Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/The Telephone, with a Sketch of its Inventor, Philipp Reis
By WILLIAM F. CHANNING, M. D.
A BOOK of absorbing public interest is announced shortly to appear in England and this country—a history of the telephone of Johann Philipp Reis, with a biographical sketch of its inventor, by Professor Sylvanus P. Thompson.
The telephone outranks all previous discoveries in its direct enlargement of human power. The telescope and microscope are its nearest compeers. The telegraph, beside it, is a clumsy mechanism. The telephone, which makes a whispering-gallery of the round earth, may well exert an influence on civilization, comparable with that of the railroad and steamship. Already the business centers expand, and the values of city lands change, under the magic of an invention which places every man at every other man's ear. But this promise or prophecy of the telephone is not all that affects the interest of the American people. There is a menace in connection with its present history which justly awakens public concern. Rapacious hands have clutched the throat of the telephone, to extort oppressive tribute for every word which it utters.
Professor Thompson's book, which treats exhaustively the early history of the telephone, is therefore not only of scientific but of social interest and importance. It establishes beyond honest doubt or question, by historical evidence, by the reproduction of original documents and illustrations, and by the public records of scientific bodies, that Philipp Reis discovered the electric transmission of speech in 1860-'61; that he elaborately described and exhibited his telephone in 1861; that he invented transmitting and receiving instruments, which not only talked then and talk now, but which include the essential principles of the transmitters and receivers now in use; and that he manufactured, placed on the market, and sold his instruments in 1863, for the purpose of illustrating the electric transmission of speech and song. That an invention so important, made in the heart of Germany, should not have been instantly perfected and utilized would surprise us in this country, if history did not abundantly teach that inventions complete in themselves often lie sterile until the favorable season and soil are found for their commercial adoption and development.
The following pages are a hurried and imperfect abstract from advanced-sheets of this book, which, besides its wealth of historical matter and its affluence of illustration, contains much of scientific value contributed directly by Professor Thompson.
The biographical sketch of Reis, with which the book begins, possesses an interest independent of his connection with the telephone. Philipp Reis, as he is generally called, was born January 7, 1834, in the small provincial town of Gelnhausen in Cassel, in which his father was a master-baker and farmer. His education began with the best of all teaching—object-teaching by his father, and moral and religious inculcation by a grandmother. The German common school followed, in which his early proficiency induced plans for a higher education, which were thwarted by his father's death when Philipp was less than ten years old.
He, however, went to the institute at Friedrichsdorf, where he became specially interested in the study of English and French, and where the valuable library of the institution was a store of nourishment for his mind. At fourteen he was promoted to Hassel's Institute at Frankfort-on-the-Main. Here he learned Latin and Italian, and distinguished himself by his devotion to the natural sciences and mathematics.
Compelled at sixteen to enter as an apprentice in a color establishment, he devoted all his leisure time to his continued education. A little later he is at the institute of Dr. Poppe in Frankfort, and one of several young men who mutually instructed each other. This experience induced Reis to look forward to teaching as his future vocation.
In 1851 he became a member of the Physical Society of Frankfort, of which Professor Böttger, Professor Abbe, and Dr. Oppel were active members. In 1855 he gave his year of military service. In Frankfort again, with marvelous energy he worked in the laboratory and pursued the higher branches of education. In 1858 he accepted a position as teacher in natural science in the institute of Hofrath Garnier, in Friedrichsdorf, the same in which he had been a student; and in 1859 he married and founded his peaceful home.
In 1859 he undertook an original research "On the Radiation of Electricity," and a paper on the subject, offered to Poggendorf for his "Annalen," was declined—the rejection being felt as a serious blow by the young and sensitive teacher.
His lessons in physics in 1860 stimulated him to the construction of the first electric telephone, which, indeed, he had attempted several years before. In a little workshop behind his house he made the first telephone with his own hands, carrying the wires thence to an upper room of the dwelling, and also from the physical cabinet of Garnier's Institute across the play-ground into one of the class-rooms, for experimental telephonic communication—the boys, it is said, being afraid to make a noise in the class-room lest Herr Reis should hear them while among his instruments.
