Federal Internet Law & Policy
An Educational Project
History :: AT&T Patent Era
1872 - 1893
Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY


1847, March 3: Alexander Graham Bell born in Edinbugh, Scotland. He was educated at the Royal High School. As a boy he constructed a "speaking machine" at the encouragement of his father.. [IEEEVM ][] [LOC Bell Family Papers] [Kingsbury 19]

1864-65: Bell conducts experiments attempting to create the sounds of vowels as produced by the mouth. Helmholtz had already discovered these experiments and produced papers in 1863 on speaking machines that could produce vowel sounds.. [Kingsbury 20]

1867: Bell graduates from University College, London [Kingsbury 19]

1869: Shawk and Barton (aka Western Electric) established in Cleveland Ohio, taking over a former Western Union repair shop. One of the first customers was Elisha Gray. Shawk sold his interest to Gray. Gray and Barton opened at years end in Chicago, with investment from Anson Stager. [Iardella 27]

1870: Bell's family moves to Brantford, Ontario. [LOC Bell Family Papers]



Invention of the phone

1872: Bell produces initial drawings of a "harmonic telegraph" Bell's initial interest is to develop the harmonic telegraph, not the telephone, which would result in multiple telegraph messages being sent over a single telegraph wire. Bell reflected:

"Instead of having the dots and dashes recorded upon paper, the operators were in the habit of observing the duration of the click of the instruments, and in this way were enabled to distinguish by ear the various signals. It struck me that in a similar manner the duration of a musical note might be made to represent the dot or dash of the telegraph code, so that a person might operate one of the keys of the tuning-fork piano referred to above, and the duration of the sound proceeding from the corresponding string of the distant piano be observed by an operator stationed there. It seemed to me that in this way a number of distinct telegraph messages might be sent simultaneously from the tuning-fork piano to the other end of the circuit, by operators each manipulating a different key of the instrument. These messages would be read by operators stationed at the distant piano, each receiving operator listening for signals of a certain definite pitch, and ignoring all others. In this way could be accomplished the simultaneous transmission of a number of telegraphic messages along a single wire, the number being limited only by the delicacy of the listener's ear. The idea of increasing the carrying power of a telegraph wire in this way took complete possession of my mind, and it was this practical end that I had in view when I commenced my researches in Electric Telephony." [Kingsbury 27]

1872: Bell meets Gardiner Greene Hubbard [] [LOC Bell Family Papers]

Experiment description: "The form of the apparatus constructed at that time consisted of tuning forks arranged substantially after the manner of Helmholtz. The transmitting tuning fork was placed in a local circuit. Upon causing the wire to vibrate, the wire attached to the prong was alternately lifted out of the mercury and depressed into it again. The circuit of which the fork formed a part was thus made and broken at every vibration of the fork. The poles of the electro-magnet attracted the prongs of the tuning fork at each kae of the circuit, and release them when the circuit was broken. The intermittent attraction of the electro-magnet thus caused the transmitting fork to remain in continuous vibration, emitting continuously its musical tone. By the depression of a telegraph key, the current rendered intermittent by the vibration of the transmitting fork was directed to a line wire which passed to a receiving instrument consisting of an electro-magnet between the poles of which appeared the prongs of a tuning fork. Every time the prong of the transmitting fork made contact with the mercury below it, the prongs of the receiving fork were attracted by the poles of the electro-magnet, between which they were placed; and every time the prong of the transmitting fork broke contact with the mercury below, the prongs of the receiving fork were no longer attracted by the electro-magnet, but were allowed to move freely in the manner of a tuning fork left to itself. Thus, at every vibration of the transmitting fork, the prongs of the receiving fork were attracted by the receiving electro-magnet and released. When the receiving fork had normally the same pitch as the transmitting fork, the intermittent attraction of the electromagnet would cause it to be thrown into vigorous vibration, thus producing a musical sound of similar pitch to that occasioned by the vibration of the transmitting fork." [Kingsbury 28]

