RSS

Monthly Archives: March 2022

A Web Around the World, Part 6: Routing Calls

The telegraph networks of the late nineteenth century functioned much like the railroad networks with which they were so closely associated in the minds of the public. Each pair of Morse keys and receivers was connected to exactly one other pair via a fixed “track.” Messages traveled from station to station through the network like railroad passengers. A telegram sent from Smalltown, USA, would first be sent up the line to a larger hub station, where it would be dropped into the “outgoing” basket of another line connected to the same station that would take it to its next stop. And so on and so on, until it reached its final destination.

But the telephone wasn’t conducive to this approach. Alexander Graham Bell’s dream of being “able to chat pleasantly with friends in Europe while sitting in his Boston home” would require a different sort of network model, one more akin to the roads that would soon be built to handle automobile traffic. It would need to be possible for a message to steer its own way down a multitude of highways and byways to reach one of thousands or millions of individual addresses accessible on the network. And each message would need to do so at the same time that many other messages were doing the same thing, using the same roads. Network engineers would never again have it so easy as they had in the days when the telegraph was the only game in town.

Indeed, in contrast to this puzzle of dynamic routing, the invention of the telephone itself would soon seem a fairly minor challenge to have overcome. This new problem was too difficult, diffuse, and abstract to be solved in one eureka moment, or even a dozen of them. The worldwide telecommunications network that came into existence by the middle of the twentieth century was instead the result of steady incremental progress over the course of the decades, guided by people whose names have not found a place in history textbooks alongside those of Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Alva Edison. Yet the worldwide web these institutional inventors slowly pieced together was in its way more remarkable than any of the aforementioned men’s discrete creations. And it was also both the necessary precursor to and the medium of the computer-communications networks that would follow in the second half of the twentieth century.


The New Haven District Telephone Company’s exchange was the first of its type, heralding as much as the telephone itself a new era in communications.

The first system for letting any one telephone on a large network communicate with any other came into being in New Haven, Connecticut, on January 28, 1878. It was operated by the New Haven District Telephone Company, a spinoff of Bell Telephone, and connected 21 founding subscribers using a very simple, very physical method. The wire from each telephone on the network ran to a central exchange manned by a human operator. When you picked up your home phone to make a call, you were thus immediately connected to this individual. You told him which other subscriber you wished to speak to — the concept of phone numbers did not yet exist — whereupon he cranked a magneto to cause a bell to ring at the other end of your desired interlocutor’s line. If the individual in question picked up, the operator then linked your two telephones together using a patch cable.

It may strike us as a crude arrangement today. Certainly it was beset by obvious practical problems (what happened when more people tried to make calls than the operator could handle?) and privacy concerns (the operator could tell if a call was finished only by periodically listening in). Yet it spread like wildfire in lieu of any alternatives. The world’s second telephone exchange opened just three days after its first; by the end of 1878 there were several dozen of them in the United States, and a ringer had become an essential piece of telephony’s standard equipment. By the beginning of 1881, there were only nine cities with a population over 10,000 in the United States which didn’t boast at least one telephone exchange.

An early telephone exchange manned by boys, circa 1880. Such a place was called the “operating room” in telephony parlance, creating some amusing connotations.

The first exchange operators were, in the words of John Brooks,

an instant and memorable disaster. The lads, most of them in their late teens, who manned the telephone exchanges were simply too impatient and high-spirited for the job, which, in view of the imperfections of the equipment and inexperience of the subscribers, demanded above all patience and calm. They were given to lightening the tedium of their work by roughhousing, shouting constantly at each other, and swearing frequently at the customers.

Southwestern Bell historian David G. Park shares a typical anecdote:

In Little Rock, [Arkansas,] a prominent saloon keeper rang up and told one of the boy operators, fifteen-year-old Ashley Peay, “Connect me with my telephone at home. I want to talk to my wife.”

Ashley replied, “Your wife is talking to someone else.”

“What do you mean, my wife is talking to someone else?” the saloon keeper growled.

“I mean your line is busy,” Ashley snapped.

The saloon keeper wasn’t accustomed to being turned down by fifteen-year-old boys. “Get my wife on the line right now!” he shouted.

Young Peay’s reaction was to say, “Aw, shut up,” or words to that effect, and yank the connection.

The boy went on to handle other calls. Suddenly he was seized from behind, lifted from the floor, and shaken up and down by a furious saloon keeper. Just as the man was about to fling Peay through a glass window onto the street below, a man in the office came to the operator’s rescue.

Incidents like these occurred throughout the country…

But soon the telephone exchanges hit upon a solution: they replaced the boys with girls, who were not only more demure but willing to work for even lower wages. A newspaper article listed the job requirements:

The physical requirements of girls who are given positions in the telephone exchange are almost as stringent as those insisted upon in men enlisting in the army. To become a “hello” girl, the applicant must be not more than 30 years old [and] not less than five feet six inches tall. Her sight must be good, her hearing excellent, her voice soft, her perception quick, and her temper agile.

Every girl’s sight and hearing is tested and her height is measured before she is hired. Tall, slim girls with long arms are preferred for work on the switchboards. Fat, short girls occupy too much room and are not able to reach all of the six feet of space allocated to each operator.

With regard to nationality, it is said that girls of Irish parentage make the best operators.

The Little Rock, Arkansas, telephone exchange circa 1920, long after the unruly boys had been replaced with girls.

Almost from the very beginning, then, the job of telephone operator was seen as a female occupation, joining the jobs of schoolteacher and nanny in the eyes of the broader culture as another transitory way station for women between the onset of adulthood and marriage. The standard pay of between $1.00 and $1.50 per day reflected this. Those numbers would go up with inflation, but the other parameters of the job would remain the same for well over a century, for as long as it existed. Meanwhile the realization that female voices tend to be less threatening and more soothing in the ears of both genders would become even more embedded in the culture. (When was the last time a computer, smartphone, or GPS gadget spoke to you in a male voice?)

The systems and processes that drove the telephone exchanges improved steadily after 1878, even as the core model of a subscriber asking an operator to manually route his call via a patch wire and a switchboard remained in place for a surprisingly long time. The first telephone numbers made an appearance already in 1879, and quickly became commonplace, what with the way they eased the burden on the operators’ memory and provided telephony’s customers with at least an impression of anonymity. In December of 1887, the first Switchboard Conference was held in New York City. Tellingly, it devoted as much time to social engineering as it did to the technical side of telephony. Many a hand was wringed over the tendency of operators to say, “They won’t answer,” rather than “they don’t answer” in the case of a call that wasn’t picked up, what with the former’s intimation of neglectful intent. And it was agreed that operators should employ short rather than long rings when placing a call because “a short ring excites the curiosity of the subscriber.”

It wasn’t that no one was interested in an automated alternative to manual exchanges. The latter were inherently inefficient; a rule of thumb said that one operator was required during peak hours for every 100 telephone subscribers on a network, constituting an enormous financial drain on service providers even given the minimal salaries they paid to these employees. Despite this ample incentive, the problem kept engineers stymied for years. It was first partially solved by, of all people, an undertaker living in Kansas City, Missouri. Coming along in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Almon B. Strowger was one of the last of the breed of maverick independent inventors cum entrepreneurs who had built the telegraphy and telephony industries in earlier decades, who were soon to give way once and for all to the corporate institutionalists.


