telephone (2)

The word telephone is etymologically Greek: it is a combination of tēle, meaning “afar, far off,” and phōnē, “sound, voice.”1 Historically, the word has been used to designate a variety of devices that convey sound over great distances. As far back as 1828, Sudree used the word to name his device that sent signals by musical notes.2 “By the mid-nineteenth century in German, and to a lesser extend in French and English,” Brian Winston writes, “all devices which relayed sound through whatever medium were known in both scientific and popular literature as telephones.”3 These uses, according to the OED, are now obsolete. Today, the word specifically denotes an apparatus for transmitting sound, especially that of the voice, by means of electricity to another telephone. Unlike the radio which transmits unidirectional sound, the telephone functions by reciprocity. Every telephone, therefore, consists of a mouth- and earpiece, allowing for “real-time conversational interaction at a distance.”4

Alexander Graham Bell is today normally credited with its invention on March 10, 1876. Bell’s title as inventor, however, has been shadowed over with controversy since that day, the notable contenders being Elisha Gray and Antonio Meucci. Although the title of inventor is singular, the basic working telephone we find in people’s homes today was a plural creation, involving the work of Bell, Gray, Edison and Hunnings, amongst others. The telephone grew out of the telegraph. Inventors worked to transmit the human voice through the telegraph wire. Johan Philip Reis’s telephon, first exhibited in 1861, failed to transmit human speech adequately because it was based upon the telegraph’s technique of sending information by turning the wire on and off. Bell’s, on the other hand, succeeded because he kept the wire on. This enabled Bell to transmit speech by “causing an electric current to vary its intensity precisely as the air varies its density during the production of a sound.”5 Thus, the telephone wire extended human speech beyond its pre-electrical boundaries.

The telephone improved communication beyond extending the reach of the human voice and ear. It made the act of communication nearly effortless, as people only needed to pick up the phone and dial some numbers, if they were not first connected to a switchboard operator, to reach whomever they wanted to contact, whereas before the telephone’s invention people were forced to travel or use an intermediary who traveled to send a message. Although the telegraph did exist before the telephone, people were still required to travel outside their homes to use one. The phone also quickened the pace of communication, enabling people to reach each other within seconds and to exchange information in real time. The only limits to telephonic communication then were the reach of the wires and the price of service, both of which had improved by “1925,” so that “most Americans,” as Fischer writes, “could speak to one another across town or across country quickly, back and forth, fully.”6 Global communication was thus only a matter of time.

The form of each medium affects its use. Thus, as Claude Fischer writes, “the early telephone, because of party lines and poor sound quality, was an instrument for practical purposes, not sociability.”7 Although true, this statement is an overgeneralization. Rural women socialized over the phone despite the above problems, and even took advantage of the party line to hold open community forums.8 Inevitably, as sound quality improved and people began to get separate lines, the phone became more of a social device, because it allows for real time verbal interaction, and by its nature is intimate and informal. Intimate, for it carries the voice and its personal inflections and tones, and it does so sensually, as McLuhan observes: the telephone “unites voice and ear in an especially close way . . . so it is quite natural to kiss via phone.”9 Moreover, personal expression and affect are easily conveyed through the telephone, whether intended or not.10 In addition, Meyrowitz argues, communication via the telephone is less formal than it is through print. Direct and live, the telephone conversation is “more spontaneous and less contrived.”11 Since people can articulate their thoughts through dialogue while on the telephone, conversations over it tend to be more non-linear than print. Furthermore, telephonic communication involves the aid of non-verbal cues such as tone and inflection, which makes it both less formal and more intimate than print. As Meyrowitz claims, “Without nonverbal cues, careful construction and rewriting are needed to capture the correct ‘feeling.’ Sarcasm, teasing, and other nuances of meaning are easily lost in [print]. This is why even intimate love letters tend to have a ‘formal’ quality, while . . . telephone conversations seem quite intimate and personal.”12

While the above aspects make the phone ideal for long distance relationships, they make it dangerous for politics. McLuhan notes how Kennedy preferred to communicate with the Kremlin by teletype and not by telephone.13 Type allows people to step back from the heat and pressure of real time dialogue to collect their thoughts and develop as well as articulate their standpoints, whereas “the telephone demands complete participation, unlike the written and printed page.”14 People can also hide their anger, frustration and passion behind print, which is difficult to do over the phone. In addition, the very speed of telephonic communication has its dangers. Tom Gunning writes, “The apparent compression of time can, in fact, cause a precipitate collapse of the process of reflection. Kern theorizes, for instance, that instantaneous communication through cable and telephone artificially speeded up the July crisis that led to World War I, as technological haste propelled ultimatums and responses into a scenario of unstoppable confrontation.”15

Although not the safest medium for the exchange of volatile political views and decisions, the telephone is arguably democratic. Private, not normally censured and leaving no communicative trace by itself, the telephone enables dissenting voices. Plus, its decentralized form promotes lateral interchange and a plurality of voices. The telephone can therefore oppose the homogenizing force of radio and other centralized media, which broadcast to the many from one controlled center. Furthermore, to use centralized and public media normally requires the permission of an authority, who may not allow transmission [link]. Equally significant, the phone is available to everyone, since its use, unlike print media, requires no training.