1873: Bell's experiments switch from tuning forks to "vibrating armatures consisting of single flat plates - really musical reeds." [Kingsbury 29]

1874: Bell partners with Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who provides financial backing for Bell's research. Bell meets Watson. [] Bell meets Thomas Watson at Charles William's electrician shop in Boston. [LOC Bell Family Papers]


The Patent Era

“That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”
- President Rutherford B. Hayes to Alexander Graham Bell 1876


January 20: Bells Patent application is sworn to in Boston and shipped to Washington. [Kingsbury 45]

January 25: Bell sails to Europe in order to file patent applications there [Kingsbury 45]

February 14: Hubbard files Bell's patent application.

""Having described my invention, what I claim, and desire to secure by letters patent is as follows:"

"1. A system of telegraphy in which the receiver is set in vibration by the employment of undulatory currents of electricity, substantially as set forth."

"2. The combination, substantially as set forth, of a permanent magnet or other body capable of inductive action, with a closed circuit, so that the vibration of the one shall occasion electrical undulations in the other or in itself, and this I claim whether the permanent magnet be set in vibration in the neighborhood of the conducting wire forming the circuit or whether the conducting wire be set in vibration in the neighborhood of the permanent magnet, or whether the conducting wire and the permanent magnet both simultaneously be set in vibration in each other's neighborhood."

"3. The method of producing undulations in a continuous voltaic current by the vibration or motion of bodies capable of inductive action, or by the vibration or motion of the conducting wire itself, in the neighborhood of such bodies, as set forth."

"4. The method of producing undulations in a continuous voltaic circuit by gradually increasing and diminishing the resistance of the circuit, or by gradually increasing and diminishing the power of the battery, as set forth."

"5. The method of and apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically, as herein described, by causing electrical undulations similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds, substantially as set forth."

"In testimony whereof, I have hereunto signed my name this 20th day of January, A.D. 1876."


[Telephone Cases p 13 (1888)] A few hours later, Elisha Gray filed his telephone caveat.

"Be it known that I, Elisha Gray of Chicago, in the County of Cook and State of Illinois, have invented a new art of transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically, of which the following is a specification:"

"It is the object of my invention to transmit the tones of the human voice through a telegraphic circuit, and reproduce them at the receiving end of the line, so that actual conversations can be carried on by persons at long distances apart."

"I have invented and patented methods of transmitting musical impressions or sounds telegraphically, and my present invention is based upon the modification of the principle of said invention, which is set forth and described in letters patent of the United States, granted to me July 27, 1875, respectively numbered 166,095 and 166,096, and also in an application for letters patent of the United States filed by me February 23, 1875."

"To attain the objects of my invention, I devised an instrument capable of vibrating responsively to all the tones of the human voice, and by which they are rendered audible."

"In the accompanying drawings, I have shown an apparatus embodying my improvements in the best way now known to me, but I contemplate various other applications, and also changes in the details of construction of the apparatus, some of which would obviously suggest themselves to a skillful electrician or a person versed in the science of acoustics on seeing this application."

[Telephone Cases p 78 (1888)]

Bell's application did not mention the word "telephone" nor did it promise the transmission of voice. The principle of Variable Resistance was written into the margin of the application (it is not clear that Bell had done any experiments on variable resistance prior to the application). Bell had yet to successfully transmit voice. The Telephone Cases, 126 US 1, 535 (1888)

March 6: Bell, Sanders, and Hubbard form the Bell Patent Association. [Iardella p 9]

"The U.S. Patent Office issued patent #174,465 to Bell on March 7, 1876" for an improvement of telegraph (not telephone). [AT&T: Inventing the Telephone] Use the PTO Patent search engine to view Bell's patent. See also Who Invented the Telephone: Why Bell, of Course,; [Brands p 2] [Brenner p 1] [Brooks p 47] [Iardella p 9]

Alexander Graham Bell's Lab Notebook exhibited at the Library of Congress. You can look through all 55 pages.

