The Telephone Technology and ‘The Cycle’


Communication technology has significantly evolved over the past 200 years (Raum, 2008). The world has consistently experienced the development and growth of various communication technologies. Some examples of how the communication technology has grown include the development of the telegram which was superseded by the telephone, then computers, then the internet and currently smart phones (Temin, 2013). The examples are not arranged in any specific order but they can be used to express the theory of disruptive technology as postulated by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard business school (Temin, 2013). One considerable characteristic of the technology based on the example is that the introduction of new technology shifted the focus from previous technologies and focused on enhancing the present technology (Casson, 2013). This characteristic is part of what Tim who postulated as being ‘The Cycle’. In his work ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires’ Wu articulates that technologies commonly undergo five major phases (Kuskey, 2016). According to the theorists, the stages that technologies undergo include: The invention and adoption phase; disruption of existing technologies; consolidation of a number of actors in the industry; the division of the media technology, resulting from development of newer technologies or regulatory action and finally the reorganization of the technology industry into a consolidated industry with limited key players (Fischer, 2012). These stages according to Coe (2011) can be summarized as including the rise of the technology, its consolidation, monopoly in the technologies market, capture governments, the minimizing the competitors, and finally the fragmentation of the market into a more open and innovative industry (Temin, 2013). This paper explores the telephone with regards to how it follows the pattern of what Wu terms as the cycle. The main attributes of the stages that are highlighted in the paper include the invention and adoption phase of the telephone, how it disrupted existing incumbent technologies, and also the division of the telephone technology industry due to the development of new technologies.

The invention and adoption of the media technology

Many theorists have determined that the origin of the telephone technology is not effectively known (Temin, 2013). The main explanation offered is that there is existing evidence that different people from across the globe were attempting to develop the technology at the same time (Temin, 2013). Many inventors and individuals including Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci, Innocenzo Manzetti, Charles Bourseul, Johann Philipp Reis, and Alexander Graham Bell all claim to be the main inventors of the telephone (Coe, 2011). However, Graham Bell was the first one to obtain a patent for the telephone as an instrument that can be used to transmit sounds telegraphically. Furthermore, there exists compelling evidence of Graham Bell developing and testing the first practical telephone. Due to these reasons, Graham is widely considered as the main inventor of the technology (Coe, 2011). It is however notable that the invention of the telephone would never have been a reality without the invention of a series of prior technologies (Coe, 2011).

Many researchers trace the roots of the modern day mobile phones back to 1667 when Robert Hooke created an acoustic string telephone (Kuskey, 2016). Raum (2008) explains that before the existence of electronic devices which have a direct link with the telephone invention, there existed mechanical devices which would later be rendered primitive and ineffective. However, the basic concept of the telephone which is to transmit sound over long distances was directly developed from the mechanical devices, particularly the acoustic string telephone. Hooke’s device worked through conveying sounds over a taut extended wire (Kuskey, 2016). The sound was transmitted from one end to another through mechanical vibrations. Some of the common uses of the acoustic devices included transmitting speech and music. One considerable factor that made the device a significant one is the fact that it was able to transmit speech and music over distances that were greater than the distance that normal direct sound could be transmitted (Fischer, 2012). This technology utilized the use of tin can telephones and it was commonly referred to as ‘lovers’ phone’ (Coe, 2011). The taut string wire was the main mode through which the sound was transmitted from one end to another. This is what limited the effectiveness of the acoustic devices. For instance, the devices did not depend on electronic current and thus the distance between the sender and receiver of the speech was significantly reduced what is more is that the link between the transmitter could easily be interfered with, the further apart the two were, the less effective the technology was (Casson, 2013).

The wake of 19th century was signified by considerable development of electricity. Advancements in the use of the electrical currents resulted in the development of the electric telegraph which was for sometime considered as the greatest communication of all times (Raum, 2008). The telegram revolutionized the manner in which people in the world communicated. It limited the use of mail services, especially with regards to communicating urgent information. The development of the electrical telegraph which the telephone succeeded as the predominant technology is attributed to Francisco Salva Campillo who was a Spanish polymath and scientist (Temin, 2013). Campillo in 1804 developed an electrochemical telegraph which was later enhanced by Francis Ronald an English inventor who is credited for building the first working telegraph in 1816 (Casson, 2013). Francis used static electricity in his telegraph; however Baron Schilling in 1832 developed an electriomagnetic telegraph. Graham built on the principle of the telegraph to develop the telephone (Casson, 2013). On the 10th of March 1876, Graham made transmitted his first speech over the telephone. This led to subsequent developments of the technology, for instance, in the same year, Thomas Edison developed and tested his first carbon microphone. In later years, carbon transmitters enhanced the efficiency of the telephone (Coe, 2011).

