Cellphones: Handier than a Swiss Army Knife

Cellphones began as the next step in the development of cordless telephones, but they have developed far beyond their original function of wirelessly connecting people. The moniker “cellphone” becomes increasingly inaccurate in describing their function with each passing year. While making and receiving calls remains a key part of a cellphone’s purpose, it has become overshadowed by the many other functions and tasks that a cellphone does. Displayed are examples of previously used one-task devices that are now part of cellphones' operating systems. These examples are listed in the order in which they became available to use as functions of cellphones.

As you view them ask yourself:

  • How much space would these objects all take up together?
  • What other devices does my cellphone do the job of?
  • How did people figure out how to compress the usefulness of so many tools into a rectangle that can fit in my pocket?

In taking the time to consider the many functions of a cellphone, you may find yourself growing more attached to your own than you already are. Whether that is good or bad is up to you!

Sending and Receiving Calls - 1980

An old landline telephone

Telephone, 1949

ID: 2001.003.001abc

While the first inventor of the telephone is disputed, Alexander Graham Bell was first to patent it in 1876, allowing people to speak directly to each other over long distances for the first time. The original purpose of the cellphone was to allow people to make phone calls without a landline. The first cordless phone was released to the public around 1980. Since then, the cellphone has become so much more than just a way to make and receive phone calls. The ability to instant message, connect with people all over the world through the internet, as well as Facetime, Zoom, Houseparty, and other video chat applications has made connecting with friends and family easier than ever before. This Northern Electric wall telephone was made in 1949 by the Northern Electric Co. Ltd.

Writing and Typing - 1993

An image of a typewriter

Typewriter, 1907-1914

ID: 1956.029.001

Today, cellphones are commonly used to write by typing, a method first in public use when the typewriter was invented. American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes patented the first publicly available typewriter in 1868. This Oliver No. 5 typewriter was made by the Oliver Typewriter Company in Chicago, Illinois. Typing on cellphones has also evolved from T9 text (multi button touches for different letters) to full keyboards.

Telling the Time - 1994

An image of an old longcase English floor clock

Sun dials were the original way to tell time. The earliest known use was in ancient Egypt around 1500 BC. Spring driven clocks, the first mechanical clocks, did not appear until the 1300s AD. This clock is believed to be made in Devonshire, England and Richard Walter and his wife, Mary Walter brought it to Canada when they emigrated. Clocks are now a feature on many devices other than cellphones, making telling time a lot more convenient.

Math - 1994

An image of an abacus

Abacus, 1750-1900

ID: 1964.059.001

Remember when teachers said, "You will not always have a calculator on you!"? Times have changed since then. BellSouth/IBM began offering this app or function for cellphones in 1993, rendering the need for a separate calculator almost obsolete.

An early and simple type of calculator, known as the abacus, has been used for centuries across Asia and Europe, with its first mention in history in China around 1200 AD, where it was called a Suan-Pan. Now cellphones have calculators that can do much more advanced mathematics. Today the average cellphone calculator has more computing power than the ones used by NASA to reach the Moon in 1969!

Games - 1994

An image of an old checkerboard

Checkerboard, 1850-1900

ID: 1966.009.038

People have played games for as long as civilization has existed. In Mesopotamia, small carved stones found at a 5000-year old burial mound represent the earliest gaming pieces found in the archaeological record. Games such as checkers, chess, Scrabble, and other board games can now be played on your cellphone, not only with friends but with strangers from all around the world. While this checkerboard dates from somewhere between 1850 to 1900, the game of checkers has ancient origins. The earliest known example of a checkers-like game is dated to around 3000 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.

Checking the Temperature - 1997

An image of an old thermometer

Thermometer, 1900-1917

ID: 1973.111.006

Being able to check the temperature on your cellphone wherever you are in the world is a wonderful function. Before this development people had to listen to the radio or watch television for the weather report. Despite how easy it is now to check the weather and get real time updates on our cellphones, many people still use more traditional tools, like thermometers which they hang outside to measure the temperature. This thermometer was produced sometime between 1900 to 1917 and was used to advertise the W.G. Morgan and Co. clothing store in Owen Sound, Grey County.

Taking Photos - 1999

An image of an antique camera

Camera, 1883-1899

ID: 1963.002.001

Since Joseph Nicephore Niepce produced the first photograph in 1825, a lot has changed in the world of photography. Cameras produce images by capturing light photons through a shutter mechanism that controls the length of time that light can enter the camera. The light goes through a lens into an enclosed box and the image is recorded on a light-sensitive medium. While this process has not changed, the mechanics have, and changes to shutter speed allowed for the development of moving pictures. This mechanical process of picture-taking has vastly declined with the rise of digital cameras, now conveniently included in most cellphones. This feature was first introduced by the Japanese Kyocera Corporation in 1999.

Navigation - 1999

An image of an old compass

Compasses have been around for centuries, used for navigation as early as the Chinese Han Dynasty in about 206 BC. Nowadays, if someone wants to know which way they are heading, they can use the compass application on their phone rather than carrying around a real compass. Built-in compasses in applications such as Maps and GPS make it easier than ever for people to find their way. This compass was produced by Johnston’s of 639 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and was found amongst the estate of C. A. Fleming of Owen Sound, Grey County.

Mapping - 1999

An image of an old hanging globe

Globe, 1905-1925

ID: 2007.061.001

Maps and globes used to be very important when it came to knowing where you were and finding your way somewhere. The United States government developed the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the late 1970s which allowed the advancement of global positioning technology. GPS technology now provides helpful directions that can be inputted into your cellphone for easy navigational purposes in real time, helping to keep you from getting lost. This globe was made sometime between 1905 to 1925 by artist William S. Pridham and was hung in a schoolroom.

Lighting Our Way - 2000-2001

An image of an old flashlight

Flashlight, 1910-1919

ID: 1971.120.015

Conrad Hubert invented the first dry cell battery flashlight in the late 1800s. Before flashlights people used oil lanterns or candles and flame when they needed to see in the dark. With the addition of a flashlight feature in cellphones we can easily illuminate dark spaces around us without having to bring another device, making flashlights less important than they used to be. This flashlight appeared in the 1917 Eaton & Co. catalogue for a retail price of 65 cents.

Playing Music - 2001

An image of an old phonograph

Phonograph, about 1905

ID: 1975.079.001abcdef

Technology has come a long way since the phonograph and other stationary music devices, which have been around since 1887. With the development of tape (mid 1960s) and disc players (1980s) people could take their recorded music with them. The concept of portable music was advanced further with the development of digital audio players such as the iPod in the 2000s. Now an integrated feature in most cellphones through apps such as iTunes or Spotify, people can curate and play hundreds of hours of music wherever they are. Stationary players such as the Phonograph and other record playing systems no longer have the popularity they once did. This Edison Fireside Combination Model A phonograph was produced around 1905 and was owned by a man in Loggieville, New Brunswick.

Watching Television - 2007

An image of an old television

Being able to watch television on your cellphone, accessing many different sites to watch talk shows, movies, and television series, makes the cellphone a much more versatile device. The ability to connect your cellphone to a television without a cable makes it even easier to watch your favorite shows. This early black-and-white image television has a 10 inch screen! Many cellphones these days have screens that are only slightly smaller, yet they provide us with so many more entertainment options.

The artefacts for this exhibit were curated and researched by Quinn Skene, the 2020 Collections Assistant hired under the Young Canada Works at Building Careers in Heritage Internship program. Additional research and content provided by Jacob Fralic, the 2021 Collections Assistant hired under Young Canada Works in Heritage Institutions summer employment program.

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