In 1861 Reis exhibited his telephone to the Physical Society of Frankfort, and his elaborate and illustrated memoir on that occasion appears in its "Annual" for 1860-'61.
In 1862 Reis sent a memoir on the telephone to Poggendorf for his "Annalen," which was again declined, despite the advocacy of Professor Bottger and Professor Midler of Freiburg—Poggendorf "treating the transmission of speech by electricity as a myth." Reis felt this rejection very keenly, ascribing it to his inferior position as a poor schoolmaster.
Between 1861 and 1864 Reis gave public exhibitions of his telephone before various scientific bodies, and it became widely known. In addition to his own lectures and papers on the telephone, it was the subject of lectures and reports by prominent men in various parts of Germany, and in 1863 it was exhibited to the Emperor of Austria and King Max of Bavaria, then on a visit to Frankfort. Telephones, also, were sent to various parts of the world, and were manufactured for Reis by Albert, of Frankfort, and sold for scientific illustrative use in 1863. It is related that, in September, 1864, after a successful exhibition before the Association of German Naturalists at Giessen, he received at last an invitation from Poggendorf to prepare an account of the telephone for the "Annalen." Reis replied, thanking him, and telling him that it was too late, that he should not send it, and that his apparatus would become known without description in the "Annalen."
If this offer had not been refused by Reis, the diffusion of the telephone would probably have taken place at a much earlier day. It did not, however, pass out of sight. It was figured and described in encyclopaedias and text-books in different languages. Reis's telephone in England was the subject of experiment and improvement; and it is even rumored with a good deal of probability that his instruments were so far improved in a German neighborhood in Pennsylvania that fluent talking was obtained some years before the revival of the telephone in this country by Gray and Bell.
The year 1864 was probably the culminating point of Reis's career in connection with the telephone, though his labors continued. He proclaimed the invention of the speaking telephone as an accomplished scientific fact, and confidently predicted its practical commercial application. The indifference with which his discovery was often received, and the rebuffs which he encountered, told on a sensitive temperament, and still more on a body struggling with a fatal disease in the early prime of life. For several years he discharged his professional duties only by great effort. We can see the poor schoolmaster of Friedrichsdorf, who had created the telephone, striving at disadvantage to earn the necessaries of life for his wife and children, though we have no precise information of his family. Disabled finally by hæmorrhage of the lungs and loss of voice, he disposed of all his instruments to Garnier's Institute, and died of consumption, January 14, 1874, at forty years of age.
Four years later, in 1878, the Physical Society of Frankfort erected an obelisk of red sandstone over his grave in Friedrichsdorf bearing upon it a medallion of the great inventor.
The description of Reis's telephone is divided naturally into two sections. Here, fully illustrated in Professor Thompson's book, we have ten forms of transmitter, all imitating the mechanism of the ear, and applying the vibrations of an artificial tympanum to vary or modulate a current of electricity, by varying the degree of contact at a loose joint in the circuit, one or both of the members at this point of contact having an elastic bearing. This is the essential principle and method, leaving out certain adjuncts, of the most approved modern transmitters. In the very first transmitter made by Reis, in 1860 or 1861, a little curved lever is attached by one end to the center of an elastic tympanum, while the other end makes varying contact with a delicate spring, regulated by an adjusting screw—the surfaces of contact being of platinum—and the lever and spring included in a telephonic circuit equipped with a galvanic battery and receiver.
