History: Philipp Reis - the almost forgotten inventor of the telephone

His invention, the telephone, changed the world.

History: Philipp Reis - the almost forgotten inventor of the telephone

His invention, the telephone, changed the world. Nevertheless, the German inventor Philipp Reis, whose death anniversary is now 150 years old, is largely unknown today. "He made an invention for the millennium, but today if you ask anywhere in the world who invented the telephone, you'll hear Alexander Graham Bell," says Reis biographer Wolfram Weimer.

Reis was born in Gelnhausen, Hesse, in 1834 and grew up as an orphan. He completed a commercial apprenticeship and later worked as a language and natural sciences teacher in Friedrichsdorf near Frankfurt/Main. Today a museum there keeps the memory of the inventor alive.

“Telephone” invention was rejected

In his free time, Reis pondered for a long time the question of how sounds could be transmitted over long distances using electricity. In 1861 he achieved his breakthrough and presented the device, which he called the "telephone", to the Physical Society in Frankfurt.

"The response was extremely disappointing - his invention was rejected as a 'gimmick'," says the museum. According to Weimer, Reis was always laughed at a bit by the “fine professors” as a tinkerer who invented something useless.

Reis died at the age of just 40 on January 14, 1874 in Friedrichsdorf, before he could further develop his apparatus. His telephone only worked in one direction - the receiver could not answer immediately.

Alexander Graham Bell triumphs

It wasn't until Alexander Graham Bell brought a device onto the market in the USA in the 1870s that was held alternately to the ear and then to the mouth that the telephone began its global triumph. According to the Reis Museum, the patent filed by Bell in 1875 was based on the German's work, which the American had at least partially known and improved.

“I personally feel sorry for Philipp Reis that he had such a hard time in life but never received the respect he deserved,” explains Weimer. "If we forget him now or do nothing for him, then it will be doubly bitter."

The former editor-in-chief of “Focus” and “Welt” created a literary monument to the inventor four years ago with his biography “The Forgotten Inventor.” For Weimer, who lives as a publisher in Upper Bavaria, this is also a matter of local patriotism: like Reis, he was born in Gelnhausen.

Weimer: Germany “a nation of inventors”

The Reis case is almost exemplary, says Weimer. "We are a nation of inventors, engineers, tinkerers and tinkerers. And that is still true." Many major technical innovations of the past 200 years were invented by Germans. But the Germans are not good at marketing. "That's more of an American strength. And sometimes the Americans just take our inventions and make a big business out of them."

In other places in the world, inventors are honored with memorials or large monuments, says the biographer. "We don't do that anymore because it's somehow no longer appropriate," he criticizes. Even Nobel Prize winners are not properly made visible and recognized in the media in Germany. "We have a deficit in the appreciation of our scientific and engineering achievements."

Wish: Make Philipp Reis more visible

With a view to the 150th year of the inventor's death, he would like Philipp Reis to be made more visible. In his hometown of Gelnhausen, he could imagine “a kind of triumphal arch” on an access road. Not even a motorway exit in Gelnhausen points to the inventor.

"We actually also need a communications museum: If you have the inventor of the telephone, then there needs to be a place that makes that visible." He thinks of the Ludwig Erhard Center in Fürth as a model. "Bayern have a better knack for upholding their traditions and showing them off."

According to its own information, the Hessian state government has not planned any special event to mark the 150th anniversary of the Hessian inventor's death. The State Chancellery said that honorary events are planned to mark milestone birthdays rather than anniversaries of deaths.

But that doesn't mean that the state of Hesse would not honor the memory of "one of its most important sons," it said. Rice has been listed in the Hessen-Pass brochure in the “Famous Hessians” section for a long time. In addition, several schools are named after Reis.

Mayor: “Triumphal arch not quite suitable”

In Reis' hometown of Gelnhausen, Weimer's suggestions provoke mixed reactions. "Napoleon's retreat also led through Gelnhausen and the Kinzigtal, but a triumphal arch based on the French model would probably not be quite as appropriate to honor Philipp Reis," says Mayor Christian Litzinger (CDU). Of course, the city understood Weimer's message.

"In the digital age, in which communication plays a major role and brings with it many new challenges, we are happy to accept the suggestion to pay more monumental tribute to Philipp Reis and to make him and his legacy even more visible in the city," said Litzinger. In coordination with the political committees and the citizens - possibly also with an ideas competition - we will examine what other options could be considered.

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