The following is Part 11 in a series on the history of the telephone, mostly from an American perspective. These pages are researched and written by Tom Farley and the original can be found at privateline.com
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Telephone History Part 11: 1983 to 1984
Bryant Pond, Maine
Michael Hathaway reports that “[My] parents owned the Bryant Pond Telephone Company in Bryant Pond, Maine, the last hand-crank magneto company to go dial. It was in our living room and the last call was made October 11, 1983.” Hand crank magneto switchboards evolved around the turn of the century. Their arrangement was not common battery, where the exchange or central office powers their equipment and supplies electricity to customer’s phones. Rather, as we saw earlier in this series, a crank at the switchboard operators position was turned to signal a customer. Turn the crank and you caused a dial at a customer’s telephone to ring, a magneto in the crank generating the ringing current. To place a call a customer signaled the operator with a similar crank on their telephone. A big battery in the base of the customer’s telephone supplied the talking power when a call got connected. This system is called local battery, where the customer’s phone supplies the power. Here’s an example of a magneto switchboard below, a 1914 Western Electric Type 1200, known as a “Bull’s Eye.” This board is at the Roseville Telephone Company Museum and it still works for demonstrations.
Old magneto crank switchboard
So, you had many people on non-dial, candlestick or box telephones, as nearly a hundred years before. My father, incidentally, worked a magneto powered switchboard in his youth, near Davidson, Michigan. Mike goes on to say that,
“My father and mother Elden & Barbara Hathaway sold the Bryant Pond Telephone Company in 1981 but it took two years to convert. They did have about 400 customers ( probably 200 lines – two switchboards full). When they bought the company there were only 100 customers. The Oxford County Telephone Company, which bought it, retained ownership of the last operating switchboards. After being on display at The Telephone Museum, the switchboard went back into storage before being donated to the Maine State Museum, where they were on exhibit at one point.
A lot of the family memorabilia has been donated to the Fryeburg Fair (Maine) Farm Museum, which although is only open during the 8 day fair, is visited by many thousands each year. It is hoped to have within a year or so a working magneto switchboard there where someone can call from an old pay phone to anywhere. My mother has a lot of telephone parts left over which we are slowly marketing for her as memorabilia from the last old hand-crank magneto company. I’ve actually written a book about the Bryant Pond Telephone Company called ‘Everything Happened Around The Switchboard.’ It’s (obviously) a story of family life around the switchboard and is light reading with hopefully humor and nostalgia. I have lots of copies left and sell it directly. The address is Mike Hathaway, PO Box 705, Conway, NH 03818. But it is also available from Phonecoinc.com, and several bookstores.”
This site had a great list of ending dates in telephonic history: http://www.sigtel.com/tel_hist_lasts.html It now seems dead, even to the Internet Archive.
To sum up, although some manual switchboards may have remained in the PSTN, those being small office switches, or PBXs, the Bryant Pond board was the last central office manual exchange in America. On this happy and nostalgic note of technology passing away, so at the same time was the world’s greatest telephone company coming to an end.
Although they had pioneered much of telecom, many people though the information age was growing faster than the Bell System could keep up. Many thought AT&T now stood in the way of development, rather than being the harbinger of it. And the thought of any large monopoly struck most as inherently wrong.
In 1982 the Bell System had grown to an unbelievable 155 billion dollars in assets (256 billion in today’s dollars), with over one million employees. By comparison, Microsoft in 1998 had assets of around 10 billion dollars. On August 24, 1982, after seven years of wrangling, the Bell System was split apart, succumbing to government pressure from without and a carefully thought up plan from within. Essentially, the Bell System divested itself.
Judge Harold Greene entered a decision called the Modified Final Judgment, since it impacted the 1956 decision limiting AT&T to the telephone business. In the MFJ as it is known, AT&T kept their long distance service, Western Electric, Bell Labs, the newly formed AT&T Technologies and AT&T Consumer Products. AT&T got their most profitable companies, in other words, and spun off the regional Bell Operating Companies or RBOCs. Complete divestiture took place on January, 1, 1984. The operating Companies then consolidated into the seven large entities shown below.