Of the receivers four forms are given. The first receiver made by Reis consisted of a knitting-needle wound with a helix of silk-covered copper wire, one end of which knitting-needle was thrust into the bridge of a violin, which served as a sounding box. This instrument was given to Reis for the purpose by Herr Peter, the music-teacher of Gamier Institute, and it is now preserved with other relics in the museum of that institution. In the second form the helix was laid horizontally upon a sounding-box (a cigar-box), and the knitting-needle, passed through it without contact, was supported by a "bridge" at each end. The third form was the electro-magnetic which will be described in connection with Fig. 1. Of this class of receivers Reis himself writes, "Electro-magnetism affords the possibility of calling into life, at any given distance, vibrations similar to the vibrations that have been produced (in the transmitter), and in this way to give out again in one place tones (sounds) that have been produced in another place." In the fourth form of receiver Reis recurred to the "knitting needle," more elaborately arranged. This is shown in Fig. 2.
Among these instruments of Reis are two noteworthy types of transmitter and two of receiver. They all happen to be grouped in two very early illustrations, published in the proceedings of learned bodies, and therefore of the highest authenticity. The first of these is contained in the report by Wilhelm von Legat to the Austro-German Telegraph Verein in 1862, printed in the journal of that society, and reprinted verbatim in Dingler's "Polytechnisches Journal" for 1863. This is shown in Fig. 1.
The transmitter in Fig. 1 consists of a conical tube, a, closed at the smaller end by a collodion membrane, o, on the center of which rests the end of a very light bent lever, c d, supported at e, and thrown
forward into contact with the spring g by the delicate spring n. The spring g is adjustable by the screw h. The electric connections will be easily traced. In the description, g is explicitly described as a spring; and the essential feature to be observed in this type is the current regulator, or loose-contact mechanism, consisting of the spring g bearing on the lever c d, actuated by the elastic membrane o.
The receiver in this figure consists of an electro-magnet, m, on a sounding-board, with an armature, regulated by an adjustable spring, g, pendulum-mounted, and "connected with a lever, i, which is as long as possible, but light and broad." This expansion of the armature is for the purpose of increasing its superficial contact with the air for the propagation of sound-waves. The Reis armature, so equipped, is the equivalent of the "diaphragm" in what is commonly called "the Bell receiver," a form, however, which appears to have originated with Elisha Gray. In the "Bell receiver" the diaphragm is an elastic, expanded, circular armature. The Reis electro-magnetic receiver is thus a complete and perfect anticipation of that of Yeates, of Dublin, in 1865, and of the later receiver of Gray or Bell. The function of all is to move an elastically supported armature backward and forward, and so throw it into vibrations corresponding to those imparted by the sound-waves to the transmitting apparatus.
Fig. 2 is copied from the "Prospectus" of Reis, dated August, 1863, containing instructions to accompany the telephones constructed for him, and sold by W. Albert, of Frankfort. The transmitter here shown has been usually called the "box-instrument." In this type, instead of a spring adjustment of the current-regulator or loose-contact mechanism, as in Fig. 1, we have the angle-shaped "Hammerchen," as Reis called it, or little hammer, poised on the supports a b,
and resting by gravity on the strip of platinum-foil at the center of the tympanum seen below. A little drop of mercury at b makes perfect electric communication between the little hammer and neighboring screw-cup. The elastic feature of this loose-contact arrangement is confined to the animal or other membrane of the tympanum itself. The mouth-tube communicates with the inside of the box or air-chamber, and the sound-waves act upon the tympanum from bellow. On the side of the box are seen a telegraph key, e, and sounder, for signalizing between the transmitting and receiving stations. This is the transmitter successfully used, as will be seen, by Yeates, in Dublin, in 1865. So sensitive was this transmitter that it was found unnecessary, in its early use, to speak directly into the mouth-piece; and in practice the speaker talked and sang at a little distance from it. In the reports of experiments with this instrument the rattling noises which were sometimes complained of as heard in the receiver were undoubtedly due to the complete breaking of the circuit by too loud talking or singing in the mouth-piece. The Berliner and Blake transmitters are liable, unless specially guarded, to the same misadventure from the same cause.