The technology’s disruption of an existing, incumbent technology

The incumbent technology before the introduction of the telephone was the electrical telegraph. Before the telegraph, post offices and railway stations were considered as the most effective communication approaches (Raum, 2008). Post deliveries over long distances were commonly made via rail or pony express. The telegraph was so successful to the extent that the Western Union, which was during the late 1800s the main monopoly in the telegraph industry, refused to purchase Bell’s patent to the telephone when he made them an offer (Casson, 2013).

The improvements of the electrical telegraph are what Bell capitalized on in his telephone. The result of his efforts was that he was able to transmit sound and speeches electronically (Raum, 2008). When expanding the operations of the telephone, Bell utilized the infrastructure of the telegraph (Casson, 2013). Within a short period of time, the telephone was able to become more successful than the telegraph. The success of the telephone was based on the fact that instead of transmitting limited number of text messages, it was able to transmit speech over long distances (Raum, 2008). Its effectiveness was enhanced by the fact that the sender of the transmission and the receiver were able to offer real time responses (Raum, 2008). This meant that the telephone was the first two way communication over long distance. Due to its effectiveness, the telephone became more commercialized than the telegraph. With time, the use of the telegraph as a means of communication slowly diminished, with its use being reserved for specific purposes such as communicating military information, for instance through the use of the Morse Code (Raum, 2008). The commercialization of the telephone fostered the increased development and use of the telephone and this is what eventually led to the emergence of wireless communication, then the mobile phones (Raum, 2008). This also meant the decline of the telegraph as well as the companies that focused on using the technology and did not diversify with the emergence of the telephone technology (Coe, 2011).

The division of the Telephone technology industry due to newer technology or regulatory action

According to WU, the communication industry is best regulated through ‘information morality’ (Raum, 2008). This is largely because the communication industry is a unique one and with rapid developments and high levels of volatility, it commonly fails without appropriate regulation. Ownership, concentration and structure in the industry constantly changes due to constant technological development (Coe, 2011). Wu also believes that the industry is best regulated by information freedom and openness as opposed to regulation by a government or a single regulatory agency because they can adversely impact on the level of innovation and flexibility in the industry (Raum, 2008).

Based on the principles that were proposed by Wu, it is evident that the telephone was developed as a free and open technology and this is what contributed to its growth and evolution into the current highly digitized technology industry (Casson, 2013). During its inception years, the telephone industry was highly divided, with different individuals and organizations developing different technological components that were used to enhance the efficiency of the telephone technology (Kuskey, 2016). With time, the industry experienced consolidation with only specific major players dominating the industry. For instance, during the 1990’s, the telephone industry was largely dominated by Motorola and Nokia. The dominance of such companies was however reduced by the emergence of new technologies such as mobile phones that were internet enabled, and then the development of the touch screen phones and the two combined resulted in the emergence of the highly competitive smart phone industry (Raum, 2008). Currently, the industry is highly fragmented with different organizations striving to develop new and innovative technologies that enhance the usability of the smart phones. With this division, there is no clear monopoly in the market; however there are some companies that can be considered as jointly dominating the market, for instance Apple and Samsung corporations (Casson, 2013).


From a general perspective, it can be concluded that the telephone industry embodies what Wu termed as ‘The Cycle’. The constant evolution of the industry constantly represents what Wu postulated as steps that are involved in the cycle. The telephone was developed as a free and open technology and this facilitated its continuous development. However, its emergence led to the decline of the telegram technology which was previously regarded as the most effective communication technology. The constant evolution of the telephone technology shows that the development of new technologies divide the industry, before particular industry giants consolidate the industry, which is again divided by further technological development.



Casson, H. N. (2013). The history of the telephone. New York: Cosimo, Inc. (Casson, 2013)

Coe, L. (2011). The telephone and its several inventors: A history. Jefferson, NC [u.a.: McFarland.

Fischer, C. S. (2012). America calling: A social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kuskey, J. (2016). Listening to the Victorian Telephone: Class, Periodicals, and the Social Construction of Technology. Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 38(1), 3-22. doi:10.1080/08905495.2015.1105506

Raum, E. (2008). The history of the telephone. Chicago, Ill: Heinemann Library.

Temin, P., & Peters, G. (2013). Is History Stranger Than Theory? The Origin of Telephone Separation. American Economic Review, 75(2), 324

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