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telephone, device for communicating sound, especially speech, usually by means of wires in an electric circuit. The telephones now in general use evolved from the device invented by Alexander Graham Bell and patented by him in 1876 and 1877. Although Bell is recognized as the inventor, his telephone was preceded by many attempts to produce such an instrument. The principles on which it is based, and effective model instruments, were developed by different men at so nearly the same time that there are disputes about priority. In Bell's instrument, an electric current varied in intensity and frequency in accordance with sound waves. The sound waves caused a thin plate of soft iron, called the diaphragm, to vibrate. The vibrations disturbed the magnetic field of a bar magnet placed near the diaphragm, and this disturbance induced an electric current in a wire wound about the magnet. That current, when transmitted to a distant identical instrument, caused the diaphragm in it to vibrate, reproducing the original sound. Bell's instrument was thus both transmitter and receiver. The first notable improvement of the Bell telephone differentiated the transmitting instrument from the receiving instrument. Many other inventions have improved the telephone.

The switches used to route telephone calls, which were once electromechanical, are now largely replaced by sophisticated digital electronic switching systems. The electronic switches are much more flexible because they can be programmed to provide new services. The latest generation of switches have made a number of new features possible. Users, for example, can read the telephone number of the calling party on a display device if they choose to subscribe to a “caller ID” service. In “call waiting,” audio signals let a person already on a telephone know that someone else is trying to reach that person. Subscribers can also program the telephone switches to forward their calls automatically to another number (“call forwarding”). Other features include voice mailboxes and the ability to make three-way conference calls.

The problems associated with long-distance and intercity telephone service have been met with increasing success. The telephone lines used include the ordinary open wire lines, lead-sheathed cables consisting of many lines, and coaxial and fiber-optic cables. Coaxial and fiber-optic cables are typically placed underground, but other cables may be either overhead or underground. Transmission of telephone messages over long distances is often accomplished by means of radio and microwave transmissions. In some cases microwaves are sent to an orbiting communications satellite (see satellite, artificial) from which they are relayed back to a distant point on the earth. Cellular telephone systems allow small, low-power portable radio transceivers access to the telephone network; some cellular models provide access to the Internet. The incorporation of microelectronics and digital technology has led to the inclusion of unrelated applications in telephones, such as alarm clocks, calculators, and voice memos for recording short verbal reminders. A camera phone is a cellular phone that has photo taking and sending (to another camera phone or computer) capability. Similarly, a videophone transmits and receives real-time video images.

With the advent of the Internet, computer programs have been developed that allow voice communications across long distances, bypassing conventional carriers. The programs, which often require a computer equipped with a telephone or cable modem, microphone, and speakers, compress the voice message into digital signals. In other cases, a special adapter is used to allow a standard telephone to access the Internet directly though a cable modem or other broadband connection, or an Internet telephone (IP phone) may be used instead. The digital signals may be transmitted over the Internet to another computer, which must have another copy of the same program, or to a telephone. If a connection is established with another computer, the second program decompresses the digital signals and plays the sound almost instantaneously. The advantage of using the Internet is that under current tariffs no long-distance charges accrue on a computer to computer call, regardless of the length of the conversation. The disadvantages are the inferior sound quality on dialup connections and, in some cases, the need to have computers that are running the same program and the need to establish a connection between those computers.

In 1984 a federal court ordered American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to divest its Bell Telephone operating companies (the “Baby Bells”) after the court ruled that AT&T held a monopoly over U.S. telephone service. Since then, the regional operating companies and new competitors for long-distance service have grown through acquisitions and mergers. By 2007, AT&T (formerly SBC Communications, a Baby Bell, which acquired AT&T and adopted the name, and then merged in 2006 with Bell South, another Baby Bell) was the largest U.S. long-distance provider, followed by Verizon Communications (a Baby Bell that merged with MCI), and Sprint. Meanwhile, the seven Baby Bells that had been formed in 1984 were reduced to three, AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest Communications International. The distinctions between types of telephone providers, which had been created by the AT&T breakup, had disappeared, with telephone companies offering local and long-distance service in various locations, and owning wireless carriers and offering high-speed Internet service as well. At the same time these companies were also facing increasing challenges from cable television companies that offered Internet-based (VoIP) phone service over a broadband connection and independent VoIP companies, such as Vonage and Skype.