March 10 “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” the first words that Mr. Bell spoke through his invention. This comment apparently was said as Mr. Bell had spilled acid while working on his experiments, and needed Mr. Watson's assistance. [Brooks p 49] This makes this both the first telephone call and the first emergency telephone call

April 6: Post Office grant's Bell's patent letters, Patent Number 161,739 for "a method of, and apparatus for, transmitting two or more telegraphic signals simultaneously along a single wire by the employment of transmitting instruments, each of which occasions a succession of electrical impulses differing in rate from the others, and of receiving instruments, each tuned to a pitch at which it will be put in vibration to produce its fundamental note by one only of the transmitting instruments, and of vibratory circuit breakers operating to convert the vibratory movement of the receiving instrument into a permanent make or break (as the case may be) of a local circuit, in which is placed a Morse sounder, register, or other telegraphic apparatus. I have also therein described a form of autograph-telegraph based upon the action of the above-mentioned instruments."" [Telephone Cases p 6 (1888)]

May 10, Bell presents paper, Researches in Telephony, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [Kingsbury 49]

June 25: Bell demonstrates his telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. [Brooks p 51] [IEEEVM] [LOC Bell Family Papers] [Kingsbury 50] [Iardella p 9] Western Electric receives five gold medals at the at the Centennial Exposition for its devices. [Iardella 28]

July 12: Experiments over a circuit from Boston to NYC and back, to two separate rooms in Boston, succeeded after short circuiting the loop. [Kingsbury 56]

August 10: First one-way telephone call over outdoor wires between Bell in Paris Ontario and his father in Brantford - using borrowed telegraph wires. [Brooks p 52] [IEEE History Center Voice]

October 9: First two-way telephone call over outdoor wires between Watson and Bell. [Brooks p 52] [Privatelines 1876-1879] Bell's salutation was "Hoy, Hoy" - which is how he believed the phone should be answered (this is how Mr. Burn's on the Simpson's answers the phone - playing with the theme of exactly how old is Mr. Burns).

On June 2, 1875, Bell and Watson were testing the harmonic telegraph when Bell heard a sound come through the receiver. Instead of transmitting a pulse, which it had refused to do in any case, the telegraph passed on the sound of Watson plucking a tuned spring, one of many set at different pitches. How could that be? Their telegraph, like all others, turned current on and off. But in this instance, a contact screw was set too tightly, allowing current to run continuously, the essential element needed to transmit speech. Bell realized what happened and had Watson build a telephone the next day based on this discovery. The Gallows telephone, so called for its distinctive frame, substituted a diaphragm for the spring. Yet it didn't work. A few odd sounds were transmitted, yet nothing more. No speech. Disheartened, tired, and running out of funds, Bell's experimenting slowed through the remainder of 1875.

During the winter of 1875 and 1876 Bell continued experimenting while writing a telephone patent application. Although he hadn't developed a successful telephone, he felt he could describe how it could be done. With his ideas and methods protected he could then focus on making it work. Fortunately for Bell and many others, the Patent Office in 1870 dropped its requirement that a working model accompany a patent application. On February 14, 1876, Bell's patent application was filed by his attorney. It came only hours before Elisha Gray filed his Notice of Invention for a telephone.

Mystery still surrounds Bell's application and what happened that day. In particular, the key point to Bell's application, the principle of variable resistance, was scrawled in a margin, almost as an afterthought. Some think Bell was told of Gray's Notice then allowed to change his application. That was never proved, despite some 600 lawsuits that would eventually challenge the patent. Finally, on March 10, 1876, one week after his patent was allowed, in Boston, Massachusetts, at his lab at 5 Exeter Place, Bell succeeded in transmitting speech. He was not yet 30. Bell used a liquid transmitter, something he hadn't outlined in his patent or even tried before, but something that was described in Gray's Notice.