The receiver in Fig. 2 is Reis's latest form of the "knitting-needle" instrument. A helix of insulated wire is attached horizontally to a sounding-box. Through the helix a steel wire or knitting-needle is passed without contact, and supported at each end by a bridge. The vibrations of this knitting-needle magnet, corresponding exactly to the vibrations of the tympanum of the transmitter, are converted into sound-waves by the extended surface of the box acting upon the air. On the side of the box is a telegraph-key to communicate back to the transmitter. The code of signals suggested in the accompanying "Prospectus" contains the following:
"One tap sing.
An original telegraphic letter alphabet is also suggested, showing how slight was Reis's acquaintance with ordinary telegraphing.
Fig. 3 represents the form of transmitter, figured and described by Reis in his first memoir of 1861. I present it, out of chronological order, on account of its simplicity and close resemblance to the modern transmitters. A conical chamber, a b, is bored through a cubical block and is closed at d by a membrane. A platinum strip, b, extends from the screw-cup p, to the center of the membrane d, to which it is attached. From the screw-cup n a spring, n d, carrying a platinum style, makes contact at d with the platinum strip p d. This original instrument, presented by Reis to Professor Böttger, is now in the possession of Professor Thompson. It has an adjusting screw in the course of the spring n d.
Reis's claim as an inventor is discussed by Professor Thompson and fully substantiated under the three following heads: "1. Reis's telephone was expressly intended to transmit speech. 2. Reis's telephone, in the hands of Reis and his contemporaries, did transmit speech. 3. Reis's telephone will transmit speech." Before bringing forward evidence on these points, Professor Thompson disposes of a current prejudice against Reis's telephone, which has been not altogether innocently created. It has been called a "tone-telephone," or musical telephone, by those interested in relegating it to the category of harmonic instruments. Reis called it neither an articulating nor tone telephone, but simply "Das Telephon." He spoke habitually of reproducing any and all sounds through its agency, the German word used being Ton, plural Töne, which is nearly the equivalent of our English word "sound." By transferring the German word (untranslated) to the English it has been attempted to narrow the scope of his discovery as stated in his own words. It is in place here to say that Reis was no musician, and could hardly distinguish one tune from another.
Reis's first memoir on the telephone, delivered before the Physical Society of Frankfort-on-the-Main, in 1861, and printed in their "Annual" for the same year, begins thus: "The surprising results in the domain of telegraphy have often already suggested the question whether it may not be possible to communicate the very 'tones' [sounds] of speech direct to a distance." He says that "the cardinal question" always was "how could a single instrument reproduce at once the total action of all the organs operated by human speech." Could the expression of intention be plainer? He says, again: "Until now , it has not been possible to reproduce the 'tones' [sounds] of human speech with a distinctness to satisfy everybody. The consonants are for the most part tolerably distinctly reproduced, but the vowels not yet in an equal degree." Was this only a "tone-telephone"? He proceeds to show the cause of the difficulty in the case of vowels by diagrams of the undulating curves representing consonant and vowel sounds. The memoir concludes thus: "There may probably remain much to be done toward making the telephone of practical commercial value. For physics, however, it has already sufficient interest in that it has opened out a new field of labor. . . . Philipp Reis, December, 1861." It will be observed that this date precedes the improved forms of Reis's telephone, by which the somewhat better practical articulation, hereafter testified to, was obtained. But, even on this showing, what can be plainer than that Reis was the originator of the new art of the electrical transmission of speech? Granting that the articulation at this time, and even in 1864, was poor—poorer even than Gray's in 1875, and Bell's in the spring of 1876—it was still articulation, understood where the words were not foreknown by the listener.
With regard to the present capability of Reis's instruments, Professor Thompson says that he has found the Reis transmitters competent to transmit both vowels and consonants with perfect distinctness; and from Reis's "knitting-needle receiver he has obtained articulation, exceeding, in perfection of definition of vowels and consonants, the articulation of any other telephone receiver he has ever listened to."
