The telephone was introduced by Alexander Graham Bell at a world's fair, the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first commercial telephone followed shortly thereafter in 1877. Resembling a wood box camera, these camera or box phones, as they were variously called, lacked separate receivers and transmitters.
In fact, Bell’s failure to develop a powerful enough transmitter for his telephone allowed others to gain a toehold in this burgeoning market, which is why many late-19th-century wood telephones bear multiple patent numbers and names, including Emile Berliner, who would go on to invent the gramophone in 1887, and Thomas Edison, who was hired by Bell competitor Western Union.
Wood wall-mounted “coffin” telephones were the first phones put into wide circulation. Typically tall and bulky, they needed several compartments to hold the batteries and magneto (a hand cranked generator to signal an operator who actually placed the call). The earliest and most valuable wood phones were made by Charles Williams, Jr. of Boston. Williams had been an early telegraph manufacturer, and also made hardware for Edison and Bell. Coffin phones from the late 1870s produced by Williams for Bell were frequently made of mahogany and sometimes featured Blake transmitters and Roosevelt automatic switch hooks.
Another type of wood wall phone was the three-box telephone, which featured a receiver and bells on the top box, a transmitter in the middle box, and a battery box at the bottom, with a flat or inclined horizontal surface for jotting down notes. One of Bell’s former suppliers, Western Electric, made wood wall phones. Later, in 1882, Bell took over the company and turned it into its manufacturing division.
By the end of the 1880s, handsome hardwoods such as walnut and cherry were used to manufacture the housings for wood phones, but in the 1890s, phones were being mass-produced of oak. New shapes such as the fiddleback were also gaining popularity as a more stylish alternative to the boxy coffin. But as technology improved, wall phones were pushed aside by newer, more compact candlestick telephones, although wood phones continued to be manufactured until World War II.
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