Phone Lines

In 1876, the telephone was big hit at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

by Vince Farinaccio

It wasn’t until 1884 that telephone lines were installed in Vineland to connect residents beyond the conventional means of church services, meetings and other social gatherings of the time. Of course, the telegraph provided communication between longer distances, but the telephone would eventually prove much more far-reaching and revolutionary than anyone in the 19th century could have imagined.

The mid-19th century witnessed a variety of theorizing and experimenting with “sound telegraphs” using a transmitter and receiver, according to online sources. Patents were filed but none of the early inventions were reportedly electromagnetic systems. When Alexander Graham Bell conceived the idea in July 1874, it had been a year since Thomas Edison conducted and temporarily abandoned his own experiments with such an invention.

Concurrent with Bell’s work, Elisha Gray’s development of an electromagnetic device to transmit musical sounds led him to file a patent caveat on February 14, 1876, with intent to legally stake his claim to inventing an electromagnetic telephone. Sources indicate that Bell filed an official patent two hours later. Gray, by rights, had the advantage but did not immediately act, and Bell was awarded the patent, which became official the following month.

According to the article “Rise and Fall of the Landline” by Jay L. Zagorsky on the Conversation website, “controversy continues over who actually invented the phone first. While Bell won the series of court battles over the first patent, some historians still give credit to Elisha Gray…”

A 1990 Baltimore Sun article reports that “although it was crude and hardly worked, the telephone was the biggest hit of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.”

The newspaper also identifies how fast the telephone assimilated into American life. In April 1877, the same year the Bell Telephone Company was established, a phone was installed for the first time in a private home, which belonged to Charles Williams of Somerville, Massachusetts. “Since there was no one else to call,” the Sun clarifies, “Williams had a line run to his Boston office so his wife could reach him during the day.”

In Boston that year, Edwin Holmes, owner of a burglar-alarm company, created the first telephone exchange. “This first switchboard,” the Sun reports, “was connected to telephones in six offices that bought alarms from Holmes. It served as a telephone system by day and a burglar-alarm system by night…without the exchange, every telephone would need a separate line to every other telephone.”

The installation of a phone on the floor of the New York Stock exchange and the hiring of the first female telephone operator in 1878 were two additional milestones in the history of the new invention. By the following year, the Sun notes, the earliest users of the invention had developed a preference for having an operator connect them to their party rather than dialing directly.

“The idea of telephone numbers was resisted by customers as an affront to individuality and personal identification,” the newspaper explains. “But during a measles epidemic in Lowell, Mass., a local physician recommended assigning numbers because he feared that the town’s telephone network would collapse if the operators became ill. The practicality of the arrangement was appreciated, and the use of numbers began throughout the nation.”

By 1885, after Bell’s company had gone international, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was created as the long-distance branch of the American Bell Telephone Company. The expansion, however, was far from over.

According to Zagorsky, “in 1914, at the start of World War I, there were 10 people for every working telephone in the U.S. By the end of World War II in 1945, there were five people for every working phone. The technology passed a key milestone in 1998, when there was one phone for every man, woman and child in the U.S.” n

Next Week: The Telephone Arrives in Vineland

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