Talking Wires: The Development of the Telephone

July 26, 1996 - November 3, 1996

The Early Telephone
While working on devices to help the hearing-impaired in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell developed a simple combination receiver (earphone) and transmitter (microphone) using a bar magnet, a coil of fine wire and a thin metal disk (diaphragm). Bell's device worked both as a microphone and an earphone. Its urgent use was demonstrated by Bell when he spilled some acid on his trousers, and exclaimed, summoning his Laboratory assistant in the next room -- 'Come here. Watson. I need you!' Unfortunately, the sound was quite weak and could not serve as the basis of a commercial telephone. However, the receiver portion of his device worked very well and was used in virtually all commercial telephones around the world.

The missing element was a better transmitter or microphone. A device that would generate a strong electrical equivalent of the voice would complete a telephone that could be used for long distance communication. This device, the carbon microphone, was invented by both Edison and Francis Blake in 1877 and patented by Edison. It is still in use in many phones today. A battery provided the necessary electrical power and two copper wires strung on telephone poles connected the interested parties. Additional people could tap into these wires with their own phone units, and thus all be able to talk to one another - even at the same time. Perhaps this presaged the current Internet.

Ringers and the Party Line
How do we signal the person at a remote location that we want to speak to them on the telephone? Someone got the bright idea to install a bell (ringer) at each phone (Watson, Alexander Graham Bell's assistant, invented this device). Another device, a hand-cranked magneto generator, was required to cause the bell to ring. This generator was included with the battery in the telephone box (cabinet). A few vigorous cranks caused the ringers on each phone to alert the other parties. Naturally, all those along the line lifted the receiver and heard the complete conversation, even if it wasn't meant for their ears! This first system was known as the party line. It proved to be very popular--especially among bored housewives.

The Dial Telephone
We now have all the ingredients for a means to talk to one another over vast distances at any time of the day or night. Except-how do we single out the one party that we want to speak with from everyone else? And, can we make the phone more compact and convenient to use?

The first question was answered with the invention of the telephone dial. Each phone can be assigned a unique telephone number (address). When someone dials this number via a device that interrupts the dial tone in pulses corresponding to the digits of this number, special switches in the telephone central exchange building connect him to the desired person. When this connection has been established, the remote phone rings until that person lifts the receiver and says, "Hello?" The simple mechanism behind the dial consists of a spring-driven rotary interrupter-switch whose speed is governed to produce a series of equally spaced pulses. You wind the spring each time you dial a digit of the person's number.

Clearly, the original large wall-mounted box telephone has been made very compact, reliable and inexpensive to own and operate. Even though the telephone described above served very well for at least 50 years, we have now moved into the era of tone dialing. The pulses have been replaced by bursts of tones which are heard in the receiver when we push the digit buttons on our touch tone phones. Our phones have become electronic rather than merely electric. This opens up many new possibilities for the transmission of data, pictures, video and concepts such as electronic banking, bill paying, and the ubiquitous Internet!

From The Single Telephone to the Telephone System
One telephone makes about as much sense as one hand clapping! In just a little over one hundred years, how did we get from the first telephone to the wondrous system of today? One man, with the help of his fiancee, his prospective father-in-law, a friend, and a young journeyman machinist began the telephone system that was admired throughout the world: The Bell System. This account begins in 1876. Alexander Graham Bell, working with Charles Willlams' local machine shop, had developed the first working model of his most famous invention. Bell, never to be mistaken as a "hands-on" guy in the workshop, had leaned heavily on the services of Thomas A. Watson, a 22-year old journeyman machinist. The telephone was a success, but how to make a company out of an obscure technical miracle? Let's look beyond the dusty balance sheets and organization charts, and see what each of these principals brought to the party.

Principal Players: Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)
In the words of his father writing to Mabel Hubbard a few years before her marriage (1877) to Alexander Bell: "Alec will make an excellent husband. He is hotheaded, but warmhearted; sentimental, dreamy and self-absorbed, but sensitive and unselfish. He is ambitious to a fault...". He was the visionary, the idealist, with tremendous intellectual curiosity and virtually zero business interest. True to the pattern of successful entrepreneurs everywhere, he withdrew from all technical and management functions by 1878 (although he did continue with marketing and PR functions).

