Biography of Johann Philipp Reis

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Jcohann Philipp Reis, a German inventor, was the first to make a telephone. His invention was preceded or paralleled by Scottish-American Alexander Graham Bell, Italian Antonio Meucci and American Elisha Gray.

Philipp Reis was born on the 7th of January, 1834 in Gelnhausen, Germany, in a Jewish family. His father was a baker. In the infancy Philipp loosed both parents. Grandmother and guardian sent the ten-year boy whose talent was already obvious to his teacher in the elementary school, to the well known Garniersche private school in Friedrichsdorf (to the north-east of Bad Homburg).

There he learned not only mathematics, physics and chemistry, but also English and – what is natural in the huguenot establishment Friedrichsdorf – also French. Philip Reis began experimenting with sound devices in his teens. The first attempt by young Reis to reproduce and electrically transmit sound was to construct a crude assembly designed to imitate human ear functions. A violin case was the resonator, a hollowed-out beer can was the mouthpiece, a sausage casing was stretched across it to serve as a diaphragm!

In 1850 the 16-year-old Philipp Reis became an elementary school teacher in Friedrichsdorf. Although he was no entirely trained teacher, he knew how to tie up his pupils with interesting experiments. He was a self educated person and he continued his own education taking private lessons in physics and became a member of the “Physical Association of Frankfurt “. In 1852 he expressed for the first time his idea to generate sounds by means of electricity.

Philip Reis’ house in Friedrichsdorf

On 14th of September, 1859, Johann Philipp Reis was married in his hometown Gelnhausen with a daughter of his guardian with whom he had two children. Then he moved to Friedrichsdorf and began in autumn, 1859, teaching in the Garniersche school where he was previously a pupil. Today the former Reis home in Friedrichsdorf is a museum dedicated to the inventor and operated by the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

The telephone was invented by at least four different people in three different countries. Although Scottish-American Alexander Graham Bell is generally credited as the “winner” in the race to invent the telephone in the period between 1850 and 1876, his invention was preceded or paralleled by German Philipp Reis, Italian Antonio Meucci and American Elisha Gray.

In 1850, Reis began his work on the telephone (“artificial ear” according to his own definition) project by gathering some common materials found around his house in Friedrichsdorf, Germany, not far from Frankfurt. His essential idea came from a paper by a French investigator named Bourseul. In 1854 Bourseul had explained how to transmit speech electrically. He wrote: “Speak against one diaphragm and let each vibration “make or break” the electric contact.

The electric pulsations thereby produced will set the other diaphragm working, and [it then reproduces] the transmitted sound.” Only one part of Bourseul’s idea was shaky. To send sound, the first diaphragm shouldn’t make or break contact. It should vary the flow of electricity to the second diaphragm continuously. Reis used Bourseul’s term, “make or break,” but his diaphragm actually drove a thin rod to varying depths in an electric coil. He didn’t make and or break the current.

He varied it continuously. In a homemade lab in a shed in his backyard, and on a very limited budget, Reis assembled components that few people would associate with the construction of a telephone: a violin, a knitting needle, a large cork, a coil of wire, and a sausage. For his first experiments Reis used a sausage skin stretched across a hollowed-out cork as a membrane for his crude microphone. Using wax, he attached a metal contact to the membrane. This contact was linked to the strings of a violin, which served as a receiver or speaker. Later he would use an electromagnetic receiver.

In 1860 his attempts reached the successful phase, the first sentence transmitted by telephone was: “The horse eats no cucumber salad”. This demonstration was done 15 years before Bell took out a patent for a similar device. On March 22, 1876, a New York Times editorial entitled “The Telephone,” lauded Philip Reis as its inventor.

Bell was not mentioned in the editorial; evidently the writer had never heard of him. Bell later claimed to have transmitted his fabled message to Watson 12 days before that editorial appeared. In 1878, two years after Bell took out a patent for an “improvement” on the telephone, European physicists erected a monument to Philip Reis as its inventor. German textbooks accredited Reis with the invention until the Nazis expunged Reisas name from German literature. The name has now been only partially reinstated.

After years of work, Reis had refined his device to the point that he could present it to Frankfurt’s Physics Association (Der Physikalische Verein) on 26 October 1861. His lecture on “Telephony Using Galvanic Current” (“Das Telefonieren durch galvanischen Strom”) did not result in as much enthusiasm as Reis might have hoped for. The verses of a song were transmitted from the room over a three-hundred-foot line to a hospital room.

The presentation in 1861 was the first public demonstration of the successful conversion of electrical into auditory waves. Thereafter, there were many other public demonstrations of improved versions of the telephone, a word Reis coined. In 1863 a mechanical workshop of Johann Valentin Albert manufactured 50 copies of his “Telephon” (Reis was one of the first to coin the term), and a few more copies were made in England. Unfortunately, the Reis telephone was not practical enough to be a commercial success.

It could transmit sound, particularly music, but it was difficult to understand the spoken word. The diaphragm was too delicate. A German company produced them with inconsistent results. Some worked well. Some transmitted only static. An engraving (left) shows Reisa self-portrait with the seventh form of his telephone, demonstrated before the Free German Institute in Frankfort on May 11, 1862.

Reis telephone (1861): a scheme (left) and a model (right)

Reis developed his invention; in the course of the time appeared 10 different forms of the transmitter (today microphone named) and 4 of the receiver. It should be noted that a tenth version of Reisa telephone was already marketed in Europe before Alexander Bell applied for a patent on an “improvement on telephony.”

Henry demonstrated this telephone transmitter made by Philipp Reis to twenty-seven-year-old Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. On that occasion, Bell showed his own sound-transmitting device to Henry, who encouraged him to pursue the invention of the telephone. “Such a chimerical idea as telegraphing vocal sounds would indeed to most minds seem scarcely feasible,” Bell wrote his parents after his visit with Henry. But Henry convinced him that it was feasible.

In his short life Philipp Reis accomplished a remarkable feat that brought him neither wealth nor fame. Reis was sickly, and impoverished, with neither the means nor the stamina to capitalize on the device.

Caused by a rapidly progressive lung consumption Reis could hardly speak since 1872 and he had to give up his occupation. In 1874 he passed away because of tuberculosis, only 40 years old, on the 14th of January in Friedrichsdorf.

The important contribution made by Johann Philipp Reis to the development of the modern telecommunication technology is memorized in Germany. There is a bust of Reis (left) and visitors of his museum in Friedrichsdorf can try a model of his telephone (right). Since 1987, the Philipp-Reis-Preis is awarded every two years to a promising German inventor under the age of 40.

A portrait of Johann Philipp Reis appears on a German stamp.

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