-Tom Farley's Telephone History Series (cc)

January 30, 1877 Patent Office issued patent 186,787 for an improvement to the electric telephone [US v American Bell (1888)] [Telephone Cases (1888)] [Kingsbury 61] [Iardella p 9]

1877 :: Patent Wars Act 1 :: Western Union

Facing competing patents and an incomplete invention, in 1877, Bell and supporters offered to sell the telephone Patents to Western Union for $100,000. The offer was refused.

Western Union memo, 1876.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and his financial backer, Gardiner G. Hubbard, offered Bell's brand new patent (No. 174,465) to the Telegraph Company - the ancestor of Western Union. The President of the Telegraph Company, Chauncey M. DePew, appointed a committee to investigate the offer. The committee report has often been quoted. It reads in part:

"The Telephone purports to transmit the speaking voice over telegraph wires. We found that the voice is very weak and indistinct, and grows even weaker when long wires are used between the transmitter and receiver. Technically, we do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles.

"Messer Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their "telephone devices" in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?

"The electricians of our company have developed all the significant improvements in the telegraph art to date, and we see no reason why a group of outsiders, with extravagant and impractical ideas, should be entertained, when they have not the slightest idea of the true problems involved. Mr. G.G. Hubbard's fanciful predictions, while they sound rosy, are based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy... .

"In view of these facts, we feel that Mr. G.G. Hubbard's request for $100,000 of the sale of this patent is utterly unreasonable, since this device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase."

Note that AT&T would later acquire Western Union. Note also that in 1971 AT&T would turn down an offer to own the Internet.


Bell 1877 Advertisement:
"The proprietors of the Telephone . . . are now prepared to furnish Telephones for the transmission of articulate speech through instruments not more than twenty miles apart . . . Conversation can easily be carried on after slight practice and with occasional repetition of a word or sentence. On first listening to the Telephone, though the sound is perfectly audible, the articulation seems to be indistinct; but after a few trials the ear becomes accustomed to the peculiar sound . . ."
[Brooks p 60]

“I believe in the future, wires will unite the head offices of telephone companies in different cities, and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place.” - Alexander Graham Bell, 1878

1877: "the Government of the United States moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation, a case that the Supreme Court found viable and remanded for trial" [H Res 269]

As telephone service proved successful, Western Union regretted its decision. WU's printing telegraph units were being taken out and replaced with Bell's telephones. [Kingsbury 98] Thus WU sought to buy patent rights from other telephone companies.

Mar 22, 1877: Thomas Edison and WU enter agreement whereby Edison assigns his telephone / telegraph inventions to WU. [Kingsbury 109]

Dec. 13, 1877: Edison files patent describing variable resistance.

In 1878, Western Union sought to use telephones invented by Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray in order to establish a rival service. Western Union create a subsidiary called the American Speaking Telephone Company in December 1877. [Brooks p 61 (stating that WU also based its actions on the work of Professor Amos E Dol bear)] [Scripophily] Photo of American Speaking Telephone. "The Harmonic Telegraph Company was owned and controlled by Elisha Gray and SS White... The American Speaking Telephone Company was organized to develop the Western Union telephone interests. Gray with his partner held one-third interest in it." [Kingsbury 187]

Bell sued in Sept 12, 1878. Bell had $850k; Western Union was the "largest corporation that ever existed." WU had ~$41m capital and was backed by the Vanderbilts. [Coon 41]

Western Union was "not alone. At least 1,730 telephone companies organized and operated in the 17 years Bell was supposed to have a [patent] monopoly. Most competitors disappeared as soon as the Bell Company filed suit against them for patent infringement, but many remained. They either disagreed with Bell's right to the patent, ignored it altogether, or started a phone company because Bell's people would not provide service to their area." [Farley at 4] [See also Mueller p 34] Some services may have been offered with inventions outside of Bell's patent, but the threat of litigation would terminate the venture. Naturally, Bell refused to interconnect with these competing services.

