The Telephone and Social Interaction

Before the phone was invented, people communicated by letter. While it was possible to send someone with a note or card if you wanted to get a message to an acquaintance or family member within the same town or city and get a reply in return. However, in general if the person you wanted to contact lived some distance away you could have an agonizing wait to find out what they were going to say.

The telephone made interaction easy and immediate – if you wanted to organize a night out or a party, you could do so straight away. However, the telephone was still regarded as rather casual for many years (even in the 70s, it was considered good manners to write an invitation rather than phone). It could take two weeks to organize a dinner party – nowadays you could have it all sewn up in 10 minutes.

In business, before the telephone, all interaction had to take place either by letter or face to face. Decisions could take weeks to come to pass and business meetings had to be organized around all the delegates’ timetables. Now, phones are used for many meetings, with conference calls (and videoconferencing) becoming increasingly common – a half-hour window in the diary is all you need. While the world has indeed got smaller, there is now far less need for professionals to travel around the world to meet clients and colleagues in other towns or even countries. They can talk in real time and make instant decisions.

The telephone has helped the move towards a more casual attitude when it comes to social and business interaction. No longer is the managing director just a name on the heading of a business letter, met only by senior managers allowed to travel to head office to see him or her. Now, they are at the end of the phone line, just like everybody else.

And the formal aspect of organizing your social life has also disappeared – nowadays the only time you’ll get a written invitation is to a wedding. A phone call is often all that’s needed to RSVP.

The rise of the mobile phone has accelerated this – we’re all available, 24-7, whether we’re on work time or not – and of course we are available at work to take social calls on our own mobiles. And when it comes to work, the telephone (along with the computer and the internet) has led to an expectation for instant results – make a call, get the sale; make a call and arrange that meeting; make a call and instantly get the figures you need to finish a presentation.

In some ways, it allows us to be less organized – you can always call to get that last detail you need for your report, or make a quick call to confirm where you’re going to meet for a drink – or call to say you’re on your way when you’ve caught the train. We all expect to be kept up to date, wherever we are and whatever the time of day. With the phone (and particularly the mobile phone) this is not an unrealistic expectation.

How does a telephone work?

Despite the fact that you can conference call people on the other side of the world on the phone, the telephone actually works along quite simple principles. Interestingly, the technology behind the phone in your home has not really changed over the past century. You could take a phone from the 1930s, plug it into the phone jack in your hall or living room and it would still work.

Inside the mouthpiece on the handset is a thin metal coating. Between this and an electrode is a thin barrier – these days it is made of plastic. This barrier is connected to a wire that carries the electric current.

When you speak into the mouthpiece, you create acoustic vibrations. This moves the metallic coating a little nearer to the electrode, which in turn creates voltage variations. This converts the acoustic energy into electrical energy.

These electrical pulses are carried along the wire to the speaker on the receiving end. The electric pulses are then turned back into acoustic energy – so you hear the voice on the other end of the phone. In a very simple phone, you would hear your own voice through the speaker, which would be rather annoying to say the least, so most phones feature something called a duplex coil, which stops the sound of your voice from getting back to your own ear!

So why do you need to convert the acoustic energy into electrical pulses? Well, electrical energy travels at the speed of light and as it travels along well-insulated wires, little of the energy is dispersed as it goes along. If you decided to send acoustic pulses along a metal pipe, for instance, the pipe would absorb the acoustic energy before it reached its desired destination.

So along with the speaker and microphone, the simplest phone only has one other core component – a hook switch that connects and disconnects the phone to and from the network. When you lift up the receiver, the hook switch connects you and then disconnects when you put down the receiver.

So how is your phone connected to the wider network? There is a pair of copper wires running from one box in the road to another box at your home. The wires are connected to each of the phone jacks in your house. The box in the road is connected to thick cable that consists of more than 100 pairs of copper wires, which run to another box that acts as a digital concentrator and then on to the phone company’s exchange, where it connects to the wider network.

Depending on where you are calling when you pick up your phone, the phone company either forms a loop between your own phone and the handset of the person you are calling, or, if it a long-distance call, it digitizes your voice (along with the voices of thousands of other callers!) and sends it on a long-distance network – it may go along a fibre-optic line – or even be sent via satellite.

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