Kennedy’s desire to use another medium than the telephone to communicate with the Kremlin seems to manifest an awareness shared by so many others of the telephone as an “intruder in time or place.”16 Carolyn Marvin, for example, writes, “The telephone was the first electric medium to enter the home and unsettle customary ways of dividing the private person and family from the more public setting of the community.”17 To pick up the phone is to invite someone into your home, for the telephone is, as Marshal McLuhan claims of all media, an extension of man. Beyond the fact that the earpiece is modeled on the structure of the human ear, the telephone extends the user’s ear and voice to what McLuhan describes as an “extra sensory perception.”18 That is, the caller’s sense of hearing and his or her voice enter into the receiver’s space, and vice versa. On the phone, we inhabit a new space that is neither side of the call exclusively but a mix of the two, both more and less than the space we inhabited before we picked up the phone. We are no longer fully attentive to our own immediate space nor are we fully capable of extending ourselves into the space at the other end of the call. Still, to call someone is to hear not only his or her voice but also the background in which he or she lives.

Later technologies added onto the basic telephone have erected a barrier between the public and private, however. Services, such as caller ID, answering machines and voice mail have changed the way the phone brings the outside world into peoples’ private worlds. Before the invention of the answering machine, it was necessary for one to answer the phone if one wanted to know who was at the other end and the purpose of the call. Today, the receiver can choose not to pick up the phone and still discover who called and why. The phone is now a less obtrusive medium and many treat it like mail, having the choice of whether or not they will engage the caller and if so, when they will.

Not surprisingly, the popularization of the cellular or mobile phone has brought about many changes in the nature of telephonic communication. Text messaging, for example, has become very popular, since it allows people to communicate efficiently without the participatory obligations of a phone call. The cellular phone has also enabled people to call on the move, achieving what Leopoldina Fortunati calls a “nomadic intimacy.”19 This has, in turn, made the telephone’s intrusion bidirectional, with the private sphere now encroaching upon the public. People can have intimate conversations in whatever public space they find themselves as long as they have cellular service. Fortunati envisions this altering our relation to the public. “The mobile phone,” she writes, “is a device that enables people, when they perceive the surrounding environment as extraneous to them, to contact somebody of their intimate circle, that is, to activate the reassuring procedure of recognition.”20 This capacity, she argues, keeps people from “discovering and living directly everything that social space can offer.”21 This closure to new discourses and viewpoints available in the public, Fortunati writes, “implies remaining closed inside a rigid and inert kind of discourse, because [with intimates] one tends to say the same things, to repeat the same procedures in conversation, and so on.”22

There is much controversy over the effects of the telephone. Scholars dispute whether it has eroded or strengthened local communities. They also argue whether the telephone has made conversations generally shallower or not. Additionally, debates continue over whether it has increased anxiety about security and privacy and the general place of the domestic sphere. With the popularization of the cellular phone, fear has spread over the probability of it to cause cancer. Despite these concerns, however, people often report feelings of isolation, uneasiness and loss of control when they lose telephone service.23 Thus, most people risk the possible negative consequences above, because the phone has now become what we might safely call a necessity, a true extension of man.

Eric Peterson


1. American Heritage Dictionary.

2. Oxford English Dictionary.

3. Winston 31.

4. Aakhus 1.

5. Dilts 2.

6. Fischer 23.

7. Fischer 229.

8. Mercer 69.

9. McLuhan 266.

10. Meyrowitz 110.

11. Meyrowitz 110.

12. Meyrowitz 101.

13. McLuhan 272.

14. McLuhan 267.

15. Gunning 217.

16. McLuhan 271.

17. Marvin 6.

18. McLuhan 265.

19. Fortunati 516.

20. Fortunati 515.

21. Fortunati 516.

22. Fortunati 516.

23. Fischer 246-47.


Aakhus, Mark A., and James E. Katz. “Introduction: Framing the Issues.” Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance. Ed. Mark A. Aakhus and James E. Katz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 1-13.

Dilts, Marion May. The Telephone in a Changing World. New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1941.

Fischer, Claude. America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.

Fortunati, Leopoldina. “The Mobile Phone: Towards New Categories and Social Relations.” Information, Communication and Society. 5:4 (2002): 513-528.

Gunning, Tom. “Heard over the Phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lourde Tradition of the Terrors of Technology.” Screen Histories: A Screen Reader. Ed. Annette Kuhn and Jackie Stacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 216-227.

Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

Mercer, David. The Telephone: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Meyrowitz, Joshua. The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet. New York: Routledge, 1998.