Thomas A. Watson (1854-1935) the machinist
Watson was a self-made man, whose formal schooling ended in his 14th year. After trying a few dead-end jobs. He found the opening at Charles Williams' machine shop in 1872, which gave him the opportunity of his life. He was speedy and thorough in his work: his dislike of production work led him to design ingenious shortcuts to speed up the dull side. In just two years, he qualified as journeyman, and was assigned the most complex and original jobs. It was in this capacity that Bell met Watson, and from then on the two worked together. Watson, who was in the center of research, development and production, left the company in 1881 at age 27, never to return. He went on a journey of self- exploration and education, traveling around the world lecturing, failing totally (going into bankruptcy) in a business venture, becoming a Shakespearean actor, and doing more lecturing.

Gardiner Green Hubbard, the father-in-law
Hubbard was a distinguished lawyer, the first president of the National Geographic Society and a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution. He had made and lost several fortunes in technological ventures and organized the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. In 1878, Hubbard recruited Theodore Vail. who was then the superintendent of the Post Office's Railway Mail Service. This was probably the most momentous personnel decision in the history of the Bell System.

Theodore N. Vail (1845-1920), the friend
Vail was not a man of his own time: He was far in advance of it. Unlike the Robber Barons of finance of that age who saw the accumulation of money itself as the sole purpose of their lives, Vail looked on money as merely a resource whose only value was to advance the System. He never lost sight of his personal dream of a unified, interlocking system..."One Policy, One System, Universal Service" He introduced enlightened personnel policies, instituted pension and benefit plans, and made employee ownership of stock possible on the installment plan. His motto was, "Take the public into your confidence and you win the confidence of the public."

In 1887, Vail clashed once too often with the Boston bankers who had financed the Bell Company. Vail chose to invest everything in the company, to improve service: The bankers were blind to anything but a high dividend return. This break with the classic capitalist mind forced him to leave before his work was done and then return to the rescue when so-called "practical men of business" failed. He took an extended two-and-a-half year journey for his health and then threw himself into various personal pursuits as far disparate as driving a four-horse "four-in-hand" carriage and playing the pipe organ. Concurrently, he was organizing new ventures throughout the world and playing the perfect host for his many friends. After a twenty year hiatus, he returned to the Bell Company as chief executive and did some of his finest work.

The Organization Grows
From the beginning, Bell and his associates recognized that it was not sufficient to produce and sell telephones. The goal was to sell service, which in turn demanded the development of all the support equipment we see today.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)--The Early Years
Alexander Graham Bell was born into a family whose lives and passions revolved around sound, speech, and communication. His grandfather was a Scottish cobbler, tavern keeper, and comedian who also gave staged readings, and who gained prominence as a professor of elocution. In London, he opened an elocution school and developed a lucrative practice in the treatment of speech disorders. Legend has it that his expertise in smoothing out a Cockney accent so impressed George Bernard Shaw that he became the model for Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (later, My Fair Lady).

Bell's father was a linguist who taught speech to the deaf and gained international fame by inventing a phonetic alphabet called Visible Speech. This coded system reduced all verbal sounds to thirty-four written symbols. Bell's mother, Eliza Symonds Bell, was deaf. A painter of miniatures, she was also a talented pianist who was able to "hear" the music she played by placing the mouthpiece of her ear tube on the piano's sounding board. With a tuning fork in each hand, her young son would stand for hours toying with the piano's vibrating strings, intrigued by the mysterious nature of sound and how it travels along wires and into the air.

When Bell was twenty-three, both of his brothers died from tuberculosis. Fearing further loss, since Bell suffered from the disease himself, his family moved to Canada where he recovered.

Teaching deaf children to speak was a revolutionary idea in America, where sign Language or institutionalization were the prevailing remedies. Bell traveled to America as his father's emissary and in 1872 introduced Visible Speech at the Boston School for the Deaf. Under his tutelage, the deaf began to speak. He opened his own school of vocal physiology and became a professor at Boston University.

In 1877, Bell married Mabel Hubbard. the daughter of one of his financial backers. Mabel had lost her hearing at the age of four during an epidemic of scarlet fever and had come to Bell as a pupil. Alexander and Mabel, who had two daughters, were married for forty-five years. He left the management of the Bell Company to others and became involved in various endeavors. He invented an audiometer, founded Science magazine and helped launch National Geographic. He offered his home as a classroom for the first Montessori school in America, acquired twelve honorary doctorates, and forever refused to have a telephone in his study. He resented its persistent jangle. When he died of diabetes in 1922 at the age of seventy-eight, all telephone service throughout the United States stopped for one silent minute.

