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Johann Philipp Reis

by Bob Estreich

The work of Reis predated that of Bell and Edison, and so he may well have invented the first telephone by some definitions. Unfortunately, due to politics and commercial considerations, he did not receive the credit he was due during his lifetime.

Reis was born in 1834 in Gelnhausen, a little town in Germany. His father died early, and Reis was destined to become a farmhand, but his intelligence was noted by the local schoolmaster. He was sent off instead to Garnier's Institute in Friedrichsdorf to further his education. He learned French and English and little other useful knowledge apart from what the school library offered. When he was fourteen he moved to Hassel's Institute in Frankfort-am-Main. Here he learned Latin and Italian, this being considered appropriate education in those days. His interest in science began to show out but it would not pay the bills. An uncle apprenticed him into the "colour trade".

Reis continued to study in his own time, and took private lessons in mathematics and physics. He also attended the lectures on Mechanics run by Professor Bottger at the local Trade School. When his apprenticeship ended he moved to Frankfurt to Dr Poppe's Institute. He privately taught other students Geography, which was not taught at the school, and found he enjoyed teaching. He also found the time to join the Physical Society of Frankfurt.

His first paper, "On The Radiation Of Electricity", was submitted to the Annalen Der Physik journal in 1859. It was rejected, which was a blow to the sensitive young man.

Reis turned his attention to building a device to transmit sound by electricity. He started to achieve some success, and it is noted that the first words successfully transmitted were "the horse eats no cucumber salad". The results were encouraging, and he submitted another article to the Journal in 1862. This was also rejected, but it is significant in that he called his device a "Telephon" the first appearance of the name in connection with electrical sound transmission. His device was based on the theories of M. Charles Bourseil, a French telegraphist, who in 1854 suggested a device that would make or break an electrical current under the influence of a diaphragm. The make-or-break current would then generate a similar sound in a receiver. Bourseil stated prophetically "in a more or less distant future, speech will be transmitted by electricity". He actually built such a device, but found its adjustment was critical and its results inconclusive, so he did not proceed with it.

Reis knew of the principle of the "Page Effect", which later became known as Magnetostriction. An iron needle or rod surrounded by a coil of wire would be moved by a variable current flowing through the coil and produce a "tick" sound. A succession of ticks generated a tone, which Page called "Galvanic Music". Reis used this principle to build a basic receiver, and attached the mechanism to part of a violin to act as a sounding board.

His transmitter was carved out of a beer barrel bung in an approximation of the human ear. A sausage skin formed the diaphragm. A tiny strip of platinum glued to the diaphragm acted as one electrical contact, and another bead fixed to an adjusting screw as the other. The device worked, to everyones amazement. It is now held in the Reichs Post-Amt Museum in Berlin. It transmitted simple musical tones, but could not handle the complex waveforms of the human voice. He published his results in the Jahresbericht journal in 1861 after demonstrating it to the Physical Society of Frankfurt. It worked at the demonstration only by means of constant critical adjustment. Reis recorded that "the consonants are for the most part tolerably distinctly reproduced, but the vowels not yet in an equal degree".

Improvements followed in the second and subsequent models, but apart from a few muffled words here and there it was never a reliable transmitter of speech. The third and later models used a cubic block of wood bored out in a cone shape, with the diaphragm across the top. The small platinum strip was replaced by a centre contact held against the diaphragm by a metal tripod spring arrangement. Sound was fed to the diaphragm by a speaking tube. It was put into limited production by J Albert of Frankfurt and later by Hauck of Vienna.

Despite the Telephon's less than impressive performance it was widely noticed in scientific circles. During its production, information and copies were sent abroad. It was demonstrated before many scientific societies.

It was only after the introduction of Bell's telephone as a practical device that the importance of his work was fully recognised. This was mainly as a result of the court cases that tried to annul Bell's patent by citing Reis as the true inventor. When Antonio Meucci challenged Bell's patent, he was able to append sixty one scientific articles citing Reis as the inventor of the telephone.

