Tin can telephone

Last updated
Fig 7 Le Telephone by T du Moncel Paris 1880 (Large) Fig 7 Le Telephone by T du Moncel Paris 1880 (Large).jpg
Fig 7 Le Telephone by T du Moncel Paris 1880 (Large)

A tin can phone is a type of acoustic (non-electrical) speech-transmitting device made up of two tin cans, paper cups or similarly shaped items attached to either end of a taut string or wire.


It is a particular case of mechanical telephony, where sound (i.e., vibrations in the air) is converted into vibrations along a liquid or solid medium. These vibrations are transmitted through the medium (string) and then converted back to sound.


Before the invention of the electromagnetic telephone, there were mechanical acoustic devices for transmitting spoken words and music over a greater distance, faster than the speed of sound in air. The very earliest mechanical telephones were based on transmission through pipes or other physical media, and among the very earliest experiments were those conducted by the British physicist and polymath Robert Hooke from 1664 to 1685. [1] [2] From 1664 to 1665 Hooke experimented with sound transmission through a taut distended wire. [3] An acoustic string phone is attributed to him as early as 1667. [4]

An 1886 advertisement for an acoustic telephone Consolidated Telephone Co. ad 1886.jpg
An 1886 advertisement for an acoustic telephone

The highly similar acoustic tin can telephone, or 'lover's phone', has also been known for centuries. It connects two diaphragms with a taut string or wire, which transmits sound by mechanical vibrations from one to the other along the wire (and not by a modulated electric current). The classic example is the children's toy made by connecting the bottoms of two paper cups, metal cans, or plastic bottles with tautly held string. [1] [5]

For a short period, acoustic telephones were marketed commercially as niche competitors to the electrical telephone, as they did not fall within the scope of its patent protection. When Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent expired and dozens of new phone companies flooded the marketplace, acoustic telephone manufacturers could not compete and quickly went out of business. Their maximum range was very limited, but technical innovations (resulting in about 300 patents) increased their range to approximately 0.5 miles (800 m), or more under ideal conditions. [5] An example of one such company was Lemuel Mellett's 'Pulsion Telephone Supply Company' of Massachusetts, which designed its version in 1888 and deployed it on railroad rights-of-way, purportedly with a range of 3 miles (4.8 km). [2] [6]

In the centuries before tin cans and paper cups became commonplace, other cups were used and the devices were sometimes called "lovers' telephones". During the 20th century, they came into common use in preschools and elementary schools to teach children about sound vibration.


An example of using a twisted loop to direct the string of a can phone into a new direction String with an anchored twist to change direction.jpg
An example of using a twisted loop to direct the string of a can phone into a new direction

When the string is pulled taut and someone speaks into one of the cans, its bottom acts as a diaphragm, converting the sound waves into longitudinal mechanical vibrations which vary the tension of the string. These variations in tension set up longitudinal waves in the string which travel to the second can, causing its bottom to vibrate in a similar manner as the first can, thus recreating the sound, which is heard by the second person.

The signal can be directed around corners with at least two methods: The first is to create a loop in the string which is then twisted and anchored to another object. [7] The second uses an extra can positioned on the apex of the corner; the string is threaded through the base of the can to avoid coming into contact with the object around which the signal is to be directed. [8]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stethoscope</span> Medical device for auscultation

The stethoscope is a medical device for auscultation, or listening to internal sounds of an animal or human body. It typically has a small disc-shaped resonator that is placed against the skin, with either one or two tubes connected to two earpieces. A stethoscope can be used to listen to the sounds made by the heart, lungs or intestines, as well as blood flow in arteries and veins. In combination with a manual sphygmomanometer, it is commonly used when measuring blood pressure.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone</span> Telecommunications device

A telephone is a telecommunications device that permits two or more users to conduct a conversation when they are too far apart to be easily heard directly. A telephone converts sound, typically and most efficiently the human voice, into electronic signals that are transmitted via cables and other communication channels to another telephone which reproduces the sound to the receiving user. The term is derived from Greek: τῆλε and φωνή, together meaning distant voice. A common short form of the term is phone, which came into use early in the telephone's history.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acoustic coupler</span>

In telecommunications, an acoustic coupler is an interface device for coupling electrical signals by acoustical means—usually into and out of a telephone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Robert Hooke</span> English scientist, architect, polymath (1635–1703)