Alexander Graham Bell - The Invention
When not teaching, Bell turned his attention to Samuel Morse's telegraph. Introduced in 1844, It required operators to translate coded messages sent over a wire, and only one message could be transmitted at a time. This caused untold backups and delays.

Competition to correct the situation was intense. Bell, Thomas Edison, and the Western Union Telephone Company, to name a few, were striving to develop a telegraph that would be capable of sending several messages over a single wire simultaneously.

In 1874 Bell brought to Thomas Watson's electrical shop in Boston the blueprints for his harmonic telegraph, which was based on tuning forks with flexible organ reeds. All winter they tried to get it to work without success. One evening Bell told Watson, though, that he had another idea where he thought it would be possible to talk by telegraph.

Bell said, "If I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity, precisely as the air varies in density during the production of a sound, I should be able to transmit speech telegraphically." Thus started the idea for the telephone. They had a receiving room and a transmitting room. One day Watson plucked at a transmitter spring that had stopped vibrating and Bell came rushing into Watson's room, asking, "What did you do then? Don't change anything!" What Watson did was a lucky accident. In trying to free a reed too tightly secured to the pole of its electromagnet, he had produced a "twang", which was transmitted to the next room.

What made it possible was something called a liquid transmitter, which would deliver the current needed to transmit actual words. The liquid was, in fact, battery acid. The next day they built a crude telephone machine and strung the world's first telephone wire. Bell's patent application was filed in 1876: he was twenty-nine years old.

Bell's patent was filed 2 hours before American inventor Elisha Gray filed a patent caveat (a caveat is a notice of intent to file a patent) for his own telephone design. Although Gray challenged Bell in court, Bell's patent rights were upheld. Still, many believe that Gray should have received the credit. Gray subsequently went on to found the Western Electric Manufacturing Company.

Alexander Graham Bell -- After the Invention
The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia occurred in 1876. Bell had his new telephone there and an international panel of judges marveled at his machine. 'My God, it talks!" People exulted, as Bell sputtered out Hamlet's soliloquy over the line from the main building one hundred yards away.

Bell and Watson took their machine on the road, greeting each other with "Ahoy! Ahoy!" over longer and longer distances, using the first official form of telephonic address. (Thomas Edison was the first person to use "hello" in answering the phone.) In 1877, Bell and his patent partners founded the Bell Telephone Company (with 10 percent for Watson). Two days later, Bell married Mabel Hubbard, and as a wedding present, he gave her 30 percent of the company's shares.

They sailed to England where Bell introduced Queen Victoria to the telephone. Further events of the year included the first use of the telephone in newspaper reporting, the first telephone advertisement, and the first telephone made available for business use.

Many companies tried to introduce their own telephones and Bell's patent was infringed upon over and over. But in over six hundred lawsuits, his patent withstood attack and he won every case.

A Comparison of Bell with Edison
Astrologers might be interested in the fact that Edison and Bell were born within days of each other. Yet these two figures, whose names dominated the public mind in the field of technology, possessed characteristics which spanned the entire conceivable spectrum of factors that make a successful inventor.

And yet, they were similar in many ways. Both were deficient in mathematics, having minds of a primarily visual cast. Neither spared himself energy or time when hot on the trail of an idea or attacking a difficulty, though Bell never locked up an entire laboratory, as Edison did, refusing to let his men leave until a problem had been solved!

Both were famous at early ages from inventions which caught the public's imagination and resulted In short lived crazes for telephone and phonograph lectures. It is ironic that Edison's telephone improvements made Bell's discovery capable of wide application, and Bell's work on phonograph recording and duplication turned Edison's invention into a popular, commercial article.

Both were active in biological studies, Edison in hybrid plants, Bell in heredity and selective breeding. Empirical in their methods, both mounted enormous numbers of experiments and trials to find materials and forms for their ideas.

Omnivorous readers, their methods were haphazard, spasmodic and uninhibited in approaching the difficulty of any subject. Both were agnostics in religion. Edison was deaf, and Bell devoted much of his life to that affliction. Their powers of concentration were extraordinary, and both kept detailed voluminous journals.