"Insiders in Western Union and the Bell companies were thinking of their investments. To the public, however, it must have seemed strange that the Western Union lawyers should make overtures for a compromise. Apparently nobody in the communications field was fond of the idea of competition. They had all experienced competition and they definitely did not like it. As far as their business was concerned, they could see no advantages in it. They only people who could profit by competition were gamblers like Jay Gould who could use a competitive company for its nuisance value and sell out to the monopoly." [Coon 42]

In November 10, 1879, Bell and Western Union settled out of court Western Union's challenge to AT&T's patent.

See the Telephone Settlement, Boston Daily Advertiser (October 25, 1879) (copy of newspaper article, presented in the LOC Bell Family Papers) [Sterling p 55] [Farley at 4] [Mueller p 33] [FCC 1939 p 124] [Catania] [Porticus] [] [Kingsbury 188] [Coon 51]

In his book Telephone: The First Hundred Years, John Brooks explains that Western Union's incentive to settle with AT&T may have come from the fact that financier Jay Gould had launched an unfriendly take over bid of Western Union - and Western Union needed to focus on fending off the attack. In addition, AT&T had submitted to the court substantial evidence that no fraud had taken place. [Brooks p 71] [Coon 42]

"Testimony was prepared, but the case never came to trial. Experts in electrical science and in law had examined all the evidence that could be got together, and advised the Western Union that it was impossible to plead anticipation or to impeach the validity of the Bell patents.

"Mr. Frank L. Pope, a well-known electrical and patent expert, advised to that effect, and Mr. George Gifford, an eminent lawyer who was leading counsel for the Western Union, reached the same conclusion. In consequence, overtures were made with a view to a settlement on terms. The nature of these overtures and the result were subsequently recorded by Mr. Gifford in an affidavit, in the course of which he stated that in the years 1878-1879 he was one of the counsel for the Western Union Telegraph Company." [Kingsbury 187]

In 1879, Bell and Western Union settled out of court Western Union's challenge to AT&T's patent. AT&T and Western Union agree not to compete with each other. AT&T would depart from the telegraph market and Western Union would depart from the telephone market (note that at this time long distance communications was feasible only using a telegraph, not a telephone). Western Union agreed to recognize Bell's patent. AT&T agreed to pay 20% of its profits to Western Union for 17 years, and to buy 55 Western Union telephone exchanges.. [Sterling p 55] [Farley at 4] [Mueller p 33] [FCC 1939 p 124] [Catania]

Eventually in 1909, AT&T would briefly acquire Western Union.

Other Patent Challenges

"Over the next decade, the Bell company would be involved in more than six hundred lawsuits for patent infringement, all of which it would win." [Brooks p 77]

1885: USG brings suit against Bell in the Southern District Court of Ohio, attempting to void his patents based on Antonio Meucci's prior caveats for the invention of the teletrofono. The suit is terminated in 1897 without resolution after Meucci died and the Bell patents expired. [Catania] According to author Basilio Catania, the motivation for the law suit was not so much from Meucci as from the USG which had grown weary of AT&T exercising its patent monopoly powers.

The Telephone Cases, 126 US 1 (1888) (challenging Bell's patents based on the work of Phillip Reis and Charles Bourseul published in Paris 1854 )

US v American Bell, 128 US 315 (1888) (suit challenging Bell's patent based on the work of Phillip Reis and others, granting defendants motion to dismiss)

1897: USG challenge to Bell's patents, based on Meucci's prior art, is terminated after the death of Meucci and the expiration of Bell's patents; it was terminated as moot without resolution of who actually invented the telephone.

Having secured its monopoly position, AT&T engaged in the 1880s in a series of rate hikes under the justification of expanding the service. The public faced with no alternative service responded negatively. Responses included establishing legal authority to regulate the rates (See Common Carriage) and also the establishment of municipal networks. [Mueller p 36]

Bell Telephone

An 1877 Circular:
The Telephone

"The proprietors of the Telephone, the invention of Alexander Graham Bell, for which the patents have been issued by the United States and Great Britain, are now prepared to furnish Telephones for the transmission of articulate speech through instruments not more than twenty miles apart. Conversation can easily be carried on after slight practice and with occasional repetition of a word or sentence. On first listening to the Telephone, though the sound is perfectly audible, the articulation seems to be indistinct; but after a few trials the ear becomes accustomed to the peculiar sound and finds little difficulty in understanding the words.