Almon B. Strowger

That said, Strowger conformed to no one’s stereotype of the genius inventor. Already 50 years old at the time of his achievement, he was a crotchety character whose irascibility verged on paranoia. The stage was set for his stroke of genius when he became convinced that the operators at his local telephone exchange had it in for him, and were deliberately misrouting his calls or not even bothering to place them. (If the anecdotes about his personality are anything to go by, there was perhaps another reason that so few people wanted to talk to him…) One of the operators was the wife of his principal rival in the undertaking business; he believed she was routing his potential customers’ calls to her husband’s establishment instead of his own.

So, he set out to remove the human operator from the equation altogether. His pique and grievance became the impetus behind the first workable automated switching system in the field of telephony.

Imagine a telephone whose cable terminates in a rotating electro-mechanical switch or relay, which looks rather like a windshield wiper. There is a button on the telephone. Every time the user presses it, a pulse of current goes down the line which causes the wiper to rotate one step, making a connection with a different receiving telephone. When the user has pressed the button a number of times corresponding to the “phone number” of the person she wishes to call, she presses a second button to cause that phone to ring, and proceeds to have a conversation. When she sets her phone down again, a switch is triggered that resets the system, dropping the wiper back to its home position in preparation for the next call. This is the Strowger system in its most basic form. Routing is still based on changing the physical connections between wires, but those physical changes are themselves now driven by electricity. For this reason, we call it an “electro-mechanical” design.

A very basic single-stage Strowger switch.

A network of more than ten or so nodes would be irredeemably tedious for the end-user of such a system, what with all the button-pressing it would require. But, crucially, the system could also be expanded by wiring more relays into it, and adding more buttons to the individual phones to control them. The system which Strowger first publicly demonstrated, for example, used two relay/button combinations to accommodate up to 100 phones, each with a unique two-digit number; the user tapped out the tens digit on one button, the ones digit on the other. In principle, the system could be extended to infinity by wiring yet more relays and buttons into the circuit.

Strowger was awarded a patent for his invention on March 10, 1891, and formed his own company soon after to exploit it. The first fully automated telephone exchange opened in La Porte, Indiana, on November 3, 1892. It was billed as the “girl-less, cuss-less, and wait-less telephone.” Strowger’s company would continue in the exchange business until 1983, first under the name of the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company and then as simply Automatic Electric.

But automated telephone exchanges would remain the exception to the rule for a long time after 1892; most people understandably preferred speaking a number to a fellow human being over pecking out long strings of digits manually and hoping for the best. Not until the 1920s would automated exchanges come to outnumber the manual ones, relegating the job of telephone operator to that of an occasional provider of information or extra help rather than the essential conduit of every single call. The key breakthrough that finally led to automated telephony’s widespread acceptance was the replacement of Strowger’s push buttons with spring-loaded dials; such “rotary phones” would remain the standard for decades to come, and would continue to function into the 1980s and beyond.

Rotary telephones like this one replaced buttons with a spring-loaded dial that sent the necessary bursts of electricity to move the switching relays at the exchange as it spun back to its resting position.



In the meantime, telephony made do with the manual exchanges. All of their inefficiencies and infelicities were thoroughly outweighed by the magic of the telephone itself. By the turn of the century, 1.4 million telephones were in service in the United States, and 25,000 or more girls and women were employed as operators. The impact of the telephone was different in nature from that of the telegraph, but no less socially significant. While it perhaps didn’t have the same immediate transformative effect on big business and international diplomacy, it was a vastly more democratic instrument, making a far more tangible change in the lives of its millions of individual users. The telegraph was a service, and thus to a large extent an abstraction; the telephone was a personally empowering technology, one you could literally hold in your hand.

Like the smartphones and tablets of our own day, telephones were condemned by certain segments of the intelligentsia, for destroying the old art of letter writing and for being a nuisance and a distraction from the truly important things in life; one article called them “an unmitigated domestic curse,” only good for “the exchange of twaddle between foolish women.” In another uncanny harbinger of more recent history, local newspapers fretted that telephones would slake the public’s thirst for their articles, columns, and calendars. (Unlike our more recent history, such fears would prove largely unfounded in this case.)

But the people couldn’t get enough of the telephone. American Bell — as Bell Telephone was now known, having adopted the new name in 1880 — was rather surprised to discover that the allegedly backward, rural areas of the country actually took to the telephone more readily than many of the nation’s urban centers. Farmers and particularly farmers’ wives, some of whom had heretofore been accustomed to going months at a time without talking to anyone outside their household, jumped on the telephone like a Titanic survivor on a lifeboat. The rural exchanges fostered a welcome new sense of community, becoming deeply embedded in the lives of the people they served, spreading news and gossip to all and sundry. Before Siri and “Hey, Google!,” there was the friendly local telephone operator to play the role of personal assistant, as captured in one housewife’s dialog from a gently satirical magazine article: “Oh, Central! Ring me up in fifteen minutes, so I don’t forget to take the bread out of the oven.” “Central, ring me up half an hour before the 2:17 train in the morning. See if it’s late before you call, please..”


For all the social changes it wrought, telephony extended its range much more slowly than telegraphy had. Cyrus Field’s transatlantic telegraph line had come to be just 22 years after the first telegraph line of any stripe was placed in service. The first transatlantic phone call, by contrast, didn’t take place until January 7, 1927, almost precisely 50 years after Roswell C. Downer had become the first person to have a telephone installed in his home. The delay was down to the nature of the two technologies.

The electrification of the Western world was in full swing at the turn of the century, to telephony’s immense benefit: hand-cranked magnetos and discrete batteries disappeared as companies like American Bell began to flood their networks with current from the grid. But the complex waveforms of telephony required much more power than a telegraph signal to travel an equivalent distance, due to a phenomenon known as attenuation: the tendency of a waveform to shed its peaks and valleys of amplitude and collapse toward uniformity as it travels farther and farther. Attenuation is in fact the same phenomenon in the broad strokes as the “signal retardation” which dogged the early days of undersea telegraphy, but it was never really an issue in terrestrial telegraphy, what with its staccato on-off approach to signaling. It could, however, play havoc with a sound waveform on a wire. The only way anyone knew of to fight attenuation was to add more power to the circuit, which in turn required thicker and thicker cables made of pure copper. This made the telephone into a peculiarly localized technology for instantaneous communication; it could and did foster a new sense of togetherness within communities, but struggled to reach between them. For decades, the American telephone network writ large was actually a bunch of local networks, connected to their peers if at all by just one or two long-distance lines.