But the indispensable attributes they shared were: a childlike wonder at the mysteries of creation: a stubborn, often mindless faith that diligence coupled to thought could make an apparatus for penetrating those mysteries: and a purposeful serenity, devoid of all doubt in the value of their work. Invention, admittedly, is only one species of creativity, but it is still important and needed. Its psychology remains unmapped in our time.
(From The Telephone Book, H. M. Boettinger)

Thomas Edison Says "Hello"
Thomas Edison was responsible for the way we answer the telephone today. Originally people wound the phone with a crank, which rang a bell, and then said: "Are you there?" This took too much time for Edison. During one of the hundreds of tests made in his laboratory, he picked up the phone one day, twisted the crank and shouted: "Hello!" This became the way to answer the telephone all over America, and it still is. -- Margaret Cousins, The Story of Thomas Alva Edison. (1965)

How to Connect Two Telephones Together
This is fairly easy: Just run a pair of wires from one phone to the other. One to carry the electrons out, and the other for the electrons to return--you have to have both to have a working circuit! This is just what Alexander Graham Bell did; he had one phone in his office and the other in Watson's workshop. They could talk back and forth, with no one interrupting. No batteries or other power source was necessary -- the telephones operated on the electricity generated by the receiver/transmitter diaphragm moving under the influence of the speaker's sound waves. But sound quality wasn't very good, and it certainly wasn't very powerful!

In 1876, Bell did some further experiments outside, using stovepipe wire nailed to a fence as the conductors. This was the first, but certainly not the last, time that anyone used an "iron-wire" line. It worked well enough to prove the point over a quarter-mile transmission path and it was used extensively in the many private telephone companies well into the twentieth century. He then borrowed an existing telegraph circuit that was installed properly on a pole line and talked, first over a one-way path of eight miles, and then over a 16-mile path in 1877.

How to Connect More Than Two Telephones Together
This isn't at all difficult, either...not as long as you don't mind having everyone able to talk and to listen in at the same time! It's called a party line, and many communities were set up this way, with ten or more parties all on one line. By now, the telephone engineers had figured out that you needed some way to tell the distant party that you'd like to speak with them. They installed a ringing generator on the line: This was a device that you'd crank to make a voltage which went down the line and rang a bell at the other end. Of course, with ten people on the line, you needed to have a different set of rings for each person. And, believe it or not, this type of service was still the only thing available in a number of places in the United States into the late 1940s. The Bell System was constantly urged by the US government to take over these multiparty iron-wire telephone companies and upgrade the service to industry standard.

Switchboards: How to Selectively Connect Two or More Telephones
In July of 1877, a druggist in Hartford, Connecticut installed a switchboard to connect seven doctors to his store. This was the first switchboard, which was followed by a veritable explosion of these critical items in the telephone central offices. At the beginning, boys of 12-16 years were hired to operate the boards. Because of a lack of discipline, they were soon replaced by young women who set a far higher standard. As more telephones were added to each central office, switchboard demands increased astronomically. A rule of thumb: The number of switching appearances must equal the product of half the number of phones times the total number of phones (for 50 phones, one needs 1250 appearances). Here's how that is accomplished:

  1. A small switchboard can be handled by one operator, who plugs connecting cords into the socket (jack) of the calling party, and a matching connecting cord into the socket of the called party.
  2. As the number of telephones in the central office increases, the switchboard must grow larger. Finally, it is so busy that one operator cannot handle all of the calls on the lines. The fix? Another switchboard, identical to the first, set right beside the first one, connected to the same circuits as the first, and worked by a second operator. Either operator can answer a caller; together, they can answer twice as many calls.
  3. The size of a single switchboard is limited by the reach of the operator, who has to plug the connecting cords into any two sockets on the board. The number of "multiple appearances" (all the same sockets that were in the first switchboard) is set by the telephone caller activity. Historical precedent set the telephone central office size to 7,500-10,000 telephones. If more phones than that were required, a new central office was built.

    operator and switchboard

  4. Long-distance switchboards followed the same above practices. However, instead of having jacks for the subscriber telephone, they had jacks for each destination city. In 1984, the long-distance branch of the Bell System had 20,000 operators. It now has 8,000 operators, a number that is steadily being whittled down. The last manual long-distance switchboard using cords, located in Peabody Massachusetts, was shut down in September, 1996.

