Tom Farley’s Landline Telephone History – Part 9


The following is Part 9 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

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Telephone History Part 9: 1951 to 1965


Microwave tower.

We come to the 1950s. Dial tone was not widespread until the end of the decade in North America, not until direct dialing and automatic switching became common. Dial tone was first introduced into the public switched telephone network in a German city by the Siemens company in 1908, but it took decades before being accepted, with the Bell System taking the lead. AT&T used it not only to indicate that a line was free, but also to make the dialing procedure between their automatic and manual exchanges more familiar to their customers.

Manual exchange subscribers placed calls first through an operator, who listened to the number the caller wanted and then connected the parties together. The Bell System thought dial tone a good substitute for an operator’s “Number please” and required this service in all of their automatic exchanges. Before the 1950s most of the independent telephone companies, but not all, also provided dial tone. And, of course, dial tone was not possible on phones such as crank models, in which you signaled an operator who then later connected your call. [Swihart]

I mentioned direct number dialing, where callers made their own long distance calls, This was first introduced into the Bell System in a trial in Englewood, New Jersey in 1951. Ten years passed before it became universal.

On August, 17, 1951 the first transcontinental microwave system began operating. [Bell Laboratories Record] One hundred and seven relay stations spaced about 30 miles apart formed a link from New York to San Francisco. It cost the Bell System $40,000,000; a milestone in their development of radio relay begun in 1947 between New York and Boston. In 1954 over 400 microwave stations were scattered across the country. A Bell System “Cornucopia” tower is shown at left. By 1958 microwave carrier made up 13,000,000 miles of telephone circuits or one quarter of the nations long distance lines. 600 conversations or two television programs could be sent at once over these radio routes.

But what about crossing the seas? Microwave wasn’t possible over the ocean and radiotelephony was limited. Years of development lead up to 1956 when the first transatlantic telephone cable system started carrying calls. It cost 42 million dollars. Two coaxial cables about 20 miles apart carried 36 two way circuits. Nearly fifty sophisticated repeaters were spaced from ten to forty miles along the way. Each vacuum tube repeater contained 5,000 parts and cost almost $100,000. The first day this system took 588 calls, 75% more than the previous ten days average with AT&T’s transatlantic radio-telephone service.

In the early 1950s The Bell System developed an improved neoprene jacketed telephone cord and shortly after that a PVC or plastic cord. [BellLaboratoriesRecord] These replaced the cotton covered cords used since telephony began. The wires inside laid parallel to each other instead of being twisted around. That reduced diameter and made them more flexible. Both, though, were flat and non-retractable, only being made into spring cords later. In the authoritative Dates in American Telephone Technology, C.D. Hanscom, then historian for Bell Laboratories, stated that the Bell System made the neoprene version available in 1954 and the plastic model available in 1956. These were, the book dryly indicated, the most significant developments in cord technology since 1926, when solderless cord tips came into use.

On June 7, 1951, AT&T and International Telephone and Telegraph signed a cross-licensing patent agreement. [Myer] This marks what Myer says “led to complete standardization in the American telephone industry.” Perhaps. I do know that ITT’s K-500 phones are completely interchangeable with W.E. Model 500s, so much so that parts can be freely mixed and matched with each other. But whether Automatic Electric and other manufacturers produced interoperable equipment is something I am still researching. [William Myre discussion on interchangeable parts]

It is significant, though, that after seventy-five years of competition the Bell System decided to let other companies use its patents. Myer suggests a 1949 anti-trust suit against WECO and AT&T was responsible for their new attitude. On August 9, 1951 ITT began buying Kellogg stock, eventually acquiring the company. In 1952 the Kellogg Switchboard and Supply company passed into history, merging with ITT.

Roger Conklin relates, “In just a few years after the buyout, ITT changed the name from Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company to ITT Kellogg. Then, after merging Federal Telephone and Radio Corporation, its separate telephone manufacturing company in Clifton, NJ. into ITT Kellogg and combining manufacturing operations into its Cicero Ave. facility in Chicago, the name was changed again to ITT Telecommunications. . . . The last change to ITT Telecommunications [took] place [in]1963.”

