A re-creation of the carved oak ear Johann Philipp Reis used to hold his mouthpiece of the first telephone. (from Phillipp Reis Haus Museum)

When Alexander Graham Bell was just 13 years old, a 27-year-old high school physics teacher named Johann Philipp Reis showed a bunch of scientists in Frankfurt, Germany, a battery-powered thing that carried the human voice over copper wires to another room.

Historians say Reis built the first “modern” telephone, but you probably wouldn’t recognize it.

It was 150 years ago last month that Reis showed off his invention. First, you spoke into a wooden ear he carved. Stuck in the middle was a piece of metal connected to batteries. Your voice caused the metal to vibrate, and it was carried over copper wires to another room.

That’s when things really got weird. In that other room, the wires were connected to a knitting needle with more copper wires twisted around it and then wrapped in silk. The needle was placed in a violin, where it vibrated.

Anyone standing near the violin could hear what somebody had said into the “ear” in the other room. But today’s popular cellphone frustration — “Can you hear me now?” — also was a problem for Reis’s invention. Sometimes, it was just hard to understand what was being said.

A shot of Reis, with his wife, Margarethe, their two children, Carl and Elise. (Courtesy Phillipp Reis Haus Museum)

Witnesses to one of Reis’s early experiments thought his message was “The sun is made of sugar.” In fact, he had said, “The sun is made of copper.”

Reis called his invention the telefon, in German, a new word and new machine known today by practically everyone on Earth.

But Reis never got recognition for his invention. The scientists thought it was a toy and laughed at it. In 1876, two years after Reis died, 29-year-old Bell succeeded with his phone using the same process but without knitting needles and violins. His first message to his assistant in another room — “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” — was clearly understood.

Bell’s invention changed the world, and while American kids may take telephones — and their cellphones — for granted, kids in Germany remember Reis. His house has been turned into a museum, and his home town celebrates “the day of the telephone.”

Kids visit the museum to play with antique telephones, take costumed guided tours and even play in an inventor’s workshop where they can experiment and build their own telephones — just like Reis.

— Raymond M. Lane