The Automatic Telephone Operator
The switchboard operator certainly was a big improvement over party telephones. But wasn't there perhaps a quicker, better way to connect two telephones? An undertaker by the name of Almon Strowger, who lived in Kansas City, reputedly was being harassed by operators who gave his customers the wrong numbers, in an effort to drive him out of business. He responded by inventing a gadget that made the telephone connection at the central office without operator assistance. Automatic Electric, a company formed to exploit this gadget, made a giant business out of it as a "step-by-step" dialing system. The company continued In the telephone business, becoming the central organization of GTE.

Although the step-by-step dial system was probably the most widely used, there were two other popular systems:

  1. Panel, wherein a group of vertical rods would slide up and down over contacts in a panel board.
  2. Cross-Bar, which was an extension of the normal relay, except that the relay armature would operate all of the contacts in a 17 inch wide assembly.

Talking Long Distances When No One Has Invented Amplifiers
For a number of years, telephones operated without the use of amplifiers to step up the power going out on the line. In fact, no one had invented vacuum tubes, let alone transistors, and there was no way to amplify a telephone conversation. The carbon-button microphone, a great improvement on Bell's original dynamic phone, served well for local conversations. But people wished to talk over greater distances.

In 1884, it was Boston to New York City: the next year, Philadelphia to New York. In 1892, people could speak from Chicago to New York, a distance of about 700 miles with no energy but that delivered by the human voice! To do this, special open-wire telephone lines, suspended as usual from telephone poles, were used. Typical wire in those days was 8-gauge hard-drawn copper, measuring over 1/8" in diameter and weighing about 900 pounds for every mile of circuit! 700 miles would have been the maximum distance possible, except for a clever invention in 1900 by a Columbia University professor, Michael Pupin. He derived a "loading" concept for the telephone lines, and actually reduced the amount of power lost in the line. This improvement resulted in a long-distance line from New York to Denver by 1911, with energy supplied only by the speaker's voice.

Electron-Tube (Vacuum Tube) Amplifiers
The invention of the triode vacuum tube by Lee de Forest in 1908, and his selling of the rights to this invention to the Bell System in 1912, brought a powerful new device to telephone service. The vacuum tube was the magic key to unlocking the problem of clear, loud, long-distance communication. Fragile, unstable, short-lived, somewhat unpredictable, the tube still performed wonders as a power amplifier to make up the losses in the telephone lines.

An experimental three-amplifier circuit, running from New York to San Francisco, was operating in 1914. By the next year, a six-amplifier circuit over the same route was serving commercially. The line loss was 60 dB. Without the amplifiers, 1/1,000,000 of the transmitted energy would have arrived at the receiving end of the line. The amplifiers made up for 40 dB of gain (10,000 times power amplification), leaving a line that had about the same losses as some of the short-distance interurban lines.

Although this was a marvelous step forward, it still left much to be desired. The instability, sensitivity to battery voltage on the elements, and rapid aging were all serious problems that demanded a lot of maintenance attention. But in 1927, H.S. Black of Bell Telephone Laboratories, while pursuing a better way to adjust the gain (or volume) of an amplifier, stumbled across an astonishing phenomenon. His modified circuit actually stabilized the vacuum tube amplifier against all of these infirmities. The theoretical concept is termed negative feedback. It was a number of years before Hendrick W. Bode of Bell Labs provided a solid mathematical explanation, understanding, and design approach to this concept, but it revolutionized amplifier design.

The amplifiers were now used as building blocks, plugged in wherever necessary to provide gain and operating virtually without any attention. They could now be set in remote, unattended locations, or placed in undersea service, and yet would continue to function impeccably.

How to Connect All the Bloomin' Wires
The first few telephones didn't leave many tracks as their circuits moved across town. However, as more and more phones became active, the proliferation of pole lines and wires festooning these lines became first more amazing, then astounding, then a downright bloomin' nuisance. Pictures of the New York City scene in the late l880s show pole lines with as many as 15 to 20 cross arms, and up to 350 wires per pole! Something had to be done!

The answer was to make up a cable consisting of a number of pairs of wires, with each pair devoted to a single telephone. The entire cable could then be buried in the earth, out of sight and out of harm. This was no easy task. In the time of- no plastics--no synthetic rubber or silicones--no amplifiers!

