Mobile Phones 120 years ago?

Imagine being able to make phone calls by tying a cord to an Umbrella. Truly a forgotten art, but you can enjoy it in this quirky 100 year old video (video may take a few seconds to appear below):

These ladies were using a crystal radio. The first time I saw it, I was trying to figure out where the electricity came from. Then I realized, there are no batteries involved and no phone charger needed. They get their energy from the air, using a normal umbrella as an antenna. If you don’t believe you can harvest free energy from the air with just a few simple tools that anyone can buy, check out this article: Harvest Free Energy with a Crystal Energy Receiver.

Another do-it-yourself device can be built with instructions on this page: Umbrella Radio

I came across the crystal radio, while researching something entirely unrelated in old newspaper articles. Even though its transmission quality and reach isn’t that high, I like the idea of harvesting free energy and believe we will one day make that dream come true.

The article above says this was first used in the 1930s. The Video says it was first used in 1922. Both statements are false.

I’ve made a few clippings from old newspapers to show that these “wireless phones” are older. This one is from Enid Daily Morning News, June 1st, 1899:



A wireless air line phone system? A century before our bulky 1990s mobile phones came out?

That’s 23 years prior to the Video above. At first I thought they are using the word “Telephone” meaning Telegraphy or what we nowadays call Radio (which is more of a broadcast to many people than a one-on-one conversation), but then I found this article from 1914:




This is obviously not a reference to telegraphy, but a wireless device for two people speaking privately across a distance. The article informs us that wireless communication has already been in use and heard at 400 miles distance from the sea.

And then there’s this article published in the Junction Weekly (Kansas City) on February 24, 1911:







This article too states that they have been using the wireless device in Omaha. It was already an established reality by 1911.

Side-note: Modern wireless phones even though they came to the general public in the late 1990s, were already invented by Motorola in 1973. It makes you wonder why it took Motorola and Nokia 25 years to deliver the invention to the general public.


A 1914 article in the New York Times, saying that the wireless phones by Union Pacific are now ready to deploy in train lines:



And then what happened? World War 1 happened and widespread implementation apparently disappeared from public consciousness. Instead, in 1915, the first long distance call, using wires, was made after creating 4760 miles of telephone line between New York and California.

The Historical Timeline of Telephones, used by Encyclopedias, makes no mention of the wireless devices.

I found another entry about Frederick Millener (sometimes spelled Milliener and Milliner) in a 1909 New York Times article:

OMAHA, Neb., May 14. — Dr. Frederick Millener, formerly of Buffalo, N.Y., but now wireless electrical expert of the Union Pacific Railroad has repeated his successful experiment of last night in controlling 4,000 incandescent electric lamps in the Omaha Electrical Show from a wireless telegraph station at Fort Omaha, five miles from the building. 

The phone was not Milleners only wireless accomplishment! Union Pacific is a railroad company existing from the time of Abraham Lincoln to this very day. Their website, timeline and history page makes no mention of these historical events.


At the turn of the century, people were optimistic about wireless phones. So much so that the 1910 book pictured above, predicts that wireless telephones will be in standard use “within 10 years” (by 1920). But that never happened, at least not on this timeline.

A possible reason crystal radio disappeared from the market, is because the amount of energy harvested wasn’t high enough. But had people focused more on techniques of harvesting energy, then maybe by now, anyone could build their own free communication device within an hour, without needing to pay both telecommunication companies and energy providers. I don’t know about you, but this thought inspires me.


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