New Regional Bell Operating Company
Old Bell Company
Ameritech Illinois Bell
Bell of Pennsylvania
New Jersey Bell
South Central Bell
New York Telephone
New England Telephone
Pacific Northwest Bell
In perhaps the most cumbersome part of the Modified Final Judgment, Judge Greene split the country into 160 local access and transport areas, loosely structured around area code boundaries. Local phone companies would not provide long distance service and long distance companies could not provide local service. Judge Greene thought the Baby Bells would dominate long distance service in their territories if allowed to provide it. He insisted that only a long distance company could pass LD traffic from one LATA to another. By now this prohibition has ceased on a federal level, however, many states have yet to allow complete local and long distance competition. And although AT&T once again provides local service for a few select markets, as of July, 2001, only 8% of local lines belong to competitors, giving the local telephone companies a practical monopoly Theodore Vail would have preferred.
Epilogue I: the death of Western Electric
“On January 1, 1984, the Western Electric Company, then older than the telephone itself, ceased to exist (Hochheiser 1991, 143). On that day of court ordered divestiture, the Bell System was broken into seven regional operating companies (the Baby Bells) and a more compact AT&T. AT&T retained the long-distance part of the business, its venerable research organization (Bell Laboratories), and its manufacturing operations (which could no longer have exclusive supply arrangements with the operating companies). A newly created AT&T Technologies, Inc. assumed the corporate charter of Western Electric and continued making 500-type,2500-type, and Trimline telephones under the AT&T Technologies label for several years at plants in Indianapois and Shreveport. However, to become competitive in the market, AT&T shifted residential telephone manufacturing to the Far East, beginning in Hong Kong in late 1985, Singapore the following year, and later in Bangkok and elsewhere. Thus ended U.S. production of rugged electromechanical telephones, and though phones similar to the 500-type, the 2500-type, the Princess, and the Trimline are still made to-day, they are products of the modern electronics age, rather than a bygone culture.”
From: Old Time Telephones:Technology, Restoration and Repair by Ralph O Myer, Published by TAB Books, a division of McGraw Hill, Inc., Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17294 1 -800-822-8158 (717)-794-2191 (717)-794-2103 FAX ISBN No. 0-07-041817-9 (Paperback)
Epilogue II: A personal note on W.E.C.O.
Yesterday I brought home a battered and rotten wooden crate I found outside a second hand store. I say outside because it was in such bad shape that not even the thrift store thought it saleable, they discarded it instead. Hardly fit as even a garden planter, I brought this oily and broken box home because of two words stenciled in three inch letters on the lengthwise sides: Western Electric. Gone are the rope handles and original hinges, and although the clasp appears genuine, it has been torn off once or twice and mounted in a new location each time. The stylized Bell System logo accompanies the lettering. There is an address on it. In handwriting that could only be penned by someone now in their 70s, the labeling reads, WECO, 1610 N. Broadway, Stockton, California. B/C 45738. I’m not sure if I will restore the box, put plants in it, or put the boards with the wording into a frame. It seems so sad and I keep thinking of the Ralph Myers’ quote I used above. . .
I recommend Myers book to anyone who repairs or wants to understand old telephones.
Epilogue III: Graham versus Gray
I haven’t given my opinion directly as to who was first at the patent office, Gray or Bell. I’m not sure I can do it now, at least, not without being long winded. But let me try, in long sentences.
Detractors claim that the 600 court cases which followed the most valuable patent ever issued settled nothing. They say there was never any evidence that Bell did not cheat Gray. They try to prove a negative. They can’t find any evidence that he cheated but they find nothing that absolutely clears Bell. He must have cheated.