The development of telephone cables is a complete story in itself, but the highlights are these:

  1. Try gutta percha used in submarine cables -- but the loss is too great. (Gutta percha is latex found in the stem and leaves of certain trees growing in Malaysia and various South Sea Islands.)
  2. Use paper-insulated wires: Lower loss, but the paper gets wet.
  3. Encase the whole thing in a lead sheath, pump it full of dry air and then keep track of the pressure, so that if a leak develops, one can detect it before water seeps in.
  4. Do something to scare off the squirrels, gophers, and other rodents, all of whom would like to eat the cable.
  5. Make a proper bunch of all the wire pairs in the cable to minimize cross-talk (one telephone conversation showing up in another telephone circuit).
  6. Make up all of the necessary fittings so that loading coils can be installed without causing air or water leakage into the lead cable.

Somehow or other, all of these and many other problems were successfully solved. Cables were in service by 1900, and rapidly displaced the open-wire lines in cities. Service in the rural areas and toll-line service remained open-wire, because of its lower loss and longer distance capability.

The Social Effects of the Telephone
It's hard to believe in today's telephone-saturated society, but in the beginning, all emphasis on telephone use was for business-related activities. After struggling to persuade Americans that his invention was more than a toy, Alexander Graham Bell was determined to keep the telephone for serious purposes. The first subscribers were usually doctors, druggists, and businessmen, and the phone was not immediately available to private homes. Service was expensive at a time when wages were a few dollars a week. Where private homes did have phones, most had servants to answer them and take messages. Even after the telephone company realized that residential service could be profitable, it pitched its ads as a "household executive."

Many people soon realized the advantages of the telephone. Women discovered the telephone as a means to a wider social life, as well as a convenience for ordering goods and services. As homes moved further from the center of town, phone calls came to replace "visiting over the back fence." Farmers were quick to demand service, although they often had to organize subscribers and string the wires themselves. Access to market prices, weather reports, and emergency aid was the practical reason for getting a phone, but many of the families used it for relief from loneliness and isolation.

With phones now in outlying areas, merchants were eager to install more to handle orders, but there were many complaints about social conversations tying up the lines. "Chatting on the phone" was regarded as "one more female foolishness," and women speaking on the phone were the object of many cartoons and other prejudices. The telephone was effective, though, in freeing women from traditional social limitations, and it was also important in offering them economic opportunity in the growing telephone industry.

Women became telephone operators: The telephone company even provided the training. Women soon moved into the business office to handle billing and customer complaints, or they worked on the production line at the plants manufacturing equipment.

As early as 1909, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company described its Bell System as a "Highway of Communication." Already 25% of American homes had installed phones, and there were many more in businesses and public places. So much "communication" inevitably resulted in problems, and the telephone company found it was necessary to campaign for courtesy and to forbid profanity, yelling, and abuse.

The telephone company's simple advice to practice "The Golden Rule" was eventually replaced by entire chapters in etiquette books, as Americans everywhere looked for ways to cope with this fabulous but demanding invention.

The Telephone as an Instrument Of Self-Torture
The telephone, when you do speak on it, effectively strips your personality of all its non-audio charm-all smiles and winks and other facial expressions that help to convey subtlety and clarify your meaning. And God help you if you don't have a beautiful voice. Then, too, when you speak on the telephone you never know quite what's going on at the other end of the line. You can't see the facial expressions of whomever you're talking to, so you really never know where you are with them. Perhaps they're bored. Or dripping wet. Or watching television. Perhaps they have put the receiver down and walked away. Perhaps someone else is with them, listening to what you're saying, and they're both exchanging funny faces and other signals, and they can scarcely contain their laughter about what you're saying. Paranoia, anyone?

A Love-Hate Relationship with the Telephone
"I understand why the telephone is in theory a good thing, and I would be very unhappy were l unable to make use of one when I pleased, or in an emergency, but the truth is that l do not like the telephone. I do not like the sound of it. I do not particularly admire how they look, even the old ones, even the new ones that look like Barbie or Mickey Mouse.

I do not like what seems to be happening, in a sociological sense, with telephones, that people on the street or in a restaurant now take out cellular phones to make a quick call during dinner. I do not think that answering machines have made my life any simpler or better. They may have improved the lives of some people, but not mine.

It now takes six calls to impart the kind of information that used to be accomplished in one telephone conversation. There are three or four exchanges of messages, then the actual information is left on the machine, and then there is a later message in which the caller seeks to know if his message has been received, and if it is agreeable. I understand that the supposed benefit of answering machines is that you do not have to have a conversation with another human being, that is the very point of them, not efficiency, but that does not seem to me to be a good thing either. I would prefer neither to talk on the telephone nor to leave a message or to receive one.

There is one time, however, that I do like the telephone, and that is at the beginning of a love affair, when the telephone becomes a totem. It is possessed of magic, symbolism, power. The telephone becomes the source of all pleasure and pain. One stares at it, lifts the receiver to make sure that it is working. Restrains oneself from making other calls. Holds it in one's lap. Throws it across the room." -- Susanna Moore, novelist. 1993

Telephones In Early Palo Alto
Telephone service came to Palo Alto in 1892 when enterprising businessman John F. Parkinson installed a phone in his lumber and hardware store on Alma Sheet. The lumberyard was also the location of the first post office and telegraph service. This first public phone served a community of 300 and connected residents with their neighbors in Menlo Park and Mayfield.

Service to subscribers was provided by ringing a bell installed in their homes or businesses to notify them there was a message waiting at the central office. Parkinson, who later became mayor of Palo Alto, often answered the phone and delivered the messages himself.

The first phone company to begin service in Palo Alto was the Sunset Telephone Company, which started service in 1893. It installed a switchboard and solicited subscribers for $4 a month. Early subscribers included J. Farmin's butcher shop and Morris and Mershan, real estate agents, but service was only available during business hours, and the telephone network grew slowly.

Sunset moved its office to Hall's Pharmacy at University and High Streets, which provided a "soundproof conversation room" -- Palo Alto's first public telephone booth! Shortly afterward, the threat of competition brought the price down to $1.50 a month, and by the end of 1897, twenty phones were installed, and subscribers included two doctors and the editors of both local newspapers. When the exchange moved in 1901 to offices over Smith's Cyclery on the Circle, service for the 100 subscribers required three daytime operators, with a Stanford student on call at night. Telephone installers of the era often used bicycles to reach their customers -- and had a job transporting all the needed equipment.

Relations between townspeople and the phone company were often rocky. The City Council criticized the size and shape of the poles, and there were many complaints about the poor quality of the service. At a lively meeting in 1905, the company spokesperson responded that this was "due to the town's having outgrown its trousers." He promised the company would do better. However, dissatisfaction was so great over utility poles with cross-arms, that the company was finally persuaded to install a lead-coated cable with 150 pairs of wires to run down University Avenue, thus permitting removal of the unsightly poles.

The rapid increase in demand for service required frequent moves to larger quarters. Merchants urged their customers to "shop by mail or telephone." Bixby and Lillie Grocers installed a second phone "for better service," the Stanford Deli suggested ordering "home cooking," and the newspaper listed the numbers of local businesses.

On February 8, 1915, Palo Alto received its first coast-to-coast long- distance call when Mrs. B. S. Mitchell's son-in-law in New York called to reassure her about the success of her daughter's operation. In 1929 the phone company (now Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company) shifted over to the automatic dial system, and Palo Alto's telephone service entered the modern era.

Emma N. Nutt, First Telephone Operator
Early telephones were connected to each other by switchboards. The iron or copper wire joined customers' telephones to the telegraph wires, which plugged Into the central office. The earliest switchboards required operators to drag the wires across the bare floor to connect one subscriber to another. The first people to handle this job were young men who had worked at the telegraph office. However, most of them turned out to be ill-suited for the job. They insulted callers, pulled pranks and crossed wires. Young women were recruited for the job, especially those with patience and composure.

Miss Emma M. Nutt of Boston became the first central switchboard operator. She was working at the telegraph office when she changed jobs in 1878, and was the first to be addressed as "Central", a nickname that would stick for the next fifty years.

Emma, earning ten dollars a month and necessarily single (the New England Telephone Company did not hire married women until 1942), set the stage for many a respectable young woman eager to make a living as something other than schoolmarm, shop girl, or nurse.