The primary regulator of telephone service in the United States is the Federal Communications Commission. The International Telecommunication Union coordinates aspects of international transmissions.


See T. B. Costain, Chord of Steel: The Story of the Invention of the Telephone (1960); A. M. Noll, Introduction to Telephones and Telephone Systems (2d ed. 1991).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) The common name for the telephone set.

(2) In spoken Russian, the word (telefon) used for “telephone number.”

(3) Shortened form of the term “telephone communication.”

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a telephone?

The telephone is a symbol of communication with multiple meanings. If the dreamer is not available, does not want to answer the ringing telephone, or hangs up it may indicate that communication from the unconscious is being ignored.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


A system of converting sound waves into variations in electric current that can be sent over wires and reconverted into sound waves at a distant point, used primarily for voice communication; it consists essentially of a telephone transmitter and receiver at each station, interconnecting wires or radio transmission systems, signaling devices, a central power supply, and switching facilities. Also known as telephone system.
(engineering acoustics)
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Meaning "distance" and "sound," a telephone is the end user terminal in a telephone or voice over IP (VoIP) network. Telephone typically refers to a desktop or wall-mounted unit, whereas portable phones are called just plain "phones" or "cordless phones," "cellphones" and "smartphones," the latter two also known as "mobile phones."

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell's words, "Mr. Watson. Come here! I want you!" ushered in the age of telephony. See telephony, POTS, PSTN, DECT, cellphone and smartphone.

A Century Ago
At the turn of the 20th century, people were "communicating over the wire" with instruments such as this Blake wall phone. (Image courtesy of Nortel Networks.)
Copyright © 1981-2019 by The Computer Language Company Inc. All Rights reserved. THIS DEFINITION IS FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. All other reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from the publisher.


In our dreams the telephone could be a symbol with which we are expressing a desire to communicate with ourselves and with others. Our unconscious and/or intuition may be trying to give us messages that we have been unwilling to listen to. If you don’t want to answer the ring, ask yourself why.
Bedside Dream Dictionary by Silvana Amar Copyright © 2007 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
References in classic literature ?
What had this dead man's ear to do with the invention of the telephone? Much.
"If you wish my daughter," said Hubbard, "you must abandon your foolish telephone." Bell's "School of Vocal Physiology," too, from which he had hoped so much, had come to an inglorious end.
Consequently, when Bell returned from Washington, he was compelled by his agreement to devote himself mainly to the musical telegraph, although his heart was now with the telephone. For exactly three months after his interview with Professor Henry, he continued to plod ahead, along both lines, until, on that memorable hot afternoon in June, 1875, the full TWANG of the clock-spring came over the wire, and the telephone was born.
The telephone was now in existence, but it was the youngest and feeblest thing in the nation.
For forty weeks--long exasperating weeks-- the telephone could do no more than gasp and make strange inarticulate noises.
It was not easy, of course, for the weak young telephone to make itself heard in that noisy workshop.
"Had I known more about electricity, and less about sound," he said, "I would never have invented the telephone." What he had done was so amazing, so foolhardy, that no trained electrician could have thought of it.
As though the very stars in their courses were working for this young wizard with the talking wire, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia opened its doors exactly two months after the telephone had learned to talk.
Hubbard, after much trouble, had obtained a promise that they would spend a few minutes examining Bell's telephone. By this time it had been on exhibition for more than six weeks, without attracting the serious attention of anybody.
One took up a telephone receiver, looked at it blankly, and put it down again.
And so, with the tall, blond-bearded Dom Pedro in the centre, the assembled judges, and scientists--there were fully fifty in all-- entered with unusual zest into the proceedings of this first telephone exhibition.
So, one after another, this notable company of men listened to the voice of the first telephone, and the more they knew of science, the less they were inclined to believe their ears.