Johann Reis

Mar 28, 2021

Ask yourself: who is the inventor of the telephone? The name that flashes into most minds would be Alexander Graham Bell. Often when an invention and its inventor come to the limelight and cement their place in history, many other personalities, despite their enormous contributions, tend to fade out. This article pays tribute to one such personality who played a crucial role in the telephone’s invention.

Johann Philip Reis

Johann Philip Reis was a self-taught German scientist and inventor. Born in Gelhausen, Germany, in 1834, he had lost both his parents at the tender age of 10. His love of science was apparent from a young age, and while his uncle preferred to have him become a merchant, Reis ended up becoming a teacher at the age of 25, having found employment at the institute of his former mentor, Hofrath Garnier.

Reis was interested in electricity, and imagined it could propagate much like light, without a physical medium. Based on this assumption, he started to experiment with electricity, and this experimentation would lead him to develop one of the first prototypes of the telephone. He announced his invention in a lecture before the Physical Society of Frankfurt in 1861. He had constructed the first make-and-break telephone; today called the Reis Telephone.

The Reis telephone

The working of Reis’s transmitter was interesting. It worked by alternatively making and breaking the connection with a battery. Simultaneously, his receiver was designed to operate on the principle of magnetostriction - a property of magnetic materials that causes them to change their shape or dimensions during the process of magnetization. In short, Reis successfully created a device that captured the sound and converted it to electrical impulses, transmitted via electrical wires to another device that transformed these pulses into recognizable sounds similar to the original acoustic source. Reis coined the term telephon to describe his device.

Reis' invention was capable of transmitting songs with relative ease. However, these principles weren’t adequate for constructing a successful speech-transmitting telephone, which requires continuous contact and an undulating current. This meant that his device often failed at transmitting coherent speech.

A German stamp commemorating Reis' telephon, released in 1961

This is not to say that Reis failed completely when it came to transmitting the human voice. Reis used his telephone to transmit the phrase "Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat" (The horse does not eat cucumber salad). The expression was hard to understand acoustically in the German language, and Reis used it to prove that speech can be successfully recognized on the distant end.

Between 1858 and 1863, Reis constructed three different models of his telephone, the third and best-known of which was demonstrated to scientific societies throughout Europe and America. Reis had no interest in profiting from his telephone, freely giving out information on it to anyone who asked, and selling models of it at a reasonable price.

A self-portrait of Reis with the seventh version of his telephon

Throughout all of this, Reis had faced stiff opposition from the scientific community when it came to having his invention recognized. There were some questions regarding the functioning of the microphone, and it was deemed impossible for the transfer of intelligible speech using the make and break setup. This came to a head when Bell's patent claim was set against his primacy of inventing the telephone.

Reis's device had been used to transmit speech from 1861 and widely publicly demonstrated from 1863. Yet, this inability to work because of its use of a "false theory" was enough to (legally) portray Reis' invention as invalid, thus allowing Bell to claim novelty.

Later, Reis continued his teaching and scientific studies, but his failing health had become a severe impediment. For several years it was only by the exercise of his strong will that he could carry on with his duties. His voice began to fail as his lung disease became more pronounced, and in the summer of 1873, he was obliged to forsake his tutoring duties for several weeks. In December, he lay down and, after a long and painful illness, died at five o'clock in the afternoon of January 14, 1874.

In 1878, four years after his death and two years after Bell received his first telephone patent, European scientists dedicated a monument to Johann Reis as the telephone’s inventor.

The Reis monument in Gelnhausen

Johann Reis was indeed a remarkable personality in the world of science who relentlessly worked towards making an imaginary device come to life through his experiments. However, he couldn’t interest the people of Germany about his invention. Despite his contributions, he was overshadowed by Bell, who went on to use this knowledge and build a better model of the telephone.

An article by Sai Rajat

Disclaimer: the pictures in the article are for illustration purposes only. Neither the writer nor PHoEnix has a claim over them.

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