The operator's wardrobe was as prim and proper as she was. Starched and corseted, she perched stiffly on her stool, the metal headset flattening her hair, the six-pound Gilliland Harness weighing down her shoulders and strapped around her waist. She was not allowed to cross her legs, blow her nose, or wipe her brow without permission of her female supervisor. She worked nine hours a day, six days a week, with no overtime. Lunch was provided by the company, since it was considered inappropriate for a young woman to travel about looking for a restaurant. In spite of this carefully regulated life, the telephone operator's job was a coveted one.

The Phone of the Future
Talk to your parents long-distance over the Internet? With today's technology, you can call Dad on the other side of the country or world at no more than the cost of your local Internet access. The potential of Net phones to circumvent long-distance rates has been a big part of their appeal to consumers. Feeling threatened, a group of long-distance sub carriers has asked the government to stop the technology before it has a chance to move out of its infancy. Some long distance carriers, such as AT&T, Sprint, and MCI are going to become Internet carriers. Right now, there are no restrictions on Net phone use, although the technology imposes its own limitations.

Besides the cost benefits, other pluses result from the computer's ability to handle text and graphics in addition to sound, and from computers being networked. For example, Internet phones make great answering machines. Because of the way computers connect to one another, they always know who's calling. You can therefore create specific messages for specific callers. You also can save voice messages, route them, and create database records from call logs. Voice conversations can be expanded into audio-visual conferences. And because most Internet telephone users will connect through a central server, the systems form new types of networking hubs, worldwide switchboards where you can meet new people, screening your choices by means of textual information displayed about each user. If you're worried about the security of Internet phone conversations, you can use encrypted systems.

However, reaching another party via Internet telephones is a lot more complicated than dialing a standard phone. For one thing, both parties need to be running the same software. Both parties must be on-line and running the software when the call is made: Otherwise the phone won't ring. Most programs require either a Macintosh or Windows system with a sound card, speakers, and microphones. At this stage, though, the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired.

Despite their shortcomings, most Internet phone programs are quite adequate for recreational (i.e., calling your parents) communications. If we gaze into the crystal ball, it appears that eventually, Internet phones will do more than replace traditional telephones. In the same way the Internet brought low-cost print and graphics communications to millions, Internet phone software is likely to extend voice communications in ways we've never imagined.


Web Sites

Adventures in Cybersound: Online dissertation Summary of the history of communications and electronics.

AT&T Laboratories Research history Covers a variety of topics concerning the history of telephony, fax, TV, and other milestones of electronics.

AT&T Technology Center. AT&T's history of the telephone and some interesting film clips.

Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries. History and vignettes from the New England Telephone Company

Interesting Telephone Facts: Christianson Telephone Collection Some off-beat photos, whimsical, not likely to be found elsewhere images.

Tribute to the Telephone Lots of photos of equipment, useful links to related sites.

Webb & Associates: Telecommunications History Timeline of telecommunications history, more links


Hello, Central?: Gender, Technology and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems: Martin, Michele & Martin, Michaele: 1991

Once Upon a Telephone: An Illustrated Social History: Stern, Ellen & Gwathmey, Emily: 1994

The Telephone and Its Several Inventors: A History: Coe, Lewis: 1995

The Telephone Enterprise: The Evolution of the Bell System's Horizontal Structure, 1876-1909: Garnet, Robert W.: 1999

Our Special Thanks

The Museum is indebted to many individuals and institutions for this exhibit. We commend and thank in particular:

The museum also wishes to thank the following people for their contributions in presenting the exhibit:
  • Suzanne Beaver
  • Herb Brams
  • Roger Broussal
  • Dick Clark
  • Ernestine Faxon
  • Charlie Gillis
  • John Grant
  • Stuart Hansen
  • Dor Hesselgrave
  • Ralph Igler
  • Frank Livermore
  • Beverly Nelson
  • Theodora Nelson
  • Bob Wersted
  • Anne Wright
  • Gordon Wright

The curator for the exhibit was Bill Wehrend.

Funding for this exhibit was provided by Cellular One.

Original booklet design by Dick Clark.

Photo credits and acknowledgments

MOAH Exhibits: Wayland Lee
Installer on bike: Christianson Telephone Collection
Thomas A. Watson: Braintree Electric Power Department
T. N. Vail: Digital Antiquaria

All trademarks, tradenames and proprietary images are the property of their owners.


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This page last updated November 27, 2010
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