Johann Philipp Reis

From Academic Kids

Johann Philipp Reis (January 7, 1834 -- January 24, 1874), was born in Gelnhausen, Germany, as son to a poor baker. He was self-taught scientist and inventor who constructed one of the first working telephones. (See Reis' telephone).


Early life and education

Philipp Reis' mother died while he was an infant, so he was raised by his paternal grandmother, a well-read, intelligent and religious woman.

At the age of six Philipp Reis was sent to the common school of his home town of Gelnhausen, in Cassel. Here his talents attracted the notice of his instructors, who advised his father to extend his education at a higher college. His father died before his son was ten years old; but his grandmother and guardians placed him at Garnier's Institute, in Friedrichsdorf, where he showed a taste for languages, and acquired both French and English, as well as a stock of miscellaneous information from the library. At the end of his fourteenth year he passed to Hassel's Institute, at Frankfurt am Main, where he picked up Latin and Italian. A love of science now began to show itself, and his guardians were recommended to send him to the Polytechnic School of Karlsruhe; but one of them, his uncle, wished him to become a merchant, and on March 1, 1850, Philipp Reis was apprenticed to the colour trade in the establishment of J.F. Beyerbach, of Frankfurt, against his own will. He told his uncle that he would learn the business chosen for him, but should continue his proper studies by-and-by.

By diligent service he won the esteem of Beyerbach, and devoted his leisure to self-improvement, taking private lessons in mathematics and physics, and attending the lectures of Professor R. Bottger on mechanics at the Trade School. When his apprenticeship ended he attended the Institute of Dr. Poppe, in Frankfurt. As neither history nor geography was taught there, several of the students agreed to instruct each other in these subjects. Philipp Reis undertook geography, and believed he had found his true vocation in the art of teaching. He also became a member of the Physical Society of Frankfurt.

In 1855 he completed his year of military service at Kassel, then returned to Frankfurt to qualify himself as a teacher of mathematics and science by means of private study and public lectures. His intention was to finish his training at the University of Heidelberg, but in the spring of 1858 he visited his old friend and master, Hofrath Garnier, who offered him a post in Garnier's Institute. On 14th of September, 1859 was married, and shortly after he moved to Friedrichsdorf, to begin his new career as a teacher.

The telephone

Philipp Reis imagined that electricity could be propagated through space, as light can, without the aid of a material conductor, and he performed some experiments on the subject. The results were described in a paper, "On the Radiation of Electricity," which, in 1859, he posted to Professor Poggendorff; for insertion in the then well-known periodical, Annalen der Physik. The manuscript was declined, to the great disappointment of the sensitive young teacher.

Philipp Reis had studied the organs of hearing, and the idea of an apparatus for transmitting sound by means of electricity had been floating in his mind for years. Incited by his lessons on physics, he attacked the problem, and was rewarded with success. In 1860, he constructed the first prototype of a telephone, covering a distance of 100 m. He was not able to get people interested in his invention, however, and it was largely forgotten, except by Alexander Graham Bell, who demonstrated and patented an improved version of Philipp Reis' apparatus in 1876.

In 1862 he again tried Poggendorff, with an account of his "Telephon" as he called it; but his second offering was rejected like the first. The learned professor, it seems, regarded the transmission of speech by electricity as a chimera; but Philipp Reis, bitterly, attributed the failure to his being "only a poor schoolmaster."

Previous experimenters

Since the invention of the telephone, attention has been called to the fact that, in 1854, M. Charles Bourseul, a French telegraphist, had conceived a plan for conveying sounds and even speech by electricity. "Suppose," he explained, "that a man speaks near a movable disc sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice; that this disc alternately makes and breaks the currents from a battery: you may have at a distance another disc which will simultaneously execute the same vibrations.... It is certain that, in a more or less distant future, speech will be transmitted by electricity. I have made experiments in this direction; they are delicate and demand time and patience, but the approximations obtained promise a favourable result."

Bourseul deserves the credit of being perhaps the first to devise an electric telephone and try to make it; but Philipp Reis deserves the honour of first realising the idea as a practical device.

Bourseul's idea seems to have attracted little notice at the time, and was soon forgotten. Even the Count du Moncel, who was ever ready to welcome a promising invention, evidently regarded it as a fantastic notion. It is very doubtful if Philipp Reis had ever heard of it. He was led to conceive a similar apparatus by a study of the mechanism of the human ear, which he knew to contain a membrane vibrating due to sound waves, and communicating its vibrations through the hammer-bone behind it to the auditory nerve. It therefore occurred to him, that if he made a diaphragm to imitate this membrane and caused it, by vibrating, to make and break the circuit of an electric current, he would be able through the magnetic power of the interrupted current to reproduce the original sounds at a distance. In 1837-1838 Professor Page, of Massachusetts, had discovered that a needle or thin bar of iron, placed in the hollow of a coil or bobbin of insulated wire, would emit an audible 'tick' at each interruption of a current, flowing in the coil, and that if these separate ticks followed each other fast enough, by a rapid interruption of the current, they would run together into a continuous hum, to which he gave the name of 'galvanic music.' The pitch of this note would correspond to the rate of interruption of the current. From these and other discoveries which had been made by Noad, Wertheim, Marrian, and others, Philipp Reis knew that if the current which had been interrupted by his vibrating diaphragm were conveyed to a distance by a metallic circuit, and there passed through a coil like that of Page, the iron needle would emit a note like that which had caused the oscillation of the transmitting diaphragm. Acting on this knowledge, he constructed his rudimentary telephone. This prototype is now in the museum of the Reichs Post-Amt, Berlin.


