Inventing the telephone in Friedrichsdorf

For many years, Alexander Graham Bell “was erroneously thought to have invented the telephone.” So we are told at this small museum in Friedrichsdorf, a town of 25,000 people located 20 km north of Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Old telephones in the museum in Friedrichsdorf

Bell did not speak his first telephone message — “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” — until 1876, fifteen years after Philipp Reis’s first Telefon transmitted this legendary sentence:

Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat.
= “The horse does not eat cucumber salad.”

This and other similar sentences were chosen by one of Reis’s fellow teachers who wanted to test the telephone by using unusual statements that could not be guessed, but had to be clearly understood.

Reis, at the receiving end, understood that the horse was a picky eater, but didn’t quite understand what it was that the horse didn’t eat.

When his colleague said the sun was made of copper, Reis understood that it was made of sugar.

Still, they considered the experiment a success. Reis’s invention really could transmit spoken words over a wire by electricity. It tended to conk out after the first four or five words, but that did not seem like an insurmountable problem.

Unfortunately Reis did not succeed in convincing more critical audiences such as the Physics Society in Frankfurt. The members of this society were mainly professors or at least men with a university education (only men, in those days). They were not inclined to believe that an upstart high school teacher from a hick town like Friedrichsdorf could ever invent anything useful.

It took thirty-five years before the next generation of Physics Society members decided Reis had invented the telephone after all. After much delay they finally put up a monument to him in Frankfurt.

Philipp Reis monument in Frankfurt

This monument to Philipp Reis (1834-1874), the “inventor of the telephone”, was first proposed in the 1890s but was not completed until 1919. It still exists and is located in the Eschenheimer Anlage, near Eschenheimer Tor in Frankfurt. It was made by an Austrian sculptor named Friedrich Christoph Hausmann (1860-1936), whose design was the winner of a competition.

Weathered engravings on the Philipp Reis monument in Frankfurt

These engravings on the monument say:



OCTOBER 26, 1861

The making of the monument was delayed by (among other things) a lengthy public controversy with the inventor’s son, Carl Reis (1863-1917), about how his father should be depicted. He wanted his father to be shown with a full beard, as he had known him, but the Frankfurt Physics Society said he should only be shown with a moustache, as he had looked when he presented his first telephone in 1861, two years before his son Carl was born.

This public controversy was widely ridiculed at the time. There is a saying in German: Um des Kaisers Bart streiten (= to quarrel about the emperor’s beard), which means to waste time arguing about unimportant things. In the 1890s many people thought the quarrel about Philipp Reis’s beard was even less important than a quarrel about the emperor’s beard. (The emperor in question was Barbarossa, ‘Red Beard’, who by coincidence had a small castle in Gelnhausen; more about him some other time.)

Naked young men in the Philipp Reis monument in Frankfurt

In 1919 the monument was controversial for a different reason. It shows two naked young men, one talking into Reis’s first telephone and one listening. One of the local newspapers, the Frankfurter Volkszeitung, complained that these naked young men were a danger to morals and decorum because they had “thrown off their clothes before answering the telephone.” The same paper expressed its consternation, a few days later, about this “un-German” style of naked art which had been “borrowed from the French” and was inappropriate for use in true German monuments.

The Philipp Reis House in Friedrichsdorf

Philipp Reis and his wife Margarete bought this house at Hugenottenstraße 93 in Friedrichsdorf after they married in 1858. They could afford this because Philipp had inherited some money from his grandmother.

Plaque on the Phillip Reis House in Friedrichsdorf

This plaque is mounted in the entranceway to the house. It reads: “J. Philipp Reis lived and died in this house. Here he invented the telephone. 1834-1874.”

Both Philipp and Margarete had grown up in Gelnhausen, which was also where they got married. They moved to Friedrichsdorf because Philipp got a job there teaching physics at the Institut Garnier, a secondary school where he had earlier been a pupil for several years.

This Institut Garnier was a private boarding school for boys, founded in 1836 by a man named Louis Frédéric Garnier (1809-1882), who liked to have people call him le fundateur (= “the founder” in French). He was a member of one of the old Huguenot families in Friedrichsdorf. Before founding the school he studied in Friedberg, where he got his teaching credential, and then in Darmstadt and Paris. (Apparently he was not related to Charles Garnier, the architect of the Opéra Garnier in Paris.)

When she got married, Margarete Reis did not speak French. This made it hard for her to make friends in the Huguenot town of Friedrichsdorf, where French was still the language of everyday communication. French was also the language of the primary school in Friedrichsdorf, which is why Philipp and Margarete Reis later sent their two children to a German-speaking school in the nearby town of Seulberg.

The Huguenot families in Friedrichsdorf continued speaking French for several more generations, until the First World War, when the last of them switched to German.

The Reis family’s house now belongs to the city of Friedrichsdorf, which uses it for the city archives and for a very small museum, which in 2013 consisted of three rooms: one about the invention of the telephone, one about the life of Philipp Reis and his family, and one about the craft of textile dyeing as practiced by the Huguenots in Friedrichsdorf in the nineteenth century. (More about this coming soon.) A fourth room seemed to be under construction and was closed to the public when I was there.

An early experiment

The room about the invention of the telephone shows various early experiments carried out by Reis and others, attempting to transmit words by electricity. Unfortunately his efforts aroused little interest at the time — certainly not in Friedrichsdorf, where the prevailing attitude was that if you wanted to talk to someone you went over and knocked on their door, and if they weren’t in the house they were probably out back in the barn or the dyeing shed — but Reis kept working on his invention until his early death at age 40.

In America, Alexander Graham Bell was well informed about the work of Philipp Reis, and once even built a device based on Reis’s plans. But he discovered that it didn’t work very well (and figured out why) so he eventually invented his own telephone based on different principles. Two years after Reis’s death, in 1876, Bell was granted an American patent for an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically”, but it took several more years of work before the apparatus worked well enough to be used commercially. (And then the lawsuits began, but that’s a whole nother story…)

Philipp Reis, the inventor

This text panel on the life and work of Philipp Reis includes a picture of one of his earliest inventions, a three-wheeled velocipede with handles that the rider had to crank with his hands and arms to make it move. This must have been very strenuous, but Reis as a young man once rode his velocipede from Frankfurt am Main by way of Hanau to Gelnhausen, a distance of over fifty km, to visit his fiancée Margarete Schmidt. (I have cycled that route several times and was very glad I could use my legs, not my arms, for motive power.)

Philipp Reis’s living room in Friedrichsdorf

The museum includes a room which has been refurnished in the style of the Reis family’s living room in the 1860s, including some of their original furniture.

After Philipp Reis’s death in 1874 his family lived in poverty, and at some point his furniture was sold. But it remained in Friedrichsdorf, so when the museum was established the curators were able to locate some of the furniture and buy it back.

The room is furnished in the Biedermeier style which was popular in nineteenth century Germany.

The Reis family’s piano

Reis’s daughter Elise (1861-1920) played the piano and for a while earned her living as a piano teacher. Elise never married, which was unusual for a German woman in those days. She spent her young adulthood nursing her mother through a long terminal illness, then lived alone in poor and unhappy circumstances. During the First World War she fell ill herself, so she was no longer able to teach piano or even keep up her own household. She committed suicide in 1920 at age 59.

My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: my Gelnhausen post on the inventor of the telephone.

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