But in his entire life of being a man and a humanist, for all his later works of invention, and contributions to charity, the founding of the National Geographic Society, his continued work with the deaf, in his voluminous note taking of all things scientific, in all of this, in this incredible record, there is absolutely nothing in Bell’s character that suggests he was a cheat. Nothing. Nothing!
It is tough in this age of cynicism to admit that both Bell and Watson were truly great, gentle, brilliant men. Who deserved every bit of fame and accolade that came to them. Bell surrounded himself with sharp Boston lawyers to protect himself. But the animosity people had against his legal staff should in no way detract against Bell himself. Bell was an honest, courageous soul who long suffered being called a cheat. It was completely undeserved.
What about 1984 to the present? Read an excellent summary of technology development since the mid-1980s by Terry Edwards. It is a free .pdf file from his book Gigahertz and Terahertz Technologies for Broadband Communications (28 pages, 360K in .pdf)
Ordering information for this title (external link to Amazon)
Why is there no “Q” or “Z” on many telephones?
This fascinating story came from http://www.LearningKingdom.com, now out of business.
Some voice mail systems don’t take into account that not every phone has a Q or Z . . .
The telephone’s pad of twelve buttons reflects its history. There are three letters on most buttons, except for zero, one, octothorp (#) and the star symbol (*), which have no letters. “Q” and “Z” are usually missing from the list. Why?
Instead of twelve buttons, telephones used to have circular plates with ten holes numbered from zero to nine. To make phone numbers easier to remember, the phone companies assigned letters to the numbers, so people could remember mnemonics like “Charleston” for C-H instead of the first two digits of a number. Of the ten digits, zero was already used to dial the operator and one was used for internal phone company signals. That left eight numbers to which letters could be assigned. Three letters per number took care of 24 of the alphabet’s 26 letters, and the least common letters “Q” and “Z” were left out, but not forever. Many telephones now show “Q” on the seven button, and “Z” on the nine button.
Wither the busy signal?
A comment from a reader: “The busy signal is going away . . .”
True; with voice mail and answering machines you don’t get one. In 1995 The New Brunswick Telephone Company announced they would do away with busy signals for calls made within their territory. Instead of a busy signal callers got a recording which asked them to make one of three choices: send a message, for a price, hang up, or be notified when the line was available. Again, for a price. I wonder if anyone in that province misses the busy signal.
SBC/Pacific Bell offered this service in my area earlier this year, people hated it, I think because it was so aggressively pitched. Instead of getting a busy signal, a frustrating experience by itself, people got a come on, a promotion to buy something. If the Canadian telco didn’t sell it too hard then perhaps people accepted it.
Since we haven’t always had them so I shan’t miss them when they go. They were an interlude only, although a longish one, good I should think for another decade or two. When calls were manually switched there was no need for a busy signal. An operator knew if a line was busy by looking at a lamp or a marker, what was called a drop, on a manual switch board. The operator then told the caller the line was busy.
When dialing became automatic network progress tones such as dial tone and busy signals were needed to tell the subscriber the status of a call. There is another busy signal, of course, that one being a “fast busy” signal, going at twice the rate of the normal tone. It indicates that telephone company circuits are too busy to handle a call. Not often heard on landline phones but quite common on cellular telephone networks.
Voice mail and answering machines and call waiting are, I suppose, just automatic operators, a step up above the obnoxious busy signal and of course quite a few steps below that of a real person to take a message. Although their people don’t switch calls, perhaps answering services for doctors and lawyers are the last remnant of the always present, human attended exchange.
Did Alexander Graham Bell help dispel the ether theory?
Did Alexander Graham Bell help dispel the ether theory? And how much did it cost him? The answers are yes, and 200 bucks. The fascinating reading below is from Science in American Society: A Social History by George H. Daniels, 1971, Borzoi Books, Alfred Knoph:
“In 1881, a young American physicist then studying in Germany received a grant of $200 from Alexander Graham Bell to conduct an experiment on one of the most fascinating questions of nineteenth-century physics: the reality of the ether. The ether was a mysterious, jellylike, invisible entity which was thought to fill all of space; it was even present in solid matter. The vibrations set up in this ether made it possible to explain how the wavelike radiations of light could be carried through millions of miles without weakening or diluting their initial energy. Although the behavior of light seemed to demand some such medium, Albert A. Michelson doubted its existence, and he designed a relatively simple experiment which he thought might resolve the question unconditionally.”
