History of telephones question

I have been asked to make a presentation next week at a local history forum on what life was like in our little Oregon town 100 years ago. I have the good fortune to work at a daily newspaper with good archives, so I can look through the bound volume of the paper’s 1901 issues for clues.

In some of the ads, local stores list two telephone numbers, something like “Phone 51 local, 858 long distance.”

My suspicion is that the long distance referred to here is from the next town over, or even from outside the city limits, or some other such arbitrary distinction. My sense of history is that there were lots of local telephone companies that were not necessarily connected with each other. I don’t * think * that it was possible to make a call cross country or even across the state in those days, but I’d rather not say so without supporting evidence. Any phone historians out there with knowledge of conditions circa 1901 or who can point me to a good source?

Many thanks.

BTW, one ad in the local 1901 paper was for Pacific State Telephone Company, which charged $1 per month with the following copy: “Lines do not cross talk. Your conversation will be kept a secret. No cost for installing. Strictly first class local and long distance service. We will accept your contract for 10 years and allow you to cancel same on giving thirty days written notice.” Sounds like some of the cell phone ads today…

:: paging Mr. whitetho

If anyone can answer this, it’s him.

Direct distance dialing was instituted in North America in the 1950’s. Before then you had to go through the operator to dial what you think of as “long distance”. The areas in which you could dial without operator assistance varied a lot from exchange to exchange before then, as did the number of digits in dial plans. When DDD came in, dial plans were also uniformized as it was adopted. This came up in another thread - I remember my mother mentioning that my grandmother bitched about it a lot when she had to start dialing 7 digits for local calls in her small town back sometime in the 50’s or early 60’s.

I can’t say for sure why the ads have two phone numbers, although you are right that, especially in the west, local service for many of the independent phone companies was limited to a single town. However, in 1901 many people were also able to telephone surprisingly far distances, for example, the extract below reports that at the end of 1899 telephone communication had been established between Seattle and San Diego.

No matter what their regular service area, most of the telephone companies also had lines set up for connecting to distant exchanges, although these weren’t in steady use. Setting up a really long distance call took a fair amount of logistics–you had to first call your local exchange to schedule the call. The local exchange then had to send telegrams to all the exchanges along the route instructing them to patch together a line–this of course was long before automatic exchanges, so all the links were plugged in by hand. And the sound quality over long distances was pretty poor, so you might have to yell to be heard, and there was likely a lot of scratchy line noise to contend with. Still, it was a pretty remarkable achievement for the time.

You might find the following extract interesting:

Flame, Electrcity and the Camera, George Iles, 1904.

Chapter XVII: The Telephone (pages 234-236)

Long-distance Telephony.

At long distances the boon of conversation,–of receiving an instant reply to a question, has special value. A patient confers with his surgeon, a railroad president with his counsel, an investor with his broker, as if they stood face to face. Because of this new facility the railroads between New York and Chicago are suffering a noteworthy loss of business; their rapid trains are less in request than formerly. Principals and agents, clients and attorneys, now find it unecessary to travel a thousand miles that their voices may be accompanied by themselves. Experiments of promise have been made in relaying the telephone, so that, as in the case of the telegraph, a message may be sent to an indefinately great distance by means of local currents brought here and there into the line. The human voice may yet belt the earth, and this before many years are past.

It has been found possible to send several telephonic messages simultaneously over the same wire, either in one direction, or in opposite directions. Should these experiments issue in commercial success the telegraph will find its rival formidable indeed. In the hands of Dr. Lodge the telephone has been refined to thirty-fold its ordinary sensitiveness, in which form it is an unapproached means of revealing minute electric currents. To pass to the other extreme of telephonic capacity, Edison, in constructing his megaphone, enables an assembly of a thousand persons to hear an oration, an orchestra, or a chorus borne upon electric waves for a distance of a hundred miles and more. In services of a more every-day kind let us mark the good offices of the ordinary instrument.

The acute responsiveness of the ordinary telephone at first seemed a serious barrier to its use for long distances. In a range of miles its wire was liable to come into the neighbourhood of telegraphic, lighting, or power circuits, whose pulsations it reported all too faithfully. The difficulty lay in balancing each disturbance by an equal and opposite disturbance, which problem, a little at a time, has been duly solved. The first improvement was in making each line double, so as to discard the “earth,” borrowed from telegraphy, as the return half of the circuit. This greatly reduced many perturbing influences, and barred out others completely. Another and more decided betterment lay in making the two wires of a circuit cross each other, without touching, at every mile the upper wire exchanging its place with the lower wire. This plan provides effectual compensation for inductive intrusions, leaving to the engineer the simple question of furnishing better metallic conductors. This he has done, first, by using hard drawn copper wire instead of iron, and next, by employing this in a size which at the end of 1899 had reached .165 of an inch. Among the cities most distant from each other which, on December 31, 1899, were in telephonic communication were San Francisco and Boise City, 1309 miles apart; Boston and Montgomery, 1538 miles; Boston and Omaha, 1556; Seattle and San Diego, 1567; Boston and Kansas City, 1609; Boston and Duluth, 1652; and Boston and Little Rock, 1793 miles. In this last case the two wires which form the circuit weigh in all no less than 780 tons; this huge mass is to be exceeded by that of the line, 1859 miles in length, soon to connect New York with New Orleans.

Lots of little, independent telephone companies. I don’t really know when the interconnections started to become universal, but my WAG is it was sometime after the early years of the 20th century.

Here’s how calling long distance worked. Even in areas that were interconnected, there was probably only one line between towns. You would call your friendly operator to start the call. She would call her counterpart in Town B, who would call Town C, and so on, until you got to the final operator who would patch your call through. It’s actually similar to today’s call-routing systems, except it was all done manually.

Of course the single line between towns might be busy, so the operator would have to wait for the line to clear, or else call Town X, who would relay the call through Town Q to get to Town D, and so on.

That’s why when you see old movies, the arrival of a long distance call was always BIG NEWS. It took some time to make all the connections, and it wasn’t cheap.

Perhaps helpful: