A pretty easy answer for most of us nowadays, but one that’s obviously changed over time. In fact, a lot of devices which were originally called telephones might not be recognisable as such by today’s standards.
As you might now, the patent for the electric telephone was granted to Alexander Graham Bell in March 1876. The actual invention though, is often contested, with claims existing in favour of a number of other inventors. This isn’t so surprising, as a number of people were looking to invent such a device at the time. And the definition of telephone could cover a lot of similar, yet slightly different devices. After all, the word comes from the Greek tele (far) and phone (voice). So before the granting of the patent, any long-distance communication device could reasonably lay claim to the name telephone, especially if it allowed one to hear another person’s voice. An 1844 device for communicating between ships in fog using airhorns was known as the telephone. But from the granting of Bell’s patent, the modern telephone was a fairly recognisable device. Not that it didn’t change though.
If someone asked what type of phone you had in the early days of the machine, there would have been many possible answers, as there were quite a few different types of model. From the 20s onwards, you might have answered that you had one of those fancy rotary-dial telephones (If you’ve ever wondered how area codes are decided, by the way, they were often originally chosen based on how convenient they were to dial on a rotary phone. In the United States, for example, New York was given the code 212 as it was so populous, and the number was quick and easy to dial on a rotary phone.). Then from the 60s onwards, you might have had one of those amazing new push-button telephones. Which then became what most people instantly recognised as a telephone (or just phone) for quite a long time. When mobile phones came along, we needed to call them mobile phones (and car phones, really way back in the day!) to make them distinct from regular phones.
Until of course, as the 21st century progressed, they became the standard form of phone, and we started to refer to desktop phones and landline phones to refer to these suddenly bulky devices we couldn’t pick up so easily. And then along came smartphones, and of course we needed to specify how different they were from ordinary (mobile) phones. Until of course they too became just phones. One of the great mysteries that smartphones have given us is why so many people are so fond of telling us that they have an iPhone. I think it’s because originally iPhones were synonymous with smartphones, as they were the best-known brand of smartphone. And while some doubtless wished to brag by telling you they had an iPhone, I wonder if some thought that it was more humble than declaring boldly how smart your phone was. It’s not as common now for someone to refer to their iPhone as such, as there are far more options available, though it has persisted somewhat. It’s interesting to think about how our definition of phone has developed over time, with being called phone a sign that a product has succeeded, and has taken the place in our collective consciousness as the primary device for vocal communication.
And for sending dick pics and smiling-poo emojis. Alexander Graham Bell would be proud…