Although the market for local telephone service became much more competitive after the expiration of the first of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents in 1891, American Bell remained the 800-pound gorilla. The Bell executives had realized even well before that date that long-distance telephony was an area where their superior resources combined with their head start in the telephone business could allow them to sustain their monopoly without leaning on the crutch of patent law. Accordingly, American Bell on February 28, 1885, had formed a new subsidiary to specialize in long-distance telephony, with a name destined to outlive even that of its parent: the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, better known then and now as AT&T.[1]Even at the time of its inception, the name behind the acronym was anomalous if not meaningless, given that AT&T had no holdings in telegraphy; AT&T was content to leave that monopoly to Western Union. The name is perhaps best explained as a warning shot across Western Union’s bows, in case it should ever feel tempted to reenter the telephone market…

The thick, custom-made cables that AT&T employed were expensive to buy and string up, and could only carry one call at a time. These realities were reflected in the prices AT&T charged its subscribers: a ten-minute call over the 292-mile line from Boston to New York City — the longest and most celebrated line on the network at the turn of the century — cost $2 during the day or $1 at night. These were prices that only bankers and investors and other members of the well-heeled set could afford. Long-distance telephony would continue to be their prerogative alone for quite some time to come. Everyone else would have to rely on the telegraph or the even more old-fashioned medium of the hand-written paper missive for their long-distance communications needs. And needless to say, there was little point in thinking about a transatlantic telephone line while the length of even a terrestrial line was limited to 300 miles at the outside.

Rather than crossing the Atlantic, telephony’s overarching goal became to bridge the continent — to string a single telephone cable from the East to the West Coast. In addition to its practical utility, it would be an achievement of immense symbolic significance, a sort of telephonic parallel to the famous driving of the golden spike that had marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

One milestone came courtesy of a Serbian immigrant named Mihajlo Pupin. In 1900, he patented something called a loading coil, which, when placed at intervals along a telephone wire, could greatly reduce if not entirely eliminate a signal’s attenuation by magnetically increasing its inductance, or resistance to change. But there were limits to what loading coils could do. In combination with a very thick cable, they were enough to get a signal from New York City to Denver, but it couldn’t be coaxed any further. What was needed was an equivalent to Samuel Morse’s old telegraphic concept of the repeater: a way of actively boosting a signal as it traveled down a wire. Unfortunately, the simple system of discrete circuits joined by electromagnetic switches which Morse had proposed, and which had indeed become commonplace on telegraph lines by now, was useless for telephony, being unable to preserve the character of an audio waveform.

Then, in 1906, a researcher named Lee De Forest proposed something he called an audion. It was nothing less than the world’s first self-contained audio amplifier, built using vacuum tubes, a technology that would become hugely important outside as well as inside of telephony in the decades to come. The engineers at AT&T realized that it should be possible to install these audions — or simply repeaters, as they would quickly become known — along a terrestrial telephone line to make the voices it carried travel absolutely any distance. The details turned out to be a little bit more complicated than they first appeared, as generally happens in any form of engineering, but AT&T found a way to make it work at last. The company’s marketers came up with the perfect way to mark the occasion.

Alexander Graham Bell, center, prepares to make the first transcontinental phone call.

On January 25, 1915, a 67-year-old Alexander Graham Bell, stouter and grayer than once upon a time but still bursting with his old Scottish bonhomie, picked up a telephone before assembled press and public in New York City. “Hoy! Hoy!” he said in his booming brogue. (From the first days of his invention until the end of his own days, Bell loathed the standard telephonic greeting of “Hello.”) “Mr. Watson? Are you there? Do you hear me?”

In front of another assemblage in San Fransisco, Bell’s old friend and helper Thomas A. Watson answered him. “Yes, Mr. Bell. I hear you perfectly. Do you hear me well?”

“Yes, your voice is perfectly distinct,” said Bell. “It is as clear as if you were in New York.”

Inevitably, Bell was soon cajoled into repeating those famous first words ever spoken into a working telephone: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Whereupon Watson noted that, instead of seven seconds, the journey would now take him seven days. It may not have been a transatlantic link quite yet, but it did feel like a culmination of sorts.



Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson weren’t the only ones on the line that memorable day. Theodore N. Vail, the erstwhile mastermind of Bell Telephone’s successful legal campaign against Western Union, had returned after a lengthy hiatus to serve as president of the company once again in 1907. He listened in to the historic conversation from a telephone on Jekyll Island, Georgia, where he was convalescing from the heart and kidney afflictions that would kill him in 1920.

But before his death, Vail established a new research-and-development division unlike any seen before in corporate America, a place designed to bring the best engineers in the country together and give them carte blanche to solve problems that the world might not even know it had yet. It would become known as Bell Labs, at first informally and then officially, and it would do much to shape the course of not just communications but the entirety of technology — not least the field of computing — over the balance of the twentieth century.

On its home turf of telephony, Bell Labs steadily improved the state of the art of automated switching and developed techniques for multiplexing, so that calls could be routed together along trunk lines instead of always requiring a wire of their own. And it devised ways to integrate Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s technology of wireless radio with the network, in order to bridge gaps where wired telephony simply wouldn’t serve. Because no one had yet found a way of installing repeaters on an undersea cable, a transatlantic connection would have to depend on these new techniques of “radiotelephony.”

The call of January 7, 1927, was a curiously muted affair in contrast to the completion of the first transatlantic telegraph cable or even the first transcontinental phone call, involving no greater luminaries than Walter S. Giffords, Vail’s successor as president of American Bell and AT&T, and Evelyn P. Murray, the head of the British mail service, which held a government-granted monopoly over telephony in that country. Nevertheless, it was a landmark moment; while Alexander Graham Bell’s dream of easy, casual conversation across an ocean was still decades away from fulfillment, a conversation was at least possible now, four and a half years after his death. Wireless links such as the one which facilitated this conversation would remain a vital part of the telephone networks of the future, whether in the form of conventional radio waves, microwave beams, or satellite feeds. “Distance doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said one of the engineers behind the first transatlantic call. “We are on the verge of a very high-speed world.” Truer words were never spoken.



Outside of telephony, the Bell Labs boffins created the first motion-picture projector with audio as well as video, and saw it used it in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, that harbinger of a new era of cinema. That same year — a banner one in its history — Bell Labs conducted the first American demonstration of television, starring Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover. Two years later, it broadcast television for the first time in color. AT&T and American Bell may very well have extended their telephone empire to television in the next decade, had the Great Depression not intervened to put the damper on the consumer economy.

As it was, the fallout from the stock-market crash of late 1929 slowed the march of technology, but could hardly turn back the hands of time. By that point there were more than 15 million telephones in service under the auspices of American Bell alone. Their numbers dropped for a while in the aftermath of the crash, but relatively modestly. By 1937, there were more telephones than ever in the United States and, indeed, around the world.

A review of the literature surrounding the telephone during the decade provides yet more evidence that the concerns surrounding the trendy communications mediums of our own age are not as unique as we might like to think. It seems that worries about communications technologies leading to a dumbing-down of the populace and egotism running rampant did not begin with Facebook and Instagram. A sociological study of 1000 telephone conversations, for example, revealed with horror that only 2240 separate words were used in the course of all of them, which amounted to no more than 10 percent of the words heretofore considered fairly commonplace in English. Worse, the most frequently used words of all were “I” and “me.”