The Telephone should be set in a quiet place, where there is no noise which would interrupt ordinary conversation.

The advantages of the Telephone over the Telegraph for local business are: (1) That no skilled operator is required, but direct communication may be had by speech without the intervention of a third person. (2) That the communication is much more rapid, the average number of words transmitted a minute by Morse Sounder being from fifteen to twenty, by Telephone from one to two hundred. (3) That no expense is required either for its operation maintenance or repair. It needs no battery, and has no complicated machinery. It is unsurpassed for economy and simplicity.

The terms for leasing two Telephones for social purposes connecting a dwelling house with any other building will be $20 a year, for business purposes $40 a year, payable semiannually in advance, with the cost of expressage from Boston, New York, Cincinnati, St. Louis or San Francisco. The instruments will be kept in good working order by the lessors, free of expense, except from injuries resulting from great carelessness.

Several telephones can be placed on the same line at an additional rental of $10 for each instrument; but the use of more than two on the same line where privacy is required is not advised. Any person within ordinary hearing distance can hear the voice calling through the Telephone. If a louder call is required one can be furnished for $5.

Telegraph lines will be constructed by the proprietors if desired. The price will vary from $100 to $150 a mile; any good mechanic can construct a line; No. 9 wire costs 8 1/2 cents per pound, 320 pounds to the mile' 34 insulators at 25 cents each; the price of poles and setting varies in every locality; stringing wire $5 per miles; sundries $10 per mile.

Parties leasing the Telephone incur no expense beyond the annual rental and repair of the line wire. On the following page are extracts from the Press and other sources relating to the Telephone.

Gardiner G Hubbard
Cambridge, Mass, May 1877" [Kingsbury 67]



"What the reorganization meant was that the founders, in the cause of bringing in new capital, had relinquished control to a group of aristocratic yet venturesome Boston capitalists" [Brooks p 67] [Kingsbury 96, 179]

Telephone Operators: Boys II Women :

"When telephone companies began hiring operators, they chose teenage boys for the job [Image]. But the companies soon regretted their decision. Boys had done a great job working in telegraph offices. And they worked for low wages. But being a telephone operator was a tough job that required lots of patience -- something the boys didn't have. The boy operators quickly turned telephone offices upside down. They wrestled instead of worked. They pulled pranks on callers, and even cursed at them. In 1878, the Boston Telephone Despatch company began hiring women operators instead. Women, the companies thought, would behave better than boys. Women had pleasant voices that customers -- most of whom were men -- would like. And because society did not treat women equally, they could be paid less and supervised more strictly than men. [Image of women working at Atlanta switch]

"Much like many other American businesses at the turn of the century, telephone companies unfairly discriminated against people from certain ethnic groups and races. African American and Jewish women were not allowed to become operators."

-- Wayback Tech 1900, PBS Kids Go (FA). See also Lois Kathryn Herr, Women, Power and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace (2002). [Brooks p 66 (1878: New England Bell in Boston hires first female operator, Emma N Nutt - who worked until 1911)]

Instructions to Agents No. 1 (Nov. 15, 1877)

In consequence of the difficulties that have arisen in different localities for want of uniformity in price for the rental of telephones the Bell Telephone Company has adopted the following rates for all its agencies, and prices are to be fixed in accordance herewith.

The annual rental for telephones shall be ten dollars each, payable in advance; not less than a pair of telephones must be used at each station, except as hereafter specified.

For social purposes, single telephones may be used at each station. By 'Social purposes' is mean the use of telephones as a matter of convenience between private houses; between a house and a private stable; a doctor's house and office, etc. etc.

