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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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4.4 What was innovative about the telephone?

The most obvious innovative aspect was that speech was being transmitted, so in principle anyone could use a telephone for communication. The use of the telegraph required skilled operatives. A message had to be translated into the dots and dashes of Morse code and transmitted using a single keypad making and breaking the connection in an electrical circuit. At the other end of the wire another Morse operator translated the received clicks into the words of the message. With the telephone no specialised skills or training were needed to use it and the efficiency of communication was not limited by the speed and translating ability of the Morse operators. As a means of communicating across distance the telephone was easier to use and more efficient. Quite a competitive advantage.

However, for early versions of the telephone much of this advantage was merely potential. It needed improvements in performance and a considerable growth in the telephone network before significant numbers of people were prepared to switch from the telegraph. Subsequent innovations, such as the manual exchange, pay phones, the automatic exchange, metering, trunk dialling and the more recent introduction of digital systems, have all contributed to the spread of the telephone as a technological product.