On a more positive note, the telephone was promoted — perchance a bit excessively — as the Great Leveler which would allow the proverbial little people to communicate directly with the movers and shakers of the world, just as Twitter and its ilk sometimes are today. An Ohioan with the delightfully folksy name of Abe Pickens took this lesson to heart, attempting to call up Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain, Emperor Hirohito, and Adolf Hitler among others to give them a piece of his mind. He reportedly did manage to get himself connected directly to Hitler at one point, but Pickens spoke no German and Hitler spoke no English; the baffled Führer quickly fobbed his interlocutor off on an aide. Sadly, Pickens did not succeed in preventing World War II.

Even by this late date, the telephone had not yet annihilated its more static predecessor the telegraph. Western Union’s tacit bargain with Bell Telephone of 1878 — you take telephony, we’ll take telegraphy — could still be construed as a wise move on the part of both, in that both companies were still hugely powerful and hugely profitable. The field of journalism remained completely in thrall to telegraphy, as did large swaths of government and business. During the war to come, telegraphy would provide a precious lifeline to loved ones back home for countless soldiers serving in faraway places where telephones couldn’t reach. Still, the telegraph had now become a legacy technology, destined only for stagnation and gradual decline. The future lay in telephony.

This sprawling amalgamation of transmitters, receivers, lines, switches, and gates was one of the wonders of its world — so wondrous that it can still inspire awe when we step back to really think about it today. You could pick up a phone at any arbitrary location and, by dialing some numbers and perhaps talking with an operator or two, make a connection with any arbitrary other phone elsewhere in your country — or in many cases elsewhere on your continent or even planet. And then you could chat with the person who answered that other phone as if the two of you were sitting together in the same parlor. If you ask me, this is amazingstill amazing.

The technological web which allowed such interconnections was arguably the most complex thing yet created by human ingenuity — so complex that no one fully understood all of its nooks and crannies. The fact that it actually worked was flabbergasting, the fact  that it did so less than a century after Samuel Morse had first figured out how to send single bursts of electronic current down a single wire nothing short of mind-blowing. When we look at it today, when we think about its bustling dynamism, its little packets of conversation and meaning flying to and fro, it’s easy to see it as a sort of massive cyber-organic computer, doing the work of the world. If most contemporary people weren’t discussing the telephone network in those terms, it was because half of the analogy literally didn’t yet exist for them: the concept of an “anything machine” in the form of a programmable computer, while by no means a new one in some academic and intellectual circles, was still a foreign one to the general public.

But it wasn’t foreign to a young man named Claude Shannon.


Anything but a stuffy academic, Claude Shannon was one of the archetypes of the playful hacker spirit which would fully emerge at MIT during the postwar years. “When researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Bell Laboratories had to leap aside to let a unicycle pass,” writes James Gleick in The Information, “that was Claude Shannon.”

Shannon had grown up on a farm in rural Michigan, tinkering with homemade telegraphs that repurposed barbed-wire fences for communication. After taking a bachelor degree in electrical engineering and mathematics from the University of Michigan, he came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a 20-year-old prodigy in 1936, having been personally recruited by Dean of Engineering Vannevar Bush to work on the Differential Analyzer, a 100-ton semi-programmable analog calculating machine designed to relieve the grunt work of solving complex mathematical problems. Inside Shannon’s fecund mind, the Differential Analyzer collided with his abiding interest in telegraphy and telephony and his memories of a class he had taken in Michigan on symbolic logic, and out popped “A Symbolic Analysis of Relays and Switching Circuits,” a paper which has been called “the most important master’s thesis of the twentieth century.”

Within his thesis, Shannon presented a plan for an electro-mechanical computer built around the digital logic of ones and zeroes — a machine far more flexible than the likes of the Differential Analyzer, yet one that required only the off-the-shelf equipment of telephony rather than the many bespoke wheels and gears of its gargantuan steampunk inspiration. Shannon’s pivotal insight was that switches on a circuit could not only route information but constitute information: an open switch could indicate a one, a closed switch a zero, and everything else could be built up from there. Abstract logic could be rendered concrete in circuitry: “Any operation that can be completely described in a finite number of steps using the words ‘if,’ ‘or,’ ‘and,’ etc., can be done automatically with relays.” I should hasten to clarify that the only way to reprogram one of Shannon’s hypothetical computers was to physically rewire it — effectively to remake it into a brand new machine. And again, it was still at bottom an electro-mechanical rather than a purely electrical device. Still, it was a major milestone on the road to the modern digital computer.

The technologies of telephony would continue to be repurposed to suit the needs of the burgeoning field of computing in the years that followed. The vacuum tubes that served American Bell so well for so long, for example, found a new application at the heart of the first programmable digital computers of the postwar era. And that technology in turn gave way to another one first developed for telephony: the transistor, which was invented at Bell Labs in 1947 and went on to become, as John Brooks wrote in 1976, “the key to modern electronics,” facilitating everything from hearing aids to the Moon landing. The transistor also lay behind the first wave of truly widespread institutional computing, over the two decades prior to the arrival of personal computers on the scene in the late 1970s.

But these developments, important though they are, are not the main reason I’ve chosen to tell the story of the analog technologies of the telegraph and telephone on a site about the history of digital culture. I’ve rather done so because computer engineers did more than borrow from the tool kits of the electrical-communications infrastructure of their day: they also came to borrow the existing communication networks themselves. This was the result of an insight which seems so self-evident as to be almost banal once it has been grasped, but which took the brilliant mind of Claude Shannon to appreciate and articulate for the first time: the fact that an electric current which could carry the dots and dashes of Morse code or the sound of a human voice could be made to carry any kind of information. This simple realization was the key that opened the door to the Internet.

(Sources: the books Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude by Robert V. Bruce, Telephone: The First Hundred Years by John Brooks, Good Connections: A Century of Service by the Men and Women of Southwestern Bell by David G. Park Jr., From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology edited by Jeremy M. Norman, The Information by James Gleick, The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop, and The Practical Telephone Exchange Handbook by Joseph Poole. Online sources include Bob’s Old Phones by Bob Estreich, “Telephone History” by Tom Farley, “Telephone Switches” by Mark Csele, “The Strowger Telecomms Page” of SEG Communications, and “Today in History: The First Transatlantic Phone Call” by Priscilla Escobedo for UTA Libraries.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Even at the time of its inception, the name behind the acronym was anomalous if not meaningless, given that AT&T had no holdings in telegraphy; AT&T was content to leave that monopoly to Western Union. The name is perhaps best explained as a warning shot across Western Union’s bows, in case it should ever feel tempted to reenter the telephone market…
 
 

Tags:

A Web Around the World, Part 5: Selling the Telephone

Our history textbooks tell us that Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas A. Watson built and tested the world’s first working telephone on March 10, 1876. This statement is, broadly speaking, correct. Yet it can obscure what a crude instrument that first telephone really was, with its one end terminating in a tuning fork dunked in a bowl of pungent liquid, its other in a metal reed that functioned as the most rudimentary imaginable form of speaker. The device was unidirectional, which made holding an actual conversation over it an impossibility. If you breathed in when you leaned down to talk into the transmitting diaphragm, you would be rewarded with a lungful of fumes and a coughing fit. And as you used the telephone an ugly black deposit on the exposed wire in the bowl gradually ruined the connection, unless and until you scraped the toxic gunk away with a knife. The whole contraption looked and acted more like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory than a tool of modern communications.

