June 24, 2024

Mobile phones

Do you remember the scene in Downton Abbey when the Dowager Lady Grantham walked into the front hall to speak on a new “instrument of torture” – a telephone. Her acerbic comment was: “First electricity and now telephones – sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel”.

Meanwhile downstairs, a reluctant Mr Carson was also trying to come to terms with this new equipment. He stoically declared “a telephone is a useful and valuable tool.” before embarking on some practice time in order to understand which bit of the apparatus to pick up and what to say.  When it rang like “a cry of the banshee”, there was consternation rather than the urge to answer it.

The word telephone, comes from the Greek root tēle, “far,” and phonē, “sound,” and was applied as early as the late 17th century for describing the string telephones more familiar to children. In the 19th century a Scotsman called Alexander Graham Bell invented the process of using a telephone which he patented in 1876. His design was modified by various of his contemporaries such as Thomas Watson, Thomas Edison, and Emil Berliner but had basically acquired a functional design that has not fundamentally changed even if the apparatus has become considerably smaller.

Whilst compact microcircuitry today replaces the older hard wiring, there are still similarities:  a telephone needs power which ironically began with batteries before they were hard wired into an electrical source and have now reverted back to very small batteries. There is still a version of a switch hook, there is still a ringer and there is still a transmitter and a receiver.

Growing up with my sisters we began with the old-fashioned telephone in our home. Naturally we all argued about how long each of us took on the phone and who was waiting for a phone call and therefore required priority interspersed with our father commenting on how large the telephone bill was. The one red square handset was a feature throughout our family life and was neither upgraded nor changed.

Whilst a handheld mobile radio telephone service was previously envisioned by a Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt who filed a patent for a “pocket-size folding telephone with a very thin carbon microphone”, it was not really until April 1973 when a larger handset was demonstrated in New York by Motorola.

 Fifty years later mobile phones have become one of the most widely used and sold pieces of consumer technology. More than 5 billion people, perhaps two-thirds of the global population, now own a smartphone and that number continues to grow.

The ringtones have changed, the phones themselves are smaller and slimmer than the ones used by the Granthams and if they are smart it is at a cost.  

Mobiles phones are ever more complex feats of engineering made from many resources harvested from our planet. There is copper which conducts electricity and heat very efficiently; tellurium to improve strength and hardness; lithium which is found in rock and salt lakes; cobalt, important for rechargeable batteries, (it comes mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo); manganese from South Africa and tungsten from China. All the mining required is fuelled by oil. Mobile phones are thus one of the most resource intensive products by weight on the planet.

As a result, an average mobile phone creates 55kg of carbon emissions during these processes. 1.55 billion phones are sold per year worldwide and a 2019 study by the European Environmental Bureau concluded that the climate impact of phones in the EU alone was 14.2 million tonnes of CO2

Up to 80% of each phone is recyclable but too few of them ever are. Many of us no longer own land line phones and mobile phones are one of the easiest pieces of technology to operate, adding to their popularity across all generations.

My own mobile phone is renowned for its immobility – sometimes on a desk or balanced in the branch of an apple tree, behind a photo, in a forgotten jacket, by a dog basket, on a window ledge or in a flower trug. The good news is that it is relatively old but still works. In any case when I do call Geordie he tends not to answer although if we go on a walk together his phone is always needed and cannot be left behind.