The Culture That Invented A Phone 1,200 Years Ago

Old telephone on wooden background
“I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone.” —Bjarne Stroustrup

In A Nutshell

The Chimu civilization of northern Peru was conquered by the Inca around 1470, but it left behind some intriguing traces of the thriving society it once was. In spite of having no written language and no way to draw blueprints and plans, they successfully built a city of more than 10,000 buildings and nine palaces, using a system of canals 80 kilometers (50 mi) long to irrigate the desert with water flowing through a northern river. They also invented a rudimentary telephone, a simple system of two gourds with a long piece of cotton twine stretched between them, with hide membranes used in the receivers.

The Whole Bushel

Ask anyone who invented the telephone, and you’re likely to hear some nonsense about Alexander Graham Bell and the 19th century. While he was the first one to patent the telephone, he was working on a concept that had been thought of much earlier.

One of the artifacts of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Maryland is an earlier version of the telephone. It was made sometime between 1,200 and 1,400 years ago by the Chimu culture, a Peruvian civilization that fell to the Inca in the 15th century. Even though they don’t have the same name recognition factor as the Inca, the Maya, or the Aztecs, they’re one of the first truly engineering-based cultures of the Americas. Their location in northern Peru was nothing less than desert and would have been a pretty inhospitable place, if not for the extensive, hydraulic irrigation systems they created to turn desert into farmland.

The early telephone is one that will look familiar even in the age of our smartphones, and it’s similar to one that many of us made when we were young. It’s a simple thing, two hollowed gourds used as receivers with a 22-meter-long (75 ft) cotton and twine cord stretched between them. The gourds are outfitted with hide membranes stretched along their bases to amplify the sound, making it an incredibly advanced solution for an age-old problem.

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The phones were most likely a tool of the elite, with researchers guessing they were probably used by the priest class or to communicate with a sacred or high-ranking individual so powerful that it was forbidden for those of lesser rank to meet him face to face. Those are only guesses, though, and only one example has ever been found. Still, it’s a massive achievement for an ancient culture that had no written language and no way of drawing blueprints or layouts for their city or building projects.

The other achievements of the Chimu are no less impressive. At its height, its capital city, Chan Chan, was the largest adobe city in the world and the largest city in the Americas, with more than 10,000 buildings protected by walls 10 meters (30 ft) high. By the time of its downfall, it was home to around 60,000 people, all living under a strict system where a single monarch reigned, artisans and craftsmen were highly revered, and priests paid tribute to the Sun, which had begun life on Earth.

The Peruvian desert the Chimu settled in gets less than one-tenth of one inch of rain every year. In order to make the land livable, they needed water. That came in the year 1000, when they created an 80-kilometer (50 mi) canal that diverted water from a river north of their settlement.

The Chimu fell around 1470, when they were decimated by the Inca. Many of their craftsmen survived, returned to the Incan capital of Cuzco. By the time the Spanish arrived, they found little more than a ghost city, still elaborately decorated with vast murals hundreds of feet long and architectural wonders as costly as they were beautiful. The records of Pedro Pizarro detail the discovery of a silver-covered doorway estimated to be worth somewhere around $2 million in today’s currency.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: There’s a 1,200-year-old Phone in the Smithsonian Collections; Endangered Site: Chan Chan, Peru
UNESCO: Chan Chan Archaeological Zone

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