Certainly Gardiner Greene Hubbard was thoroughly unimpressed with what he saw when he visited his protege’s workshop on March 13: he “seemed rather skeptical,” according to Bell’s laconic diary entry. Even now the telephone continued to strike him as a pointless distraction from the lucrative field of telegraphy. Seeing that they had probably lost the race to create a viable multiplex telegraph that improved on Joseph B. Stearns’s duplex design, Hubbard and Bell had recently agreed to pivot to what they called an “autograph” telegraph, which smacks of nothing so much as the fax machines of our own recent past. In an inadvertent echo of Samuel Morse’s original conception of the telegraph as a sort of electronic printing press, the autograph telegraph would allow an entire document to be “typeset” electronically and sent down the wire, using multiplexing to increase the transmission speed. To be sure, the idea was visionary in its way, but it was also most likely unachievable in the context of 1876, especially by one of Bell’s modest technical skills. At any rate, progress on it had been painfully slow. Yet Hubbard’s heart remained set on it.

Hubbard wrote to Bell shortly after his visit that he should devote himself exclusively to the autograph telegraph: “If you would work steadily on one thing [emphasis original] until you had perfected it, you would soon make it a success. While you are flying from one thing to another you may accidentally accomplish something, but you probably will never perfect anything.” Then he brought out his big gun: he persuaded his daughter Mabel to write to the lovelorn Bell that she could never think of marrying him until he had honored his agreement with her father to create the autograph telegraph. Bell was devastated. “I want to marry you, darling, because I love you,” he wrote in reply. “I wish to feel that you would marry me for the same reason.”

The ruthless pressure Hubbard was applying wasn’t quite enough to get Bell to abandon telephony altogether. But, not knowing how to package up his variable-resistance transmitter in some way that didn’t involve a lung-scalding bowl of acidulated water, he did lose faith on that front, returning to his older researches into the possibilities of unpowered magnetic-induction transmission. Within weeks, he and Watson had built a magnetic-induction telephone that could also transmit intelligible speech. Continuing with this method, which required no messy bowls of acidulated water and easily permitted a bi-directional conversation over a single wire, struck him as the most reasonable way forward. Bell would spend the rest of his fairly brief-lived career as an inventor in the fields of telegraphy and telephony chasing down the blind alleys of the autograph telegraph and the magnetic-induction telephone, never returning to his stroke of genius of March 10, 1876.


Much of the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair was devoted to the wonders of technology. Here we see the Machinery Hall, where a colossal Corliss steam engine dwarfs the full-size locomotives lined up in front of it. The telephone, the most important of all the technologies to make their debut at the fair, was seen only by a select few and attracted little press attention at the time.

The period between the American Civil War and World War II was the heyday of the World’s Fairs, international exhibitions of science, invention, and industry on a lavish scale. The very first World’s Fair to be held in the United States took place from May 10 to November 10 of 1876. It was presented in honor of the nation’s centennial in Philadelphia, the city where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Hubbard used his connections to secure Bell a slot at a by-invitation-only demonstration of the latest techniques in telegraphy, which was to take place on June 25.

The day in question proved a brutally hot one; the air inside the temporary auditorium that had been erected on the fairgrounds was stifling. With no commercial record and no name recognition, the Bell Patent Association was relegated to the very last presentation of a long program of them. By the time Alexander Graham Bell took the stage, following such men of distinction as Elisha Gray, the audience of scientific, business, and political luminaries — among them was none other than William Thomson, the principal technical architect of the first transatlantic telegraph cable — was positively lethargic. While 2000 miles to the west Lieutenant Colonel George Custer was launching his ill-fated attack at Little Big Horn, Bell droned on about multiplex telegraphy and the autograph telegraph to a bored audience who had already heard enough of that sort of thing on this day. Then, just before he finished, he said that he would like to demonstrate another invention that was still “in embryo.”

Showing a flair for showmanship which his presentation to this point had never so much as hinted at, Bell invited Thomson to join him onstage, seating him before a table on which lay something that looked for all the world like a useless lump of iron. He told his august guinea pig to press the lump to his ear, then ran to a room behind the stage where its twin lay hidden. He began to declaim into it the famous soliloquy from Hamlet — “To be or not to be, that is the question” — in his dulcet Scottish brogue, itself a tribute to his family’s tradition of research in elocution. Onstage, Thomson’s face lit up in astonishment. Forgetting himself completely in the moment, the distinguished scientist jumped up and ran off like a schoolboy in search of Bell, leaving the audience perplexed as to what was going on here.

Bell’s next guinea pig made it clear to everyone. Emperor Pedro II of Brazil was something of a celebrity throughout the Americas, a portly, jolly man who looked and acted rather like Santa Claus, whose down-to-earth humanity belied his majestic station. “Dom Pedro,” as he was known, pushed the lump ever tighter to his ear and screwed up his face in concentration. Then he leaped up from his seat. “I hear! I hear!” he shouted in his broken English. Then, in Portuguese: “My God! It talks!” The room erupted in pandemonium. Forgetting about the heat and the long day stretching up to this point, the audience detained Bell for hours; every single one of them insisted on having his own chance to try out Bell’s magical telephone. The reaction finally convinced Hubbard that it was the telephone rather than Bell’s experiments in telegraphy that could make them both a fortune. He forgot everything he had ever said about his protege’s misplaced priorities. From this day forward, it would be full speed ahead on the telephone alone.

When he returned home to Britain, William Thomson said that the telephone had been the “most wonderful thing” he had seen at the Centennial Exhibition. Still not grasping that Bell’s invention was so revolutionary as to deserve a name of its own, he called it “the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the electric telegraph,” noting as well that it had been “obtained by appliances of quite a homespun and rudimentary character.” (“I have never quite forgiven Sir William for that last sentence,” Thomas Watson would later remark with a wink.) But the public at large was slower to catch on, largely because not a single member of the mainstream press had attended the telephone’s coming-out party; journalists had all assumed that the day would contain nothing but incremental, fairly plebeian improvements on the existing technologies of telegraphy, interesting for those in the trade no doubt but hardly riveting for the general reader.

Still, word that something kind of amazing was afoot did slowly begin to spread. On August 3, Hubbard arranged to borrow a five-mile stretch of existing telegraph line connecting the towns of Mount Pleasant and Brantford in Ontario, and Bell conducted the first demonstration of his telephone to use outdoor wires that crossed a non-trivial distance. On October 9, again using a borrowed telegraph line, Bell and Watson had the first two-way conversation at a distance, speaking across the Charles River that separates Boston from Cambridge. On November 27, they communicated over the sixteen miles that separate Boston from Salem; they were able to extend the range this far by shifting from electromagnetic transmitters, relying upon a residual electrical charge from a battery, to more powerful permanent magnets that had no need at all for a battery.

On January 30, 1877, Bell was awarded a second telephony patent, one that much more fully described his design for a magnetic-induction telephone than had the previous one. By now the press was well and truly onto the story. “Professor Bell,” wrote the Boston Herald after the November 27 test, “doubts not that he will ultimately be able to chat pleasantly with friends in Europe while sitting comfortably in his Boston home.”