Among other contemporary documents, the important report of Legat on Reis's telephone to the Austro-German Telegraph Society in 1862 is reproduced in full. From this report we have taken one of the illustrations in this paper. The report is not only a description of Reis's instruments, but an elaborate discussion of the problems connected with the telephonic reproduction of sounds, including the transmission of speech. The documents of this date show that the subject of telephony was usually studied in connection with vocal song rather than simple speech, and that the transmission of musical sounds, which was generally successful, was preferred for illustration to the more difficult, but also much more important, transmission of words and sentences. But the fact of articulation continually appears.
In a chapter containing the testimony of contemporary witnesses, Professor G. Quincke, Professor of Physics in the University of Heidelberg, writes, under date of March 10, 1883, that he was present at Reis's exhibition before the Naturforscher Versamlung, at Giessen, 1864. He says: "I heard distinctly both singing and talking. I distinctly remember having heard the words of the German poem:
"'Ach, du lieber Angustin,
Ernst Horkeimer, a pupil of Reis, writes that he assisted him in most of his experiments prior to the spring of 1862; that the transmission of speech was Reis's chief aim; "the transmitting of musical tones being only an after-thought, worked out for the convenience of public exhibition," and that some words were successfully transmitted without previous arrangement, but not (at that date) whole sentences. He states that Reis anticipated the use of thin metallic tympanums, and tried one, varnished with shellac on both sides, except the central point of contact.
Léon Gamier, proprietor and principal of the institute of which Reis was a teacher, states that he often talked with Reis through his telephone for an hour at a time, the distance of the stations from each other being about one hundred and fifty feet. He says: "I remember especially that Mr. Reis speaking through his instrument I distinctly heard the words, 'Guten Morgen, Herr Fischer'; 'Ich komme gleich'; 'Passe auf'; 'Wie viel Uhr ist es?' 'Wie heisst du?'" Heinrich Hold, a colleague of Reis in the same institute, gives detailed testimony of talking successfully through the telephone. Heinrich F. Peter, the musical teacher, then and still at Garnier's Institute, says, "Philipp Schmidt read long sentences from Spiess's 'Turnbuch,' which sentences Philipp Reis, who was listening, understood perfectly, and repeated to us." Being incredulous, and to further test it, Herr Peter spoke some impromptu nonsensical sentences through the telephone, such as "Die Sonne ist von Kupfer," which Reis understood as "Die Sonne ist von Zucker."
Mr. S. M. Yeates, instrument-maker of Dublin, writes that in 1865 he exhibited Reis's telephone to the Dublin Philosophical Society, substituting an improved electro-magnetic receiver for the knitting-needle receiver (shown in Fig. 2), the transmitter being the same as in that figure. Yeates's receiver was an electro-magnet with a vibrating armature, mounted on a spring attached to a sounding-box. William Frazer, M. D., member of the Council of the Royal Irish Academy, writes, March 13, 1883, that he was present on this occasion, that various questions were asked and answered, and that "the separate words were most distinct, the singing less so." The individual who spoke was easily recognized by his voice. (It has been stated elsewhere that Yeates improved the Reis transmitter by placing a drop of water between the platinum surfaces of loose contact.)
In an appendix, which is not really separable from nor less important than the rest of the work, Professor Thompson discusses the relation of Reis's instruments to those now in use, and also Reis's development and use of the variable or "undulatory" electric current, corresponding to the undulatory curves of sound-pressure, which he graphically represents, and to which he often refers.
In the first section, Professor Thompson points out that Reis's transmitters preserve throughout, first, the tympanum to collect the voice-waves, and, second, two or more electric elements in loose or imperfect contact with each other, so combined with the tympanum that the motions of the latter correspondingly alter the current of electricity flowing between the contact-pieces. Reis's apparatus is not, therefore, an "interruptor," but a "current-regulator." The contact-pieces, one or both, were mounted with adjustable springs, or held together by gravity, so as to vary the current without completely breaking contact, in the same way, and for the same purpose, as in the Berliner, Blake, and other modern transmitters. Disregarding induction-coils and other accessories, the fundamental principle of these later instruments is the combination of a tympanum with a current-regulator, identical with the combination used by Reis. Too loud shouting in either the Reis or Blake transmitters spoils the articulation by breaking the circuit.
