Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/January 1907/Notes on the Development of Telephone Service III

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VI. First Commercial Telephone Exchange

THE first commercial telephone exchange system in the world was opened in New Haven, in January, 1878, and has been in continuous operation ever since. This pioneer exchange was organized by Mr. George W. Coy, who now resides in Milford, New Haven County, and who, during the twelve years ending with the year 1877, was managing the local offices of the Atlantic and Pacific and the Franklin Telegraph companies.

In July, 1877, the local papers in New Haven contained an advertisement of 'Bell's telephone' reading in part:

The proprietors keep the instrument in repair, without charge, and the user has no expense except the maintenance of the line. It needs only a wire between the two stations, though ten or twenty miles apart, with a telephone at each end.... The outside of the telephone is of mahogany finely polished and an ornament to any room or office. Telephones leased and lines constructed.

In September, 1877, Mr. Coy secured several Bell telephones and installed a few private lines in New Haven, and also displaced some district call-boxes with telephones in his local messenger service. Perceiving how useful the telephone was proving to business houses desiring his messenger service, Mr. Coy concluded that a central telephone exchange system would be a desirable thing for the community, provided a sufficient number of subscribers could be secured.

Now in the beginning of the evolution of telephone exchanges, there was neither experience nor knowledge to guide the investor or the manager. There were no known methods of operation or of maintenance to render uniform and no equipment to standardize, because the to-be equipment had yet to be evolved from needs then unknown. The Bell company had no factory and supplied only the hand telephones, which were made to order under contract. Thus each licensee was largely thrown on his own resources and compelled to devise much of his exchange equipment and to secure from several different sources such associated apparatus as was available. Then the installation was necessarily made and the lines run with the aid of the telegraphers of that day. For in 1877-8, the only 'electricians' were the men associated with the telegraph companies. The electric light and the trolley then had no commercial existence. Thus, through the needs of the telephone exchange, was evolved that now very essential person the 'telephone engineer.' That is why Mr. Coy had not only to plan his own central exchange system, but also to devise the necessary switching mechanism for his central office.

Confiding his plan to his friend, Herrick P. Frost, the latter agreed to assist Mr. Coy. Not that Mr. Frost knew aught about the telephone or telegraph, but because he wanted to make a place for his son, then about sixteen. Neither Coy nor Frost could spare the funds necessary to build the exchange system, so Mr. Frost borrowed six hundred dollars from his brother-in-law, Walter Lewis, organized the New Haven District Telephone Company, secured a charter, and issued capital stock having a par value of five thousand dollars. Of this amount Coy and Frost subscribed for $2,000 each and $1,000 was transferred in November, 1877, to the parent Bell company for a license granting the exclusive right to use Bell telephones in the counties of New Haven and Middlesex, in Connecticut. Mr. Coy states that later this block of stock given to the Bell Company was repurchased by the treasurer of the company for two hundred dollars in cash.

By virtue of his services as the good angel so essential in pioneer undertakings, Walter Lewis was elected to the presidency of the company, Mr. Frost was made treasurer and Mr. Coy filled all the other offices. Morris F. Tyler was the company's attorney, secured its charter, obtained the necessary additional loans to enable extensions and improvements to be made, took his pay in stock, and later became the head of the organization. Incidentally it may be added that on May 31, 1878, Mr. Frost secured exclusive licenses to use telephones under Bell patents for the term of ten years, in the cities of New Haven, Hartford, Meriden, Middletown and New Britain, in Connecticut, and of Springfield in Massachusetts, subject to his leasing not less than five hundred telephones the first year, and expending not less than $8,000, including the amount already expended in New Haven.

Being ready to proceed with the installation of its 'telephone-call system,' Mr. Coy mailed to the prominent citizens of New Haven a thousand copies of a circular describing the many advantages the system would offer, and earnestly requesting subscriptions for the service. It was expected that at least fifty replies would be received, but only one subscription was obtained, and to the late Rev. John E. Todd, pastor of the Church of the Redeemer, belongs the honor of being the first person in the world to subscribe for the service of a commercial telephone exchange system. Quite rightfully Mr. Todd's name headed the first list of telephone subscribers ever issued.

So complete a failure to arouse public interest in the telephone system was a bitter disappointment to Mr. Coy. But being a born hustler, he immediately sent out a competent canvasser to solicit contracts. This agent succeeded in ultimately securing over two hundred contracts, for which he was paid a commission of one dollar each. The first contract thus secured was that of the New Haven Flour Company for five telephones, including one in each of its stores and one in the residence of its manager, Mr. George E. Thompson.

Mr. Coy commenced installing the telephones in November and it was his intention to have had his exchange in operation early in December, 1877, but so numerous were the mechanical difficulties that had to be overcome, so many electrical problems required solving, and so slow were the shipments of telephones, that it was not until January 28, 1878, that the exchange was formally opened, the first service being given on January 21, to about thirty subscribers.