Another of his early transmitters was a rough model of the human ear, carved in oak, and provided with a drum which actuated a bent and pivoted lever of platinum, making it open and close a springy contact of platinum foil in the metallic circuit of the current. He devised some ten or twelve different forms, each an improvement on its predecessors, which transmitted music fairly well, and even a word or two of speech with more or less perfection. But the apparatus failed as a practical means of talking to a distance. The discovery of the microphone by Professor Hughes has enabled us to understand the reason of this failure. The transmitter of Philipp Reis was based on the plan of interrupting the current, and the spring was intended to close the contact after it had been opened by the shock of a vibration. So long as the sound was a musical tone it proved efficient, for a musical tone is a regular succession of vibrations. But the vibrations of speech are irregular and complicated, and in order to transmit them the current has to be varied in strength without being altogether broken. The waves excited in the air by the voice should merely produce corresponding waves in the current. In short, the current ought to undulate in sympathy with the oscillations of the air. It appears from the report of Herr Von Legat, inspector of the Royal Prussian Telegraphs, on Philipp Reis' telephone, published in 1862, that the inventor was quite aware of this principle, but his instrument was not well adapted to apply it. No doubt the platinum contacts he employed in the transmitter behaved to some extent as a crude metal microphone, and hence a few words, especially familiar or expected ones, could be transmitted and distinguished at the other end of the line. But Philipp Reis does not seem to have realised the importance of not entirely breaking the circuit of the current; at all events, his metal spring is not in practice an effective provision against this, for it allows the metal contacts to jolt too far apart, and thus interrupt the current. Had he lived to modify the spring and the form or material of his contacts so as to keep the current continuous--as he might have done, for example, by using carbon for platinum--he would have forestalled alike Bell, Edison, and Hughes in the production of a good speaking telephone. Philipp Reis in fact was trembling on the verge of a great discovery, which was, however, reserved for others.

His experiments were made in a little workshop behind his home at Friedrichsdorff; and wires were run from it to an upper chamber. Another line was erected between the physical cabinet at Garnier's Institute across the playground to one of the class-rooms, and there was a tradition in the school that the boys were afraid of creating an uproar in the room for fear that Philipp Reis would hear them with his "telephon".


The new invention was published to the world in a lecture before the Physical Society of Frankfurt on October 26, 1861, and a description, written by himself for the Jahresbericht, a month or two later. It excited a good deal of scientific notice in Germany; models of it were sent abroad, to London, Dublin, Tiflis, and other places. It became a subject for popular lectures, and an article for scientific cabinets. Reis obtained a brief renown, but the reaction soon set in. The Physical Society of Frankfurt turned its back on the apparatus which had given it lustre. Philipp Reis resigned his membership in 1867; but the Free German Institute of Frankfurt, which elected him an honorary member, also slighted the instrument as a mere "philosophical toy". At first it was a dream, and now it is a plaything. Have we not had enough of that superior wisdom which is another name for stupidity? The dreams of the imagination are apt to become realities, and the toy of to-day has a knack of growing into the mighty engine of to-morrow.

Reis believed in his invention, even if no one else did; and had he been encouraged by his fellows from the beginning, he might have brought it into a practical shape. But rebuffs had preyed upon his sensitive heart, and he was already stricken with consumption. It is related that, after his lecture on the telephone at Giessen, in 1854, Poggendorff, who was present, invited him to send a description of his instrument to the Annalen. Philipp Reis answered him, "Ich danke Ihnen Sehr, Herr Professor, aber es ist zu spät. Jetzt will ICH ihn nicht schicken. Mein Apparat wird ohne Beschreibung in den Annalen bekannt werden". (Translated, this means "Thank you very much, Professor, but it is too late. I shall not send it now. My apparatus will become known without any writing in the Annalen.)

Final Days

Later, Philipp Reis confined his teaching and study to matters of science; but his bad health become a serious impediment. For several years it was only by the exercise of a strong will that he was able to carry on his duties. His voice began to fail as the disease gained upon his lungs, and in the summer of 1873 he was obliged to forsake tuition during several weeks. The autumn vacation strengthened his hopes of recovery, and he resumed his teaching with his wonted energy. But this was the last flicker of the expiring flame. It was announced that he would show his new gravity-machine at a meeting of the Deutscher Naturforscher of Wiesbaden in September, but he was too ill to appear. In December he lay down, and, after a long and painful illness, breathed his last at five o'clock in the afternoon of January 14, 1874.

In his Curriculum Vitae he wrote: As I look back upon my life I call indeed say with the Holy Scriptures that it has been "labour and sorrow." But I have also to thank the Lord that He has given me His blessing in my calling and in my family, and has bestowed more good upon me than I have known how to ask of Him. The Lord has helped hitherto; He will help yet further.

Philipp Reis was buried in the cemetery of Friedrichsdorff, and in 1878, after the introduction of the speaking telephone, the members of the Physical Society of Frankfort erected an obelisk of red sandstone bearing a medallion portrait over his grave.

Technological assessment

Documents in the London Science Museum show, that, in 1947, engineers from the British firm Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) found, that Philipp Reis's device dating from 1863 could transmit and "reproduce speech of good quality but of low efficiency".

Sir Frank Gill, then chairman of STC, ordered, that the tests be kept secret, as STC was negotiating with the AT&T, which had evolved from the Bell Company of Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was generally accepted to have invented the telephone, and Gill thought that evidence to the contrary might disrupt the negotiations.

Besides Philipp Reis and Bell, Antonio Meucci and Elisha Gray both invented similar devices. Meucci was officially recognized as inventor of the telephone on September 25, 2001, by the US Congress.

External links


Much of the above was adapted from John Munro's Heroes of the Telegraph published in Philipp Reis es:Johann Philipp Reis eo:Philipp REIS


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