“In 1989, ITT sold its entire worldwide telecommunications products business to Alcatel and withdrew totally from this business. In 1992 Alcatel sold what had formerly been ITT’s customer premises equipment (CPE) business in the US, including its factory in Corinth, MS. to a group of private investors headed by David Lee. Initially after purchasing this business from Alcatel, this new company was known as Cortelco Kellogg. It continues to manufacture and market what had formerly been ITT’s U.S.-made telephones and related products. The name ‘Kellogg’ has since been dropped from its name and the company is now known as Cortelco. For a short while Cortelco continued to use the ITT name and trademark on its products under a license from ITT, but this also has been discontinued.”

The ITT information above came from the excellent history site (external link, now dead), produced by the U.K.’s Andrew Emmerson, a first rank telephone historian. Much has been archived here:

In 1952 the Bell System began increasing payphone charges from a nickel to a dime. [Fagen] It wasn’t an immediate change since both the payphone and the central office switching equipment that serviced it had to be modified. By the late 1950s many areas around the country were still charging a nickel. Most likely AT&T started converting payphones in New York City first.

In the mid-50s Bell Labs launched the Essex research project. It concentrated on developing computer controlled switching, based upon using the transistor. It bore first fruit in November, 1963 with the 101 ESS, a PBX or office telephone switch that was partly digital. Despite their computer expertise, AT&T agreed in 1956 under government pressure not to expand their business beyond telephones and transmitting information. Bell Laboratories and Western Electric would not enter such fields as computers and business machines. In return, the Bell System was left intact with a reprieve from anti-monopoly scrutiny for a few years. It is interesting to speculate whether IBM would have dominated computing in the 1960s if AT&T had competed in that market.

In 1955 Theodore Gary and Company merged into General Telephone, forming the largest independent telephone company in the United States. The combined company served “582,000 domestic telephones through 25 operating companies in 17 states. It also had interests in foreign telcos controlling 426,000 telephones.” Automatic Electric, Gary’s most well known company, retained its name but fell under an even larger corporate umbrella.

The Gary merger package included Automatic Electric Co. (AE), which now had subsidiaries in Canada, Belgium and Italy. GTE had purchased its first telephone-manufacturing subsidiary five years earlier in 1950 – Leich Electric. But the addition of AE’s engineering and manufacturing capacity assured GTE of equipment for their rapidly growing telephone operations.

An excellent timeline on Automatic Electric history was at the AGCS site, now dead. The “A” in the name stands for AT&T, the “G” for “GTE”. Divisions from both companies combined in 1989 to form AGCS.

General was founded in 1926 as Associated Telephone Utilities by Sigurd Odegard. The company went bankrupt during the Great Depression and in 1934 reorganized itself as General Telephone. General had its own manufacturing company, Leich Electric, which began in 1907. Growth was unspectacular until Donald C. Power became president in 1950. He soon bought other companies, building General Telephone into a large telecommunications company.

After the merger of Automatic Electric, General acquired answering machine producer Electric Secretary Industries in 1957, carrier equipment maker Lenkurt Electric in 1959, and Sylvania Electronics in that same year. In 1959 the newly renamed General Telephone and Electronics provided everything the independent telephone companies might want. Although they were not the exclusive manufacturer for the independents, Automatic Electric was certainly the largest. And where GTE aggressively went after military contracts, the Bell System did not, with the exception of grand projects like helping with the NIKE missile program. In the late 1950s, for example, Lenkurt Electric produced most of the armed forces’ carrier equipment. GTE lasted until 1982.

In January, 1958, Wichita Falls, Texas was the first American city in the Bell System to institute true number calling, that is, seven numerical digits without letters or names. Although it took more than fifteen years to implement throughout the Bell System, ANC, or all number calling, would finally replace the system of letters and numbers begun forty years before at the advent of automatic dialing. Telephone numbers like BUtterfield8, ELliot 1-1017 or ELmwood 1-1017.  Keep in mind, too, that many independent telephone companies did not use letters and numbers.

For a history of country codes, all number dialing that let people call overseas on their own, the original URL below was very useful. It is now dead. Click now on the archived link. .Now archived here:

For a look at the overwhelming subject of American area codes, this now dead link has been archived below:

The 1960s began a dizzying age of projects, improvements and introductions. In 1961 the Bell System started work on a classic cold war project, finally completed in 1965. It was the first coast to coast atomic bomb blast resistant cable. Intended to survive where the national microwave system might fail, the project buried 2500 reels of coaxial cable in a 4,000 mile long trench. 9300 circuits were helped along by 950 buried concrete repeater stations. Stretched along the 19 state route were 11 manned test centers, buried 50 feet below ground, complete with air filtration, living quarters and food and water.