Robert Hooke FRS was an English polymath active as a scientist, natural philosopher and architect, who is credited to be one of the first two scientists to discover microorganisms in 1665 using a compound microscope that he built himself, the other scientist being Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in 1674. An impoverished scientific inquirer in young adulthood, he found wealth and esteem by performing over half of the architectural surveys after London's great fire of 1666. Hooke was also a member of the Royal Society and since 1662 was its curator of experiments. Hooke was also Professor of Geometry at Gresham College.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Microphone</span> Device that converts sound into an electrical signal

A microphone, colloquially called mic or mike, is a transducer that converts sound into an electrical signal. Microphones are used in many applications such as telephones, hearing aids, public address systems for concert halls and public events, motion picture production, live and recorded audio engineering, sound recording, two-way radios, megaphones, and radio and television broadcasting. They are also used in computers for recording voice, speech recognition, VoIP, and for other purposes such as ultrasonic sensors or knock sensors.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Johann Philipp Reis</span> German scientist and inventor

Johann Philipp Reis was a self-taught German scientist and inventor. In 1861, he constructed the first make-and-break telephone, today called the Reis telephone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Antonio Meucci</span> Italian inventor (1808–1889)

Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci was an Italian inventor and an associate of Giuseppe Garibaldi, a major political figure in the history of Italy. Meucci is best known for developing a voice-communication apparatus that several sources credit as the first telephone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cymatics</span> Creation of visible patterns on a vibrated plate

Cymatics is a subset of modal vibrational phenomena. The term was coined by the Swiss physician Hans Jenny (1904-1972). Typically the surface of a plate, diaphragm, or membrane is vibrated, and regions of maximum and minimum displacement are made visible in a thin coating of particles, paste, or liquid. Different patterns emerge in the excitatory medium depending on the geometry of the plate and the driving frequency.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nathan Stubblefield</span> American wireless communication pioneer

Nathan Beverly Stubblefield was an American inventor best known for his wireless telephone work. Self-described as a "practical farmer, fruit grower and electrician", he received widespread attention in early 1902 when he gave a series of public demonstrations of a battery-operated wireless telephone, which could be transported to different locations and used on mobile platforms such as boats. While this initial design employed conduction, in 1908 he received a U.S. patent for a wireless telephone system that used magnetic induction. However, he was ultimately unsuccessful in commercializing his inventions. He later went into seclusion, and died alone in 1928.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Timeline of the telephone</span> Overview of the development of the modern telephone

This timeline of the telephone covers landline, radio, and cellular telephony technologies and provides many important dates in the history of the telephone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Amos Dolbear</span> American physicist

Amos Emerson Dolbear was an American physicist and inventor. Dolbear researched electrical spark conversion into sound waves and electrical impulses. He was a professor at University of Kentucky in Lexington from 1868 until 1874. In 1874 he became the chair of the physics department at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. He is known for his 1882 invention of a system for transmitting telegraph signals without wires. In 1899 his patent for it was purchased in an unsuccessful attempt to interfere with Guglielmo Marconi's wireless telegraphy patents in the United States.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Reis telephone</span> 19th-century musical telephone

The Reis telephone was an invention named after Philipp Reis of a telephone-like device he constructed. Reis's first successful work is dated to October 1861.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stroh violin</span> Mechanically amplified stringed musical instrument

The Stroh violin or Stroviol is a type of stringed musical instrument that is mechanically amplified by a metal resonator and horn attached to its body. The name Stroviol refers to a violin, but other instruments have been modified with the amplification device, including the viola, cello, double bass, ukulele, mandolin, and guitar. John Matthias Augustus Stroh, an electrical engineer in London, invented the instrument in 1899.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Invention of the telephone</span> Technical and legal issues surrounding the development of the modern telephone

The invention of the telephone was the culmination of work done by more than one individual, and led to an array of lawsuits relating to the patent claims of several individuals and numerous companies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carbon microphone</span> Microphone design

The carbon microphone, also known as carbon button microphone, button microphone, or carbon transmitter, is a type of microphone, a transducer that converts sound to an electrical audio signal. It consists of two metal plates separated by granules of carbon. One plate is very thin and faces toward the speaking person, acting as a diaphragm. Sound waves striking the diaphragm cause it to vibrate, exerting a varying pressure on the granules, which in turn changes the electrical resistance between the plates. Higher pressure lowers the resistance as the granules are pushed closer together. A steady direct current is passed between the plates through the granules. The varying resistance results in a modulation of the current, creating a varying electric current that reproduces the varying pressure of the sound wave. In telephony, this undulating current is directly passed through the telephone wires to the central office. In public address systems it is amplified by an audio amplifier. The frequency response of most carbon microphones, however, are limited to a narrow range, and the device produces significant electrical noise.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the telephone</span> 19th-century development of the modern telephone

This history of the telephone chronicles the development of the electrical telephone, and includes a brief overview of its predecessors. The first telephone patent was granted to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.

