Today, we meet the forgotten inventor of the
long-distance telephone. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We aren't especially fair in
naming the heroes of invention. Who, after all,
were the real heroes of the electric light, the
computer, or the railroad train? Whose key idea
made the typewriter or the internal combustion
engine succeed? When all's said and done, these
questions are seldom resolved.
Take the telephone. In the United States we honor
Alexander Graham Bell. But he improved on earlier
telephone work by two Germans, Reis and Helmholtz.
And not just the Germans had been on the trail.
Eleven years before Bell's patent, an American
named Coopersmith was arrested when he tried to
raise money to build a telephone system. After the
arrest, a strident Boston Post
Well-informed people know it is impossible to
transmit the voice over wires and that were it
possible to do so the thing would be of no
By 1880, only four years after Bell's patent,
America had installed 60,000 telephones in 100
exchanges. Predictably, the public started asking
what stood in the way of inter-city phone systems.
Why couldn't they have long-distance service?
We were given long-distance systems soon enough by
François Van Rysselberghe. He was a
brilliant Belgian engineer who's almost unknown
today. He became a professor in the Ostend School
of Navigation while he was still a teenager, and he
was in his mid-thirties when he took an interest in
telegraph and telephone systems.
The first phone lines were, for convenience,
usually strung right alongside existing telegraph
lines. But the strong electric pulses in the
telegraph wires induced currents in the phone lines
and interfered with transmission. Then Rysselberghe
made one of those wonderfully bold steps that cast
an old problem into an entirely new form. He said,
why not run both signals on the same line! He
turned the problem into one of signal retrieval.
When Rysselberghe invented circuits to separate the
telephone and telegraph signals, we suddenly had
means for carrying telephone signals over really
long distances. In 1884 he telephoned the music of
Gounod from a Brussels concert hall to astonished
listeners in Antwerp. But his ambitions ran to
distances that were only to be found in America.
In 1886 he built a system that carried conversation
between New York and Chicago. He quickly went on to
develop systems all over South America and Europe.
Then, in 1893, his brief, bright career ended
abruptly in his death. We've long since left the
use of telegraph wires as phone lines, and
Rysselberghe has been forgotten. But imagine, if
you can, how the telephone would have developed if
he hadn't made that wonderfully clever step that
brought the telephone so quickly to the heart of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds