Though Antonio Meucci invented the first basic telephone in 1849, and Charles Bourseul designed a phone in 1854, it was Alexander Graham Bell who won the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876. His famous line, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” was the beginning of a growing industry across the globe, edging out the telegraph as a faster way to communicate information.

New Technology, 1870 to 1874

In the early 1870s, electricity was the latest up-and-coming technology. The telegraph had been a successful venture that spread across the country and the Atlantic, and young inventors knew that it was only a stepping stone to sending multiple messages over a single wire, or even sending a voice over that wire. Alexander Graham Bell was developing voice transmission and a harmonic telegraph by 1872. He realized in 1874 that to transmit a complex human voice, he would need a current that could manage continuous electric waves.

Getting Closer, 1875

Bell managed to transmit speech sounds in 1875, but they were not understandable. He prepared to file a patent for “an improvement in telegraphy,” but held off due to a promise he had made to a backer, George Brown, to file a British patent first. However, Brown did not apply for the patent.

Successful Invention, 1876

Bell filed for, and was eventually awarded, the patent in 1876. On March 10, he spoke his famous words to Watson over his “liquid transmitter.” He presented his discovery to scientists in Boston and later to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The first private lines were installed in New England and quickly spread as Bell leased out patents for the equipment.

1877 and Beyond

Alexander Graham Bell had little interest in business. He helped create the Bell Telephone Company -- now modern-day AT&T -- but then married his sweetheart and pursued a life as an inventor and scientist. The first telephone line appeared outside of New England in Wisconsin in 1877, followed by a switchboard for 25 telephones. Within three years, there were approximately 49,000 telephones in use, and by 1900 there were 600,000 phones in the Bell telephone system.