Following the formal opening, the number of subscribers increased rapidly, and on February 21, 1878, appeared the first regular list of subscribers to a commercial telephone exchange. Fifty stations were listed. The second list appeared on March 9, 1878, less than three weeks after the first, and recorded about one hundred and twenty-five stations. On April 8, 1878, came the third list with two hundred and twenty-seven subscribers, including forty-two residences. Thenceforward there was a steady growth. In all these lists names only were shown. Numbering the subscribers to facilitate rapidity in securing connections was an afterthought. Even so late as April, 1880, and in so important a city as New York, the list of subscribers contained no telephone numbers, though there were about one thousand five hundred names distributed through six exchanges.

The rates established by Mr. Coy were only eighteen dollars a year for a telephone in either the office or the house. But it should be borne in mind that the circuits were of single iron wire and grounded, and that from ten to sixteen subscribers were on a line, a number that would not be tolerated in modern business service. Like many modern telephone men, Mr. Coy did not base his rates on what he thought the service was likely to cost him, for the eighteen-dollar rate was established before a pole had been erected, but on what he thought the public would pay. In January, 1877, the American District Telegraph Company introduced a rate of eighteen dollars a year for its call-box system in New Haven and cities of similar size, while it charged thirty dollars a year in the large cities. So Mr. Coy concluded he could supply a telephone as cheaply as a district-box could be furnished; and that is how the eighteen-dollar rate came to be established. Thus, as early as February, 1878, Mr. Coy was advertising in the local papers that 'the company rents them at the extremely low price of five cents per day, thereby placing telephones within the reach of all,' And on February 14 it was stated that Mr. Coy was 'supplying telephones in any part of the city, including service to Fair Haven and Westville (separate boroughs, one four miles, the other seven miles distant) for eighteen dollars per annum.' And it may be added that the gross receipts of the New Haven exchange in the month of February, 1878, were $250.

Mr. Coy was a great believer in press publicity and made liberal use of the advertising pages of the local papers, thus keeping the public informed concerning all extensions and repairs. In those days the weather reports issued by the United States Signal Service were very desirable. So Mr. Coy placed a telephone in the office of the weather observer, and on March 15, 1878, advertised that 'any one having a telephone can make inquiries as to the weather, temperature, barometer, etc' A little later Mr. Coy built a pole line nearly seven miles in length and ran a circuit to the lighthouse at the east end of the harbor, thus benefiting shipping interests by the prompt transmission of cautionary weather reports, and also enabling his subscribers to keep track of the arrival of steamers and other marine craft.

On May 1, 1878, Mr. Coy had telephones 'placed near the targets,' and also 'at the shooting-stand,' connecting the latter to the central exchange, thus enabling his subscribers to keep informed concerning the scores made at the annual meeting of the rifle association. Another feature that is considered essentially modern was introduced in New Haven by this company. On November 4, 1878, it advertised that "in order to facilitate the collection of election returns from the different wards in this city, to-morrow, the company has made arrangements for placing a telephone in or near each voting place, in order that the returns may be sent to the central office as soon as declared. The returns will be furnished to any subscriber upon inquiry by telephone." Later the daily papers stated that 'the telephone was of great use in collecting and transmitting election returns.'

During the first two months Mr. Coy's exchange occupied one half of a ground-floor store room in the Boardman building, corner Chapel and State Streets, New Haven. This room then bore the number 219 Chapel Street, but is now 733. Then the exchange was moved to the top floor of the Ford building, directly across Chapel Street; but the office of the company remained in the Boardman building.

Until March 1, 1878, service was given only from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., the night operator remaining on duty until that early morning hour in order that the newspapers might have telephone service up to the hour of going to press. For newspaper reporters quickly realized what a blessing the telephone was in accelerating the transmission of a scoop, or a good story, or a simple news item, and utilized the service on every possible occasion.

Prior to 1877, if anything happened at a point distant from a telegraph office, and branch telegraph offices in cities were few and far between in those days, reporters were in the habit of gathering the names of the participants and the essential facts, and then hastening with all possible speed to the editorial rooms. Late at night few horse cars were running (then the trolley-car was unknown), and rarely was it possible to secure cab or carriage on the scene of action; so getting a good story often meant a long, steady trot for many blocks before the editorial rooms were reached. To-day a reporter can prepare his copy on the premises, walk to the nearest telephone, talk it to an assistant in the editorial rooms who typewrites it as it comes over the wire, and the 'scoop' or 'story' is on the street in less time than the reporter of 1876 would have consumed in riding or running to his office. And with the aid of the telephone, the city editor in the large cities often makes many assignments without seeing the respective reporters for days at a time. In fact, in the larger cities, certain reporters now communicate by telephone with the editorial rooms every half hour while on duty, and only visit the main office to draw their salaries.

