the transmission of little information relative to other, higher-fidelity media.10 However, it should be noted that the personal digital assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones introduced to the public in the late 1990s and early 2000s are multi-functional. Not only can one make telephone calls, but one can also play back recorded music, take digital pictures, or even browse the internet using the same device. Because these new phones combine text, image, and sound, they would, in McLuhan’s terms, provide more information than the older telephone alone.
Other theorists such as Avital Ronell have emphasized the ways in which the telephone unsettles or destabilizes prevalent notions of subjectivity. Similar to McLuhan, Ronell argues that the telephone “connects where there has been little or no relation”11 and that “technology has broken into the body”12 Interestingly, Ronell emphasizes the ‘schizophrenic’ quality of the telephone: its ability to make present voices whose speakers are not. Generally, the telephone functions as a heuristic with which Ronell can analyze philosophical and cultural formations. Ronell’s argument might primarily concern itself with problems of philosophy, but it can also be understood as an argument for the ways in which immediacy is, despite the illusion the telephone might provide, beyond our reach.
Kern considers the telephone in relation to technologies of modernity that fundamentally altered individuals’ understandings of time and space. As Kern argues, the telephone enabled interlocutors to “be in two places at the same time”13 and ‘annihilated’ distances that separated individuals and populations.14 Curiously, Kern argues that the telephone also “expanded lived space,” providing opportunities for sociability where previously there might have been few.15
Approaching the issue from a slightly different angle, Gunning emphasizes the anxieties that arose following the introduction of new technologies such as the telephone. According to Gunning, these anxieties, manifested in early silent cinema, often involved scenarios in which a husband helplessly overhears by telephone the murder of his wife. Borrowing from Freud, he describes the unease that technologies of travel provoked and points out the greater unease that results from the failure of new technologies to work. It is not simply terrifying that a husband hears his wife being murdered at a distance, but also that the line might ‘go dead’ and that it would impossible to continue hearing the awful noises from afar.
Similarly, Connor argues that a whole series of cultural effects in the late 1800s and early 1900s were in some manner influenced by the emergence of technologies that separated the voice from the body. The telephone proved particularly disconcerting because in the reproduction of the human voice, the machinery strips the voice of other, accompanying attributes (bodily presence, loudness, reverberation) that would otherwise be experienced by the listener. Out beyond the confines of one’s own body were thousands of wires connected together, wires which seem unthinkable in their specificity, but whose effects are oddly tangible.16
Undoubtedly new or seemingly new alterations of existing telephone technology will be viewed in positive and negative terms. In some respects, existing analyses of the telephone might continue to be accurate with reference to telephone conversations, but with the advent of PalmPilots, iPhones, and other assorted hybrid electronic devices (combining music players, cameras, and mobile phones into one device), the need for a new conception of the telephone and its relation to space, time, and theories of mediation might prove to be pressing.
1 Meadow, Charles T. Making Connections: Communication through the Ages. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2002. 148.
2 Flichy, Patrice. Dynamics of Modern Communication. London: Sage Publications, 1995, 82.
3 “Telephone.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
4 “Horn.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
5 McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994. 269.
6 “Telephony.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
7 Hunt, Franklin. “Your Voice and the Telephone.” The Scientific Monthly 54:2 (1942): 139-43.
8 McLuhan, 265.
9 McLuhan, 267.
10 McLuhan, 22-23.
11 Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. 8.
12 Schuerewegan, Franc. “A Telephone Conversation: Fragments.” Diacritics 24.4 (1994): 30-40. Ronell qtd. on page 36.
13 Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. 69.
14 Kern, 214.
15 Kern, 215.
16 Connor, Steven. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 362ff.
Connor, Steven. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Flichy, Patrice. Dynamics of Modern Communication. London: Sage Publications, 1995.
“Horn.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
Hunt, Franklin. “Your Voice and the Telephone.” The Scientific Monthly 54:2 (1942): 138-48.
Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Lipartito, Kenneth. “Picturephone and the Information Age.” Technology and Culture 44: January (2003): 50-81.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
Meadow, Charles T. Making Connections: Communication through the Ages. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Schuerewegan, Franc. “A Telephone Conversation: Fragments.” Diacritics 24.4 (1994): 30-40.
“Telephone.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
“Telephony.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.