For district telephone purposes a discount of twenty percent., and for house use a discount of fifty per cent. may be made, and the use of single telephones allowed at each station.

By 'house use' is meant all places where telephones are used in one building, or group of buildings, as, for instance, several buildings in the same yard used by the party; or, in fact, where telephones substantially take the place of speaking tubes. College lines may be included in this line.

The magneto bell calls may be sold for fifteen dollars each, or rented for five dollars each per annum.

[Kingsbury 181]


Early telephones were leased in pairs to subscribers. The subscriber was required to put up his own line to connect with another. The first lines were point to point lines without switching capability in the middle. [See Atlanta for images of early phones].

In order to permit a phone to call other phones in the network, exchanges were installed in the network. At first, however, the exchanges did not operate through the use of telephone numbers. Telephone numbers did not yet exist. Operators memorized the names of the subscribers and their associated lines. However, in the Lowell, Massachusetts exchange, when wide spread outbreak of measles resulted in most of the operators being absent from work - along with their knowledge of who had which line - exchange owners realized the need to switch to a system less dependant on the operators memory - telephone numbers. [See also Brooks p 74]

Business may have acquired their own unique telephone number. However, the rule for residential subscribers was that they would share a telephone number and line, called a party line. When this number was called, all of the phones that were a part of that party line would ring in each phone. Everyone could pick up the phone and hear and participate in the conversation. In order to compensate for this, operators developed unique rings for each phone on a party line so that the subscribers could know who the call was for. [Atlanta]




"In the critical ten years now under consideration, telephone service, which was daily proving itself to be of enormous public benefit, was being developed with energy and resource against difficulties of varied kinds. Wherever official or public action was taken it was repressive, calling for the exercise of additional energy on the part of the promoters to overcome the artificial resistance inserted by public authorities against the advancement of a public benefit." [Kingsbury p 273]



History of AT&T Part I
Alexander Graham Bell

AT&T Established





1889: First pay phones, set up in Hartford. [Farley at 4] [Brooks 100]



Automatic Telephone Switch Invented 1891

Almon B. Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker, was reportedly motivated to invent an automatic telephone exchange after having difficulties with the local telephone operators. He was convinced that the local manual telephone exchange operators were sending calls to his competitor rather than his business. He also suspected that the telephone operators were influencing the choice of undertaker when his business was requested. The origin of this suspicion reportedly arose from an incident in Topeka when a friend died and the family contacted a rival undertaker. Other stories claim that the wife or, possibly, the cousin of a rival was a telephone operator and Strowger suspected that the operators were telling callers that his line was busy or connecting his callers to the competition. On inventing his switch he said "No longer will my competitor steal all my business just because his wife is a BELL operator." Wikipedia Aug 2006. See also [Brenner p 4]

Stowger patented his device and founded the Automatic Electric Company in order to build and sell the switch in 1891. [Brooks 100] The first automatic C.O. was installed in LaPorte, Indiana. William von Alven, Bill's 200 Year Condensed History of Telecom, CCL 1998

"AT&T resisted the adoption of the automatic switch at first, largely out of the belief that it was inappropriate to be involving the customers in the switching process." [Sterling 67] "The Bell System did not embrace this switch or automation in general, indeed, a Bell franchise commonly removed "Steppers" and dial telephones in territories it bought from independent telephone companies. Not until 1919 did the Bell System start using Strowgers durable and efficient switching system. This tardiness contributed to Bell's poor reputation around the turn of the century." [Farley at 4] "One of the factors that finally caused Bell to change its direction was a major operator strike in 1920. This strike was devastating to the company and showed company management a vulnerability that they had not known existed." In Atlanta, the last manual exchange was taken offline in 1951. [Atlanta part 2]


  • RB Hill, Early Work on Dial Telephone Systems Bell Lab Records, Reprinted at
  • RB Hill, The Early Years of the Strowger System Bell Lab Records, Reprinted at
  • 1892








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