How Does a Paper Cup Phone Work?

Updated July 20, 2017

A paper cup phone requires two cups, a length of inelastic string, thread or fishing line, two paper clips and a pencil or sewing needle. To create a paper cup phone, poke a hole in the bottom of each of the cups with the pencil or sewing needle and thread each end of the string through each hole. Tie each end of the string to a paper clip to prevent the string from detaching from the cups. Pull the string taut and have one person speak into one of the cups while you listen through the other. The cups can be used to communicate over distances of up to 100 feet.

Sound Transmission

The paper cup phone is a popular science experiment due to how well it illustrates the mechanics of sound transmission. Sound requires a source to vibrate at an audible frequency (generally between 12 Hz and 20 kHz). These vibrations travel through any solid, liquid or gaseous medium as longitudinal waves. Though sound waves can travel through air, solid and liquid mediums transmit sound more effectively, due to their greater density.

Speaking into the cup transmits the sound of the speaker's voice into the bottom of the cup. The bottom of the cup acts as a diaphragm and vibrates with the sound of the speaker's voice. As the bottom of the cup vibrates, it transmits the vibrations into the taut string. The sound travels along the string as a longitudinal wave and ultimately vibrates the bottom of the receiving cup. The cup transmits the sound into the air around the listener's ear, allowing her to hear the speaker. Because the sound travels through solid mediums--the cup and the string--it travels more effectively than through air, allowing the users to communicate across large distances with volumes that would be inaudible if spoken through air.

Effective Cup Phones

The string must be pulled taut in order for the phone to work. Longitudinal waves travel through a medium by a process of compression and rarefaction, which in this case alters the tension of the string. If the string is not taut, the alterations in tension will not vibrate the listener's cup. Similarly, elastic strings will not work properly, because the wave will just stretch the string without vibrating the listener's cup.

Don't let the string come into contact with any other objects, as this will partially divert the sound wave into the object, causing a weaker signal on the receiving end.

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About the Author

Based in New Mexico, Carlos Soto has written video gaming and technology articles since 2005. His writing has appeared on popular websites such as GameFAQs and Destructoid. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dramatic writing from New York University.