Johann Philipp Reis: The Forgotten Genius Behind the Telephone

OV Digital Desk

Johann Philipp Reis (7 January 1834 – 14 January 1874) was a self-taught German scientist and inventor. In 1861, he constructed the first make-and-break telephone, today called the Reis telephone. Reis imagined electricity could be propagated through space, as light can, without the aid of a material conductor, and he performed some experiments on the subject. He is credited with building the first telephone.

Life and Career

He was born on 7 January 1834, in Gelnhausen, Germany, and grew up in a family of craftsmen and tradespeople. As a child, he showed a natural aptitude for science and technology, and he spent much of his time tinkering with gadgets and building simple devices.

Reis received his early education at the local school in Gelnhausen, and later attended the Polytechnic School in Frankfurt, where he studied electrical engineering. After completing his studies, he worked as a teacher and a tutor for several years, before moving on to more research-oriented work.

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In the late 1850s, Reis began experimenting with electrical transmission of sound, and in 1861 he built a device that he called the “telephone”. The device consisted of a small box with a membrane that was connected to a wire, and it was able to transmit spoken words over a distance of about a mile. Reis’s telephone was not a practical device, however, and it did not catch on.

Despite the failure of his telephone, Reis continued to work on other scientific projects, and he made several other important contributions to the field of electrical engineering. He died on 14 January 1874, at the age of 40 because of prolonged illness.

 Award and Legacy

Reis’s legacy is most evident in the field of telecommunications, where his work laid the foundations for the development of the modern telephone system. He is also remembered as an inventor and a scientist who was ahead of his time, and his contributions have been recognized by scientific societies and institutions around the world. Despite his important contributions to the field of electrical engineering, Reis is not as well-known as some of his contemporaries, such as Alexander Graham Bell, who is credited with building the first practical telephone. However, his work has been recognized and honored by historians and researchers, and he is remembered as an important figure in the history of telecommunications.

In 1878, four years after his death and two years after Bell received his first telephone patent, European scientists dedicated a monument to Philip Reis as the inventor of the telephone. The VDE (the German electrical engineering association), Deutsche Telekom and the cities of Friedrichsdorf and Gelnhausen biannually present the Johann-Philipp-Reis Preis (prize) to scientists for “….distinguished scientific achievements in the area of communication technology”. On 7 January 2009, Google Doodle celebrated Johann Philipp Reis’ Birthday.