A water microphone or water transmitter is based on Ohm's law that current in a wire varies inversely with the resistance of the circuit. The sound waves from a human voice cause a diaphragm to vibrate which causes a needle or rod to vibrate up and down in water that has been made conductive by a small amount of acid. As the needle or rod vibrates up and down in the water, the resistance of the water fluctuates which causes alternating current in the circuit. For this to work, the resistance of the water must vary substantially over the short distance the needle or rod vibrates. Acidulated water works well because only a small amount of acid is added. If one millimeter of acidulated water has a resistance of 100 ohms, two millimeters would have 200 ohms which would produce enough alternating current to transmit audio signals in thousands of feet of wire. Mercury will not work because the resistance of one millimeter of mercury is less than a tenth of an ohm and vibration of a needle in mercury would produce negligible alternating current.

A phonofiddle is a class of stringed musical instruments that are played with a bow and use a phonograph type reproducer as a voice-box.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Grafton Page</span> American scientist

Charles Grafton Page was an American scientist who developed several electrical devices for which he obtained United States patents. He was also a physician, patent examiner, and college professor of chemistry. Like contemporaries Joseph Henry and Michael Faraday, Page began his career as a naturally curious investigator who conducted original research through direct observation and experimentation. Through his experimentation, Page helped develop a scientific understanding of the principles of electromagnetism. Page served as a patent examiner at the United States Patent Office, where his knowledge of electromagnetism was useful in the innovation process and in his own desire to develop electromagnetic locomotion. His work had a lasting impact on telegraphy and in the practice and politics of patenting scientific innovation. Page's views of patenting innovations challenged a commonly held belief at the time that maintained that scientists do not patent their inventions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Music technology (electric)</span> Musical instruments and recording devices that use electrical circuits

Electric music technology refers to musical instruments and recording devices that use electrical circuits, which are often combined with mechanical technologies. Examples of electric musical instruments include the electro-mechanical electric piano, the electric guitar, the electro-mechanical Hammond organ and the electric bass. All of these electric instruments do not produce a sound that is audible by the performer or audience in a performance setting unless they are connected to instrument amplifiers and loudspeaker cabinets, which made them sound loud enough for performers and the audience to hear. Amplifiers and loudspeakers are separate from the instrument in the case of the electric guitar, electric bass and some electric organs and most electric pianos. Some electric organs and electric pianos include the amplifier and speaker cabinet within the main housing for the instrument.


  1. 1 2 McVeigh, Daniel P. An Early History of the Telephone: 1664–1866: Robert Hooke's Acoustic Experiments and Acoustic Inventions Archived 2013-06-18 at the Wayback Machine , Columbia University website. Retrieved January 15, 2013. This work in turn cites:
    • Richard Waller and edited by R.T. Gunther. "The Postthumous Works of Robert Hooke, M.D., S.R.S. 1705. Reprinted in R.T. Gunther's "Early Science In Oxford", Vol. 6, p. 185, 25
  2. 1 2 Grigonis, Richard. A Telephone in 1665?, TMCNet Technews website, December 29, 2008.
  3. Preface to Micrographia (1665) «I have, by the help of a distended wire, propagated the sound to a very considerable distance in an instant». Micrographia - Extracts From The Preface
  4. Giles, Arthur (editor). County Directory of Scotland (for 1901-1904): Twelfth Issue: Telephone (Scottish Post Office Directories), Edinburgh: R. Grant & Son, 1902, p. 28.
  5. 1 2 Jacobs, Bill. Acoustic Telephones, TelefoonMuseum.com website. Retrieved January 15, 2013. This article in turn cites:
    • Kolger, Jon. "Mechanical or String Telephones", ATCA Newsletter, June 1986; and
    • "Lancaster, Pennsylvania Agricultural Almanac for the Year 1879: How to Construct a Farmer's Telephone", John Bater's Sons.; and
    • "Telephone Experiences of Harry J. Curl as told by him to E. T. Mahood, During the summer of 1933 at Kansas City, Missouri: First Telephone Experience."
  6. "The Pulsion Telephone", New Zealand: Hawke's Bay Herald, Vol. XXV, Iss. 8583, January 30, 1890, p. 3.
  7. Benson, Robert (12 March 2018) [Created in 2014]. "How do you get can phones to go around corners?". Can Phones and Corners. Google Sites. Retrieved 13 March 2018.
  8. NPASS2 String Telephones Archived 2012-10-14 at the Wayback Machine , “Corner Busters” photos taken 7 October 2012.