“With his $200 provided by Bell, Michelson had a machine of his own design, called the interferometer, constructed by a Berlin manufacturer, and he took it to the observatory at Potsdam for the crucial experiment. His conclusion, published in the August I88I issue of the American Journal of Science, was that ‘the hypothesis of a stationary ether is erroneous.’ Although Michelson later repeated the experiment, with more sophisticated apparatus, in collaboration with Edward Williams Morley it was the first experiment which, as Albert Einstein remarked, ‘showed that a profound change of the basic concepts of physics was inevitable’ and led eventually to Michelson’s becoming the first American recipient of a Nobel prize.”
Message from Mike Hathaway
My mother, Barbara Hathaway, passed away in 2004 and we are still getting rid of phone parts (mostly). The Maine State Museum in Augusta had a two month exhibit on the Bryant Pond Telephone Company in 2006 called “Call Your Mother”, and hopefully they will incorporate it into a permanent exhibit.
The following lists many resources I consulted:
The Telecom Digest is an excellent place to start searching. A great archive and lots of good links, although difficult to navigate:
Try also the Antique Telephone Collectors Association:
Also, search Yahoo by topic. Search for ‘Telephone History.’ Here you go:
If you get really stumped, go over to Dejanews.com to easily search the newsgroup or USENET postings. Someone will probably be able to help if you post your question:
Book and Magazine Bibliography:
Many of these books are out of print, however, several new resources are online to make finding old copies easier. Go to the Advanced Book Exchange at http://www.abebooks.com/ (external link)
Boettinger, 1976, The Telephone Book, Riverwood Publishing, Croton on Hudson, New York
NB: This book was updated in 1983 by Stearn Publishers (formerly Riverwood) to include a chapter about divestiture. (Thanks to Dorothy Stearn of Stearn Publishers Ltd. for pointing this out.)
Brooks, John, 1975, Telephone: The First Hundred Years, Harper and Row, New York
Bruce, Robert R, 1973, Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude, Boston 1973 37, 121
Conly, Robert L, July, 1954, “New Miracles of the Telephone Age,” The National Geographic Magazine
Cox, Wesley, 1985, Kiss Ma Bell Good-bye: How to Install Your Own Phones, Telephones, Extensions & Accessories –and Save Lots of Money, Crown, New York
Fagen, MD, ed., 1975, A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System. Volume 1 The Early Years, 1875 -1925. New York: Bell Telephone Laboratories
Hyde, J Edward, 1976, The Phone Book: what The Telephone company would rather you not know, Henry Regenry Company, Chicago
Morgan, Jane, 1967, Electronics In The West: The First Fifty Years, National Press Books, Palo Alto, p63. Good discussion about De Forest
[Myers] Myer, Ralph O, 1995, Old Time Telephones!: Technology, Restoration and Repair, Tab Books, New York. 123 Excellent. (back to text)
Pecar, Joseph A, Roger J. O’Conner, David A. Garbin, 1993, The McGraw Hill Telecommunications Factbook, McGraw Hill, New York
Rhodes, Beginning of Telephony 45, 13-14 Bell develops the idea for the telephone.
Steinberg, William F, and Walter B. Ford, 1957, Electricity and Electronics -Basic, American Technical Society, Chicago
Swihart, Stanley, “Independents Show Bell The Way to Big-City Dial Service,” Telecom History Issue 2 Spring 1995, p94
Thomas Watson, Exploring Life, 1926, New York
“GTE Corporation” Britannica Online. <http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/249/7.html>
[Accessed 11 February 1999].