The Oldest Telephone in the Western Hemisphere

Among its collection of some 137 million artifacts, the Smithsonian houses a unique piece of technology. Made of two hollowed-out gourds and a 75-foot length of twine, it’s the oldest example of telephone technology from the Western hemisphere – and it’s about 1,300 years old.

The object, featured recently in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, was made by the Chimu, a civilization that flourished in Peru for more than 500 years – until they were wiped out by the Inca around 01470.

Chimu society occupied an arid strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Western Andes. Its legacy is often eclipsed by that of the Inca, but the Chimu were well-known in their day for advanced artisanship and sophisticated social stratification. At its peak, the capital of Chan Chan was the largest city in pre-Columbian America. Spread out over about 3.8 square miles, its nine citadels were home to as many as 30,000 citizens, and formed the structural basis for a complex social hierarchy.

According to Ramiro Matos, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Chimu were also skilled and inventive engineers.

The Chimu, [he] explains, were the first true engineering society in the New World, known as much for their artisanry and metalwork as for the hydraulic canal-irrigation system they introduced, transforming desert into agricultural lands.

Their advanced irrigation system fostered a strong agriculture-based economy and allowed society to flourish – enough, it seems, to encourage some exploration of technology as a way to sustain social hierarchies. The ancient telephone now in the Smithsonian collection, Matos surmises, must have been

“a tool designed for an executive level of communication” – perhaps for a courtier-like assistant required to speak into a gourd mouthpiece from an anteroom, forbidden face-to-face contact with a superior conscious of status and security concerns.

It’s impossible to determine whether this recovered sound-transmission device was a one-of-a-kind prototype, or simply the only surviving representative of a common appliance. But in either case, the object signals a moment of revolutionary – and inspiring – technological advancement for its day.

Contemplating the brainstorm that led to the Chimu telephone – a eureka moment undocumented for posterity – summons up its 21st-century equivalent. On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs strode onto a stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco and announced, “This is the day I have been looking forward to for two and a half years.” As he swiped the touchscreen of the iPhone, it was clear that the paradigm in communications technology had shifted. The unsung Edison of the Chimu must have experienced an equivalent, incandescent exhilaration when his (or her) device first transmitted sound from chamber to chamber.

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