After March 1, continuous day and night service was given. During the first week one boy operator, Louis H. Frost, son of the treasurer, was the sole operating force; then Julian Cramer was added; on March 1 Fred A. Allen was employed; and later came Charles W. Dow. The night operator received a salary of $15 a month, and worked from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. Incidentally it may be added that Mr. Allen and Mr. Dow are still employed in the New Haven telephone exchange, and that Mr. Frost is in the livery business in that city.

In building his subscriber-lines, Mr. Coy erected very few poles during the first four months. The grounded-iron circuits were supported on brackets fastened to the sides and roofs of buildings, and to trees, the owners of the property usually making no charge for this right of way. Owing to this method of suspension no two spans of wire were the same in length, and slack wire was in evidence the year through. Hence, it was only natural that the talking qualities of these circuits should never be very good, and invariably be very low whenever these wire festoons were swayed by the wind against tin roofs, or were grounded on wet roofs or on the dripping branches of trees.

Thus it naturally came about that on drizzling days the amount of shouting required on the part of subscribers striving to carry on a conversation with the aid of a single hand telephone was a source of much amusement to non-participants, and a probable cause of much profanity and ill-feeling to many users of the service. And all the blame was placed upon the little wooden telephone in place of the wretched construction and the circuits that were constantly being crossed or grounded on wet roofs or on the branches of trees. Had these early lines been built with all the care and under the engineering supervision now expended on the heavy copper metallic circuits, excellent talking service would, no doubt, have resulted. For there were few vagrant currents sneaking around in those days.

Yet back to these cheaply constructed subscriber-lines and that crude equipment is easily traced the origin of the marvelous system of intricate switchboard mechanism, practical and standardized methods, and progressive operation known as the modern telephone exchange, and by the aid of which a subscriber in New Haven may now talk with greater ease to a subscriber in Pittsburg, or in Chicago, than was possible when the two subscribers were distant only a block away on wet pioneer days in Connecticut. That is, less shouting would be required.

With the accumulation of experience in constructing telephone pole lines covering a period of a quarter of a century, we might wonder that Mr. Coy should have put up telephone lines of so crude a character. But from whom could he gain experience concerning the construction of telephone lines? He built the first commercial telephone line ever constructed. Owing to the bitter competition existing between the telegraph companies, the telegraphers of those days strove not to see how good a telegraph line could be built, but how cheaply it could be constructed and yet carry messages when 'sufficient battery' was used. Battery current cost but little, and properly-constructed pole lines brought no higher price than rickety lines, when the inevitable consolidation was brought about by cut rates. Then the promoter pocketed his profit, and the public footed the bill in an increase of rates to cover interest charges on the duplicate and non-earning investment. In the words of a governmental report dated January, 1869:

There is no uniformity in telegraph rates. They are often less to a distant (competing) station than to an intermediate one on the same line. In other countries the rates are reduced with the growth of business and never raised. In this country they are reduced by competition, followed by consolidation of the competing companies, and subsequent increase of rates, without regard to the growth of the business.

Yet Mr. Coy followed the approved American practise of 1878, a practise that prevailed for several years thereafter, as is evident from the official instructions issued by the parent Bell company during the years 1879-81. And these instructions certainly make interesting reading, now that uniformity in methods and standardization in equipment and stability in construction are rigidly insisted upon by all legitimate telephone companies.

It was comparatively easy to run telephone circuits in those pioneer days when only telegraph or signal companies were stringing wires.

There were no trolley wires until 1884, and no central station lighting plants prior to 1879. In 1873 William Wallace was building his relatively large magneto-machines in Ansonia, which early in 1874 were connected up and used as dynamos in lighting his factory. In 1875 he brought out a more compact dynamo that 'was in operation furnishing current for electric lights in Machinery Hall during the entire period of the Centennial.' In 1877 two Brush 'dynamos built for lighting were exhibited and tested at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia,' with a 'ring-clutch' arc lamp. The first Brush 'dynamo and lamp actually sold were shipped to Dr. Longworth, of Cincinnati, about January, 1878,' and installed by Charles F. Brush. In April, 1879, twelve Brush lamps were installed in Cleveland for street lighting, and 'on December 20, 1880, Broadway, New York, from Fourteenth to Twenty-sixth street was first lighted with fifteen Brush lamps,' The first Edison central station was opened in New York on September 4, 1882.

Ten years after the opening of the first telephone exchange central electric-lighting stations were in operation in all principal cities. Of electric railways, in the beginning of 1887, in the United States 'there were only ten installations with an aggregate of less than forty miles of track and fifty motor cars, operated mostly from overhead lines with traveling trolleys.' The principal practical pioneers were Charles J. Van Depoele who built an experimental trolley system in Chicago in 1882-83; Leo Daft who, a year later, operated an experimental electric locomotive at Saratoga; Bentley & Knight who placed an experimental conduit system in operation in Cleveland, in August, 1884; J. C. Henry who completed the trolley system in Kansas City in 1884-85, and Frank J. Sprague's experiments in 1885.