Reis's transmitters have been called make- and break-circuit instruments. If so, the Berliner and Blake transmitters, operating on the same principle, are also make- and break-circuit instruments. If, on the other hand, the Berliner and Blake transmitters, by their current-regulators, determine undulatory electric currents, in correspondence with the sound-waves, the Reis transmitters, by the same mechanism, necessarily do the same.
The identity of the mechanism of the current-regulators in four of Reis's transmitters with the mechanism in six modern forms of transmitter is strikingly exhibited by Professor Thompson in a comparative plate.
In connection with the Reis current-regulator, now in almost universal use, it has been in later times found generally advisable to use an induction-coil. It is an interesting fact in the evolution of the telephone, though it may not be stated in the book before us, that Ferguson's chemistry, published in 1868, states that Dr. Wright in England used a Reis transmitter in the primary circuit of an induction-coil. The combination of current-regulator and induction-coil in the modern transmitters is therefore old.
In the third section of the appendix, Reis's receivers are compared with recent instruments. The examination in this case, also, is much aided by a comparative plate. Reis's electro-magnetic receiver is shown to combine the three following essential elements, which enter into the Yeates, Gray, Bell, Edison, and other receivers: 1. An armature acted on by an electro-magnet; 2. An armature elastically mounted; 3. An armature of sufficiently extended surface to set in motion aerial sound-waves. This discussion has been anticipated in previous pages. Professor Thompson, in summing up his close analysis, points to Reis as the genius by whom the essential principles of all the electro-magnetic receivers now in use were discovered and combined so as to reproduce articulate speech.
A section in the appendix is devoted to the "undulatory" current in Reis's telephone. We have already seen that the function of the Reis transmitter was to vary the strength of the electric current, and not to break it. Reis was accustomed to speak of opening and closing the circuit in describing these instruments, not in the technical sense of modern telegraphy, nor with the idea of sending intermittent signals, but in the sense of increasing or diminishing the current, without going so far as absolutely to break it. This is abundantly proved by the context in his descriptions, and by the operation of his instruments. He states, in his first memoir, that, to reproduce any sound, or combination of sounds, all that is necessary is to set up in the receiver vibrations whose curves are identical with those of the sounds, or combination of sounds, in the transmitter. And he represents graphically the undulatory curves of consonant and vowel sounds, byway of illustration. Between the transmitter and receiver, on whose necessary identity of vibrations he constantly insists, he employs an electric current as the intermediate, to take on, in its wave-motions or polarizations, all the possible variations of the sound-waves striking on the transmitter, and to give them up again to the receiver. Reis, without talking about "undulatory" currents, makes them the staple of his telephone.
Professor Thompson, without the least imputation of plagiarism, shows, in parallel columns, the identity of expression between Reis and Bell, in their statement of the essential principles of the telephone. The impression of the identity of Reis's and Bell's discovery grows, page by page, during the perusal of this book.
The conclusion reached by Professor Thompson, from the survey of the whole field—a conclusion which seems to be fully borne out by the facts adduced—is the following: "There is not, in the telephone exchanges of England to-day, any single telephone to be found in which the fundamental principles of Reis's telephone are not the essential and indispensable features."
This conclusion makes the speaking telephone, in its elementary form, free to the whole world. It opens wide the door for the future development of the telephone; and it should assure to all those who, by their genius and industry, in our day and generation, have improved or may improve the telephone, an ample pecuniary reward. The recompense due to the family of Philipp Reis should take the form hereafter not of a tax, but a free gift from the world's gratitude.
This book comes, then, as a charter of freedom of speech in a larger sphere than ever before known.
In the light of historic facts which this book establishes, the decision of the courts of the United States that Professor Bell is the discoverer of a new and useful art (the electric transmission of speech), to which he has exclusive title, must be reversed as speedily as possible, that our courts may retain the respect of the people of the United States.