A device was patented by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1876 by Scottish immigrant, Alexander Graham Bell. Although there is a lot of dispute over who invented the electric telephone sparking the sequence of events which eventually became the phone we know of today, Bell is most commonly credited for it in the United States due to his patent. Certainly other key inventors and tinkerers of the day, such as Charles Bourseul, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, and Elisha Gray, are just as if not more praiseworthy as Bell was. Many more innovations since then have contributed to what we today refer to as “the phone” making all these inventors mere cogs in the machine that is and has been the technology revolution.
Prior to the transmission of voice signals the telephone was a term used in other inventions. This includes an invention by a captain named John Taylor who used a series of horns to communicate between sailing vessels in the fog and called the system The Telephone. Comparatively, many inventors who were working on devices that convert sound to electrical signals did not use the term telephone at all.
The term telephone is derived from the Greek word tēle which means “far” and the Greek word phōnē which means “voice”. Put together it means “distant voice”. I would say that the term is certainly something that refers to transmitting speech over long distances. The term we use today, “phone”, is merely a shortened version of original term and I think still refers to sending a voice over a distance.
The device that we commonly refer to as a phone does include a feature of sending voice over long distances. However, I think it is long overdue that we consider other ways to refer to the device since transmitting voice is far from the primary use of those devices.
There are some types of these devices which are more dedicated to the task of transmitting voice than others. Sometimes these devices are referred to as dumb phones or feature phones. I have no doubt that many users of those types of devices do primarily use them for voice communication. But even those have the capability of text and sometimes image or video communication. I know many users of those devices who communicate primarily in text as well. Therefore, I think that it is a misnomer to call these phones as well.
When it really comes down to it what we are talking about are computers. These devices are specialized computers with a cellular connection which can be used for voice, data, text messages, games, productivity applications, picture taking, navigating, picture taking, etc. These devices are just as much a camera as they are a phone. They are much more than a single feature. They are an extension of ourselves. A device that allows us have near constant ability to communicate in various ways with the world. A multi-tool, an electronic swiss army knife that allows us to do tasks that our biology does not inherently allow. It is so much more than simply a phone.
So the first question is: What do we call it instead? While I like the idea of “electronic multi-tool” or “electronic swiss army knife”, I doubt that it could be widely adopted if it required saying more than one or two words. Maybe that sounds like I am saying that humanity is lazy but I guess I am. We already use the term “phone” to refer to these devices and I doubt anyone will put forth the effort to both use a more appropriate term AND use more words. It just will not happen.
One term that I have pushed for in the past is “comm”. It is a device which is used to communicate in various ways. I thought it worked. I never got anyone else used to it though and eventually I gave up. Furthermore, I now realize that it does not encompass some of the other functions of the device. The tools such as navigation or picture taking are not fully encompassed by the term “comm”.
My favorite idea currently is actually an acronym. It is an acronym that has been used in the past for these devices before they turned into phones. Personal Digital Assistant shortened to PDA really fits the bill. I think that term describes exactly what these devices do for us. However, I am open to other ideas. Do you have a better term for the devices we commonly refer to as a phone? Lets share our ideas in the comments below.
Kirk writes about tech trends, science, and whatever else society wants to innovate next. He still does not know how to explain the save icon on a Word document, is it a piece of St. Louis style pizza? Follow Kirk on twitter @kirkaug.