But such accommodating journalism was rare. Taking their lead from Western Union and the other established powers in the telegraph industry, most reporters treated the telephone as a novel curiosity rather than a supplement to — much less a threat to — the extant telegraph network. And there was in truth ample reason for skepticism. Even with the best permanent magnets Bell and Watson could find, the voices that came down their wires were whisper-faint. Ironically given Bell’s lifelong dedication to helping the deaf participate in the society around them, they were audible and decipherable only by people like him with excellent hearing. A comparison with that first transatlantic telegraph cable of 1858 is apt: these first telephones worked after a fashion, but they didn’t work all that well. In practice, most people tended to spend most of their time screaming “What did you say?” into them; the wonder the telephone initially provoked tended to shade with disarming speed into rank frustration. In his personal journal, Thomas Watson didn’t shy away from acknowledging the magnetic-induction telephone’s infelicities: it “would talk moderately well over a short line, but the apparatus was delicate and complicated and didn’t talk distinctly enough for practical use.”

Hubbard too showed signs of losing heart. At one point in late 1876, he reportedly asked Western Union whether they would be interested in buying Bell’s telephone lock, stock, and barrel for $100,000. He was turned down flat.

Bell lacked the requisite patience for the sort of slow, plodding laboratory work that might have improved his telephone, but he still needed to bring some money in for himself and Hubbard if he was to win the hand of the fair Mabel. So, he found an alternative to which his personality was more naturally suited: he hit the traveling-exhibition circuit with Watson in tow, crisscrossing the Northeast through much of the first half of 1877 like a boffinish P.T. Barnum. After his magic-lantern slideshow — the nineteenth century’s equivalent to Microsoft PowerPoint — he would present telephonic performances by brass bands, string quartets, opera singers, or church organs — the louder the racket they could make, the better — while his audience strained their ears to make sense of what they were hearing, or thought they heard. The disembodied human voices especially were fraught with sinister implications for many of those who assembled. In fact, the delicious thrill they provoked was doubtless a big part of the reason that audiences paid good money for a ticket; the seances of Spiritualism were becoming all the rage in the broader culture at the time. The Providence Star noted that it was “difficult, hearing the sounds out of the mysterious box, to wholly resist the notion that the powers of darkness are somehow in league with it.” “Had the hall been darkened,” wrote the Manchester Union, “we really believe some [from the audience] would have left unceremoniously.” The Boston Advertiser called the demonstration “weird”; the New York Herald declared it “almost supernatural.”


A Bell magnetic-induction “box” telephone from 1877. The cone mounted on the end served as both transmitter and receiver, necessitating some dexterous juggling on the part of the user.

The proprietors of the telephone are now prepared to furnish telephones for the transmission of articulate speech through instruments not more than twenty miles apart. Conversation can easily be carried on after slight practice and with occasional repetition of a word or sentence. On first listening to the telephone, though the sound is perfectly audible, the articulation seems to be indistinct. But after a few trials the ear becomes accustomed to the peculiar sound.

— The first advertisement for the Bell telephone, May 1877

By the late spring of 1877, Bell and Watson’s roadshow showed signs of running out of steam. It seemed they had to put up or shut up: the partners needed either to make a serious attempt to commercialize the telephone or just move on with their lives. After much debate, they chose the former course. That May, they signed their first customer, an enterprising banker named Roswell C. Downer, who paid for a telephone line connecting his home with his office. This harbinger of the modern condition was followed by no fewer than 600 more of his ilk by August 1. All of the connections were point-to-point setups linking one telephone to exactly one other telephone. But one decision the partners made would prove crucial to the eventual development of a more flexible telephone network: they leased telephones rather than sold them to their customers, and retained ownership and control of the cables binding them together as well. To state the case in modern terms, the telephone industry was to be a service rather than a hardware provider.

Each of these early telephones looked like a block of wood with a hole on one end and some wire sticking out the other. After shouting into the hole, one then had to shift it quickly to one’s ear to catch the response. “When replying to communication from another, do not speak too promptly,” pleaded the instruction manual. “Much trouble is caused from both parties speaking at the same time. When you are not speaking, you should be listening.” Being completely unpowered, these first telephones had no ability to ring; if someone didn’t happen to be standing at the other end when you shouted down the line, you were just out of luck. They were so heavy that using them was a veritable workout; Thomas Watson described the experience as akin to holding a suitcase up to one’s ear for minutes at a time. And yet there was a reasonably substantial group of people willing to pay for the dream of being in instant voice communication with others a considerable distance away, however circumscribed the reality of the telephone in service might have been.

The summer of 1877 was an exciting one for Alexander Graham Bell. On July 9, the Bell Telephone Company was formed, superseding the old Bell Patent Association. Two days later, he was finally allowed to marry Mabel. And on August 1, the Bell Telephone Company issued its first 5000 shares: 1497 of them to the mostly silent partner Thomas Sanders; 1497 to the young woman who was now known as Mabel Bell; 1387 to Gardiner Hubbard; 499 to Thomas A. Watson; 100 to Hubbard’s wife; ten to Hubbard’s brother; and all of ten shares to Bell himself, who in the throes of his newlywed bliss had signed all of the rest that he had coming over to his wife.

Shortly thereafter, Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell sailed for Britain, both to enjoy an extended honeymoon — it was Bell’s first return to his homeland since his emigration seven years before — and to act as ambassadors for the telephone on the other side of the Atlantic. In the latter capacity, they demonstrated it to Queen Victoria on January 14, 1878. There were some problems getting the connection going over the borrowed telegraph wire, and the queen’s attention began to wander. But suddenly Bell heard through the gadget the voice of a woman he had hired to sing “Kathleen Mavourneen,” one of the queen’s favorite ballads. In his excitement, he reached out and grabbed her by the arm. Everyone in the room gasped — but Queen Victoria didn’t even seem to notice, merely pressed the box to her ear and listened with a rapt expression. She wrote in her diary that night that Bell’s telephone was “most extraordinary.”

The audience with the queen created a widespread frisson of excitement over the telephone in Britain the likes of which had ironically not yet been seen in its birth country, where its thunder had recently been stolen by the announcement of Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Toy telephones became popular on Britain’s high streets. “Wherever you go,” wrote Mabel Bell in a letter back home to her mother, “on newspaper stands, at news stores, stationers, photographers, toy shops, fancy-goods shops, you see the eternal little black box with red face, and the word ‘Telephone’ in large black letters. Advertisements say that 700,000 have been sold in a few weeks.” If Bell Telephone could have leased anywhere near as many of the real thing back in the United States, everyone involved would have been thrilled.

But the harsh truth was that, even as the Bells were doing their public relations overseas, the company that bore their name was floundering in the domestic market. Many or most of the customers who had initially signed up in such gratifying numbers were dissatisfied by the underwhelming reality of their telephones, and no amount of patiently pedantic instruction manuals were going to get them to love a device that just didn’t work all that well. Worst of all, there was now a formidable competitor about to enter the field with a telephone much better than the one being peddled by Bell, thanks to the inventive genius of one Thomas Edison.