Amos Dolbear used Reis' work to prove the validity of his own phone. When American Bell brought the inevitable patent infringement suit, Dolbear set out to demonstrate in court that Reis' 1860 telephone worked. This would make Bell's patent invalid. The demonstration became an embarrassing disaster for Dolbear. Electricians, lawyers and learned Professors tried to coax speech out the reluctant Telephon, but all they could get from it was squeaks and muffled noises. One of Dolbear's lawyers said in frustration "It can speak, but it won't."

Reis received some renown at this time, but since the invention did not appear to be proceeding anywhere it was gradually dismissed as a scientific curiosity or "philosophical toy". Again, Reis was disappointed .

The weakness of all his models was the make-or-break nature of the circuit. Up to a point this actually worked, as a sort of loose-contact transmitter. As soon as the voice became loud the circuit would break and there would be no further transmission until a return spring reestablished the contact.

Berliner and Blake later used the loose-contact principle to produce their (workable) transmitter. The similarity between their design and Reis' is unmistakable. The difference was that they deliberately set out to use the loose-contact principle, while Reis stuck doggedly to make-or-break, overlooking the fact that his transmitter did actually work better at low volume. He continued to stress make-or-break in his documentation. It was this that cost him the glory of being upheld as the telephone's inventor in the U.S courts. In 1881 Judge Lowell of the U.S. Circuit Court of Massachussetts ruled "The deficiency was inherent in the principle of the machine . A century of Reis would never have produced a speaking telephone by mere improvement in construction". That about summed it up.

Prof. David Hughes found that by using carbon rods he could make a microphone that worked by variable pressure, and was far more sensitive than the Reis transmitter, but he found the same problem as Reis and Berliner - at high volumes the circuit failed as the carbon pencils broke contact. Berliner worked around the problem by putting an induction coil across the circuit to maintain the contact and boost the signal.

It is interesting to note that both Bell and Edison later acknowledged Reis' work as part of the inspiration for their own, once the court cases had settled down. In Britain, where Reis' work was well known, Bell's patent application was tactfully called "Improvements In Electric Telephony and Telephonic Apparatus".

Reis' health was failing with the onset of tuberculosis. He found it difficult to keep up his teaching duties, and work on the Telephon was suspended. He died on January 14, 1874. Reis' work and achievements were later suppressed by the Nazis, and have only started to be acknowledged again in recent decades.

There are some interesting footnotes to Reis' work. When the Western Union company realized that Bell's telephone was starting to affect their revenue, they employed Edison to develop a competing phone for them. William Orton, the president of Western Union, gave Edison a translation of Reis' work as a starting point for his research. Edison's first carbon phone is very similar to that of Reis' apart from Edison's use of a carbon diaphragm. Orton later commented "I find it amusing that Bell is perceived as the man who spent his whole fortune defending his patent on the phone, when in fact all he did was spend his whole fortune patenting Philipp Reis' work".

A development of Reis' phone went into commercial production for the Dakota Emner Telephone Company and the Aberdeen Telephone Company in the U.S. in 1866. It was probably based on the second model, the most robust and simplest to build. The little information surviving does not give much detail. The phones were made by John Zietlow, a German immigrant, and Charles Emner, an electrician and discharged convict turned real estate agent. The companies were quite successful in their area, and their telephones were never challenged legally by American Bell. Zietlow's modifications apparently worked very well.

The British Post Office examined Reis' phone and concluded that with very careful adjustment it would definitely transmit speech. Their engineers used a step-up transformer and a modern receiver, which gave some improvement to the Telephon's low output. The BPO carried out its examination in 1932, and STC re-examined the transmitter in 1947. They confirmed the BPO's findings. They did not publish their conclusions at the time as they were engaged in negotiations with AT&T, the Bell company.

In belated recognition of a worthy man, the Philipp Reis Prize is awarded each two years since 1987 to a promising German inventor.


Brooks J. "Telephone, The First Hundred Years" 1975.
Meyer Ralph O. "Old Time Telephones! Technology, Restoration and Repair" 1995
Poole J "Practical Telephone Handbook" 1912
Thompson S P "Phillip Reis Inventor of the Telephone" 1883 as quoted in

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