In 1963 the first modern touch-tone phone was introduced, the Western Electric 1500. It had only ten buttons. Limited service tests had started in 1959.

Also in 1963 digital carrier techniques were introduced. Previous multiplexing schemes used analog transmission, carrying different channels separated by frequency, much like those used by cable television. T1 or Transmission One, by comparison, reduced analog voice traffic to a series of electrical plots, binary coordinates to represent sound. T1 quickly became the backbone of long distance toll service and then the primary handler of local transmission between central offices. The T1 system handles calls throughout the telephone system to this day.

In 1964 the Bell System put its star crossed videotelephone into limited commercial service between New York, Washington and Chicago. Despite decades of dreaming, development and desire by Bell scientists, technicians and marketing wonks, the videotelephone never found a market.

1968. Even the astute Japanese fell victim to developing picturephones as this unflattering photograph shows. This model was probably developed by Nippon Telephone and Telegraph.

The Japanese and the picture phone

In 1965 the first commercial communications satellite was launched, providing 240 two way telephone circuits. Also in 1965 the 1A1 payphone was introduced by Bell Labs and Western Electric after seven years of development. Replacing the standard three slot payphone design, the 1A1 single slot model was the first major change in coin phones since the 1920s.

1965 also marked the debut of the No. 1ESS, the Bell Systems first central office computerized switch. The product of at least 10 years of planning, 4,000 man years of research and development, as well as $500 million dollars in costs, the first Electronic Switching System was installed in Succasunna, N.J. Built by Western Electric the 1ESS used 160,000 diodes, 55,000 transistors and 226,000 resistors. These and other components were mounted on thousands of circuit boards. Not a true digital switch, the 1ESS did feature Stored Program Control, a fancy Bell System name for memory, enabling all sorts of new features like speed dialing and call forwarding. Without memory a switch could not perform these functions; previous switches such as crossbar and step by step worked in real time, with each step executed as it happened. The switch proved a success but there were some problems for Bell Labs engineers, particularly when a No.1ESS became overloaded. In those circumstances it tended to fail all at once, rather than breaking down bit by bit.



[Myers] Myer, Ralph O, 1995, Old Time Telephones!: Technology, Restoration and Repair, Tab Books, New York. 123 Excellent.

[Swihart, Stanley] Telecom History: The Journal of the Telephone History Institute, Issue 2, Spring 1995

[ETH] Events in Telecommunication History, 1992 ,AT&T Archives Publication (8.92-2M), p53


[Bell Laboratories Record] “Coast to Coast Radio Relay System Opens.” Bell Laboratories Record, May, 1951. 427

[Bell Laboratories Record] Weber, C.A., Jacketed Cords for Telephones, Bell Laboratories Record, May, 1959 187

[Fagen] Fagen, M.D., ed. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Volume 1 The Early Years, 1875 -1925. New York: Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1975, 357 Briefly mentions coin services. (back to text)

[William Myre discussion on interchangeable parts]

As a teenager in the 60’s, I did a detailed examination of both our Western Electric keyed telephones (installed in 1960) and a couple of Automatic Electric phones (on of which was keyed). All the phones were dial telephones. At the time I was attempting to understand the wiring and reverse engineer the circuitry.

It is my opinion that the parts were not designed to be mechanically interchangeable. The inside of the phones were laid out differently. The dial on a WE seemed to be different from a AE mechanically.

The electrical “guts” of both the WE and AE phones was a metal box with a plastic top on which screw terminals were located. The layout of these terminals and the box size was not the same.

The handset had dimensional differences as well, although the AE and WE mic and speaker might fit interchangeably.

Electrically speaking, of course, all phones had pretty much the same circuits and components, so it would probably be possible to wire a AE circuit box into a WE phone, and it likely work.

The electrical differences, if they exist, would have to be in the microphone, speaker, or capacitor used in series with the ringer coil (and the coil impedance).

I don’t remember if the same color coding was used on the internal wiring, but I can certainly say that having a WE phone to examine did not help me re-wire the inside of an AE phone that had been unwired.

I still have a keyed AE phone in my garage. I also somewhere probably still have the technical bulletin AE sent me to rewire the AE phone.

William Myre