Thomas Edison at about age 30, when he was active in telegraphy and telephony and also in the process of inventing the phonograph.

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio on February 11, 1847, the seventh and last child of parents who had just been driven out of British Canada for backing an insurrection against the provincial government there. When his father wasn’t rebelling, he was an odd-jobber and striver whose schemes never quite seemed to pan out. His mother was a former schoolteacher; almost all of the limited education Edison received came from her in the family home. Already at age twelve, he started riding the rails, working as a newsboy on trains. Showing the same entrepreneurial streak as his father but demonstrating more ability to turn his schemes into profits, he soon became a full-fledged mobile shopkeeper, buying snacks, books, and magazines cheap and selling them at a mark-up to passengers. He even published his own newspaper for a time from a compartment on the train with the help of an old printing press he had acquired. But it was the telegraph houses that stood everywhere the trains traveled that really captured the teenage Edison’s interest.

He happened to be sitting on a station platform one day when he saw a young boy wander onto the tracks in front of an approaching locomotive. Edison leaped to the rescue, successfully. The boy’s father happened to be the telegraph master at the station. The grateful man agreed to teach Edison some of the basics of telegraphy, and also lent him a number of books on the subject. Edison studied the description of Morse Code found therein with fanatical dedication — “about eighteen hours a day” was his own claim later in life — and got his first paying gig as a telegraph operator in Stratford Junction, Ontario, at the age of sixteen.

He quickly became a star among the telegraph fraternity. The speed with which he could decode messages coming down the wire became legendary; if one of his colleagues was sick, he could do this other’s job as well as his own, decoding two separate messages from two skilled senders simultaneously. And, because even brainy boys will be boys, he became equally legendary for his practical jokes. One of his favorites combined a wet floor with an induction coil to give his fellow operators a very unpleasant electrical shock as soon as they sat down in front of their Morse keys.

As that anecdote would indicate, Edison was fast becoming more than just a skilled end-user of the telegraph. He was fascinated by electrical technology in the abstract in a way that Alexander Graham Bell would never be; he lived and breathed it, experimenting and tinkering endlessly whenever he wasn’t on duty in a telegraph house. He applied for his first patent at age 21, for an automated vote recorder that he imagined would be used by the United States Congress; each representative need only push either the aye or the nay button installed at his seat, and the results would be automatically tabulated and displayed on a big dial mounted on the wall. But no one in the capital proved to be interested in it — because, as it was belatedly explained to Edison, the slow, inefficient method of voting that was currently used was actually an essential part of the legislative process, providing as it did ample opportunities to lobby, whip, and negotiate for votes. He took away from the experience a lesson that would never leave him: an inventor who wishes to be successful must ask what the people want, and invent that thing instead of the thing that makes him feel clever. With this lesson in hand, Edison would go on to become history’s archetype of the commercially successful inventor.

Though he was rough-hewn in demeanor and largely uneducated in anything other than the vagaries of mechanisms and circuits, Edison nonetheless displayed a peculiar ability to talk to moneyed men of business and win their support. In 1869, he retired from his career as a telegraph operator and became a sort of telegraphy consultant, helping his clients to improve their systems and processes. In 1874, he scored his first major triumph as an inventor of things that people really wanted, and crushed the first telegraphy dream of Alexander Graham Bell in the process: he patented a quadriplex telegraph with the ability to double again the throughput of Joseph B. Stearns’s recently introduced duplex system. Unlike Bell’s design, which stamped each of its signals with a unique frequency on the sending end and used these as a way to sort them out again on the receiving end, Edison’s system combined Stearns’s innovations with differing electrical polarities that served as another way of separating signals from one another. Most importantly, his system consistently worked, which was more than could ever be said for Bell’s.

The quadriplex telegraph catapulted him into the next stage of his career. In the spring of 1876, Edison moved into his soon-to-be-famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, from which he would invent so many of the trappings of our modern world. Later that year, as we’ve seen, press notices about Bell’s magnetic-induction telephone began to appear. Edison had been very hard of hearing since boyhood, which meant that Bell’s invention as currently constituted was useless to him. So, he decided to make a better telephone, one that even he would be able to use without difficulty.

There no longer remained any mystery about the best theoretical approach to such a goal. Clearly the key to a louder telephone was the use of a variable-resistance transmitter instead of one that relied on magnetic induction; this Bell himself had demonstrated before losing heart. Bell had given up because he didn’t know of any substances other than acidulated water whose resistance could be made to vary in tandem with the vibrations of a diaphragm that was being struck by sound waves issuing from a human mouth. But Edison was possessed of both a much wider range of electrical knowledge and a methodical patience which eluded the high-strung Bell.

Edison made his own experimental telephone, and throughout most of 1877 used it to test many solid or semi-solid materials, keeping careful notes on the results. He tried paper, lead, copper, graphite, felt, and platinum among other substances, all of them in countless forms, combinations, and configurations, conducting over 2000 separate trials in all. In the end, he wound up back at the very first material he had tested: carbon, in the form of lampblack — i.e., residual soot scraped from a lamp or chimney. Lampblack was, he judged, as close as a solid could come to the properties of acidulated water.

Edison’s final design for a variable-resistance transmitter used a cone with a thin metal diaphragm installed at its base, much like Bell’s extant telephones. But instead of a magnet, his diaphragm rested atop a sealed container of lampblack, through which a powered electrical circuit flowed. As the diaphragm vibrated in rhythm with the user’s words, its movements varied the resistance of this circuit to create a facsimile of the sound wave in electrical current — just as had the acidulated water in Bell’s experiment of the previous year, but in a far more practical and reliable way. An electromagnet and diaphragm, designed by a prolific telegraph engineer and occasional associate of Edison named George Phelps, served as a receiver at the other end of the line in lieu of Bell’s metal reed, giving much better fidelity. Edison’s telephone did have the disadvantage of being unidirectional; a two-way conversation required two wires, each fitted with its own transmitter and receiver. Then again, such a setup meant that the user no longer needed to keep moving the telephone between mouth and ear; she could speak and listen at the same time, and do the latter without straining her ears.

All told, it was a tremendous breakthrough, one with the potential to increase not only the volume but also the range of the telephone. Edison applied for a patent on his variable-resistance transmitter already on April 27, 1877, when he was still very much in the process of inventing it. After much back and forth, the patent was finally granted in February of 1878. By the time it was, Edison himself had become famous, thanks not to the telephone but the phonograph, which he had been working on concurrently with his experiments in telephony.


An early Western Union telephone. The user spoke into the round piece on the left, whilst holding the star-shaped receiver on the right up to her ear.

Already two months before the final patent on Edison’s transmitter was issued, Western Union cut a deal with the inventor for the right to use it, forming a new subsidiary called the American Speaking Telephone Company to put it into service. A David-and-Goliath fight was now in the offing between Bell Telephone and Western Union. The latter corporation was in many ways a model for the other great trusts in this emerging Gilded Age of American business; for all intents and purposes it owned telegraphy writ large in the United States, as it seemed it now intended to own telephony. To make that happen, it had a market capitalization of $41 million (the equivalent of $1.4 billion in 2022 currency), net annual profits of more than $3 million, and established rights-of-way for its wires in every corner of the nation. And now it had a telephone that was by any objective standard vastly superior to the one being peddled by its puny rival.

The telephones which Western Union began leasing to customers in 1878 were the first in commercial service to be recognizable as such things to modern eyes, having separate attachments for talking and listening. A variable-resistance telephone of course required a powered circuit; in lieu of expensive and maintenance-heavy batteries, the end-users provided this power via elbow grease, by cranking from time to time a magneto attached to the telephones. It was a small price to pay for a device that was ergonomically superior and, most importantly of all, louder than anything that Bell Telephone could offer. For the first time, it was possible to have something resembling an ordinary conversation using these telephones.

Justifiably unnerved by these developments, Gardiner Hubbard asked a businessman named Theodore N. Vail to take over as head of Bell Telephone. Only 32 years old at the time he agreed to do so, Vail had, like Thomas Edison, gotten his start as an ordinary telegraph operator. But his genius ran in the direction of finance and management rather than the nuts and bolts of technology itself. He left his prestigious and well-paid post as head of the Railway Mail Service largely because he was bored with it and wanted a challenge. Whatever else one could say about it, Bell Telephone certainly qualified on that front.

After arriving at the company’s recently opened headquarters in New York City, Vail sat down to consider what he had gotten himself into. He realized that victory in the war with Western Union would have to come through the courts; as matters currently stood, Bell Telephone had no chance of winning via the free market alone. The patent situation was confusing to say the least. Alexander Graham Bell had patented the first working telephone, but had mentioned the principle of variable resistance that could make the telephone truly usable only in an addendum hand-scrawled in the margin of that patent. And now Thomas Edison instead of Bell had patented the carbon transmitter that was the key to a practical variable-resistance telephone, suitable for mass production and deployment. It seemed that Bell Telephone and Western Union each owned half of the telephone. This clearly wouldn’t do it at all.

So, Vail had Thomas Watson troll through the records at the patent office, looking for some way out of this impasse. In an incredible stroke of luck, he found just what they needed. On April 14, 1877 — thirteen days before Edison had filed a patent application for his variable-resistance transmitter — a German immigrant, janitor, and amateur inventor named Emile Berliner had filed for a patent caveat on a variable-resistance transmitter of his own. It used a different approach than Edison’s design: a wire inside it was only loosely screwed onto its terminal, which allowed the point of contact to vibrate in tandem with the diaphragm mounted above the wire, thus varying the resistance of the circuit. Berliner’s design was, everyone could agree, nowhere near as effective as Edison’s finalized carbon transmitter — but it had come first, and that was the important thing. Vail tracked down Berliner, who was still pushing a broom for a living, and hired him at a generous salary in return for the rights to his patent caveat. Vail’s intention was never to put Berliner’s transmitter into production, but rather to create a plausible legal argument that the principle of the variable transmitter, like all of the other aspects of a practical telephone, was now the sole intellectual property of the Bell Telephone Company. The new variable-resistance telephones which Bell began sending to its customers as soon as it had acquired the rights to Berliner’s transmitter actually cloned Edison’s carbon-transmitter design.

On September 12, 1878, the Bell Telephone Company filed for an injunction against Western Union’s telephones in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Massachusetts. Following some preliminary skirmishing, Western Union, whose telegraphy business still dwarfed that of telephony, decided on November 10, 1879, that the telephony sideshow just wasn’t worth the trouble. It agreed to give up all of its claims to telephone technology and to get out of the telephone business altogether in return for 20 percent of all of its rival’s earnings from telephony for the lifetime of the patents around which the whole conflict had revolved. It was the Gilded Age in a nutshell: one established monopolist politely made space for another, would-be monopolist in a related but separate field.

But it wasn’t the end of the disputes over the origins of the telephone. Far from it: over the course of the following decade, Bell Telephone beat back some 600 separate legal challenges to its monopoly — including one from Elisha Gray, striking out on his own from Western Union, the company he had co-founded. The record of court filings came to fill 149 thick volumes. One of the cases went as far as the Supreme Court in March of 1888, where it was won by Bell Telephone by the thinnest of possible margins: the vote was four to three in favor of the validity of the Bell patents. By this point, however, the point verged on becoming moot: Bell Telephone now had a well-nigh unassailable head start over any potential competition, and the patents were due to expire in a few years anyway.

Alexander Graham Bell himself regarded the realities of the telephone business with ever-increasing distaste, and felt himself ever more estranged from the enterprise that bore his name. And to a large extent, the feeling was mutual: he had disappointed and angered his ostensible partners in Bell Telephone by, as they saw it, deserting them in their time of greatest need. He had been entirely absent from the American scene from August of 1877 until September of 1878, when he grudgingly agreed to return from Britain to act as a witness in court. “Business is hateful to me at all times,” he wrote to Gardiner Hubbard on one occasion. “I am sick of the telephone and [wish to] have done with it altogether, excepting as a plaything to amuse my leisure moments,” he wrote on another. “Why should it matter to the world who invented the telephone, so long as the world gets the benefit of it?” he wrote on yet a third occasion. “I have not kept up with the literature of telephonic research,” he remarked dismissively when he did finally turn up in person for the legal proceedings. These were not the messages which the men behind a company girding for the battle for its life — a company with the petulant messenger’s name on the marque — wished to hear.

Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell gradually cashed out of said company between 1879 and 1883. They were left wealthy, but not extraordinarily so. Ditto Sanders, Hubbard, and Watson, all of whom likewise sold most of their shares in Bell Telephone before the company was ten years old. “No mighty, self-perpetuating fortunes came out of telephony in America,” noted the historian John Brooks in 1975. “No counterpart to a Ford, Rockefeller, or Duke now survives as a ‘telephone heir.'” But this shouldn’t be construed to imply that the telephone didn’t make an enormous amount of money for Bell Telephone and others in the decades after its founders left the scene.

Alexander Graham Bell continued for the rest of his life to split his time between invention — he dabbled with somewhat mixed results in everything from medical technology to aviation, nautical transport to cinema — and his passion for improving the lot of the deaf. Mabel Bell provided a suitable epitaph when he died in 1922 at the age of 75: “He is big enough to stand as he is, very imperfect, lacking in things that are lovely in other men, but a good big man all the same…” It is true that, in a juster or at least more painstakingly accurate world, we might all agree to call the telephone a joint triumph, to be credited not only to Bell but to Edison, Gray, and perhaps some worthy others whose names have appeared not at all or only in passing in these articles. But history in the world we do have doesn’t like to become muddied with so many equivocations. Thus it has chosen to credit the telephone to Alexander Graham Bell alone. And, if one man must be chosen, he is as good a choice as any.

(Sources: the books Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude by Robert V. Bruce, Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone by Edwin S. Grosvenor, Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention by Charlotte Gray, Telephone: The First Hundred Years by John Brooks, and The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World by Randall E. Stross. Online sources include Bob’s Old Phones by Bob Estreich and “George M. Phelps” by John Casale on his website Telegraph History.)

 

Tags: