Telegraph & Telephone

Posted by mhanna - August 3, 2010


The telegraph was the result of a slew of inventions from all over the world. For simplicity sake, I would like to focus on the invention of the telegraph in America and its reception by the society. Many are unaware of the fact that the telegraph actually “preceded the railroad in forging extra local and interregional links (Du Boff 461).” The reason for this was that the telegraph was used primarily for business reasons. Prior to the creation and distribution of the telegraph, America experienced a “business revolution (460).” As the business demand grew, there was a drift towards a “natural monopoly” of the telegraph industry. This monopoly allowed the major telegraph firms to increase the prices of the telegraph which undoubtedly prevented many people in society from using this invention for private and personal reasons. The public could not afford to pay the high costs but telegraph companies knew business firms could, so they did not use the telegraph as a means of communication. In America, the telegraph was only able to gain popularity because of the demand placed on it by business firms. It wasn’t until the invention of the telephone that the public began to truly utilize such a communicating device.


-Cinthia Do

The Era of Monopoly: 1880-1893

The emergence of the first telephone system began with the invention of the switchboard in the early 1880s. Before automatic switching technology, phone calls were transmitted through switchboard operators. Switchboard operators were primarily women who regulated switchboard activities by directly connecting two callers through wires and plugs in the switchboard. This new technology provided an outlet for faster and more efficient information exchange especially amongst businessmen. Like the radio, the advent of the switchboard system recreated human interaction as well as redefined social boundaries. This new ability for speedy interconnection not only transformed human sense of time, but also revived oral tradition as an important process for the dissemination of information. Written records were no longer efficient and the reliance on the switchboard system created competition.

Although the switchboard system provided a new medium for interconnection, privacy remained a major issue. In some switchboard systems, “operators listened in periodically to find out when the conversation was over so that she could disconnect the plugs (Fischer, section 37).” The public was interconnected with the private sphere, the business elite, through the word of mouth of a single female operator, thus creating issues of liability and confidentiality. The telephone system not only presented a new outlet for information exchange, but also an exchange of gossip within the public, similar to the phenomenon which Robert Darnton explains in his piece, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris.” Gossip amongst women would soon take a greater effect once telephone systems were installed within homes.

To get an idea of the relationship between gossip, information, and the telephone, here is a YouTube clip from I Love Lucy. The episode is entitled “Gossip” and was aired in 1952. Watching the first 3min. is sufficient to understand the overall significance.

The increased demand and use of the telephone system by business elite brought overcrowding of the switchboards. In order to fix this, Bell developed new switchboard procedures which provided higher-quality service. With this new equipment, Bell wanted to transition the telephone system from a luxury to a commodity that would be more accessible to a wider range of customers. Bell wished to extend his monopoly into family households with a “flat-rate telephone service, allowing unlimited calls (Fischer, section 39).” In doing so, Bell created a new public sphere which connected people- no restricted boundaries. In contrast to the radio, the telephone unified people communally, but also gave individuals a sense of identity because they were able to disseminate wide range news. The discussion at public coffeehouses could now be made within the security of the home. Although the telephone system created this new sense of community, independence, and identity during the early 1900s, it also created isolation between the middle class and the working class who could not afford the system. This isolation would change in the years to come.

To further entertain you with the details of the switchboard telephone here is a YouTube video entitled “Telephone Switchboard Advances” –

-Keisha Soleta

As we have read in Thomas Hughes’ piece, “Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930,” war was the animating force behind establishing networked power in the U.S. The application already existed and it was clear before technology, so deploying technology quickly and massively came easily while the war continued.

With telephony, the animating force was profit and private entrepreneurship. Capitalists, despite enjoying a virtual monopoly on the technology, struggled to imagine a way to make the telephone useful to people and, at first, catered to businesses, lawyers, and physicians-not residential consumers.

In fact, up until 1893, telephony executives were hostile to the idea of expanding service to everyday Americans “unless made necessary by competition,” of which there was none. Executives and consumers did not see a telephone service as a public utility nor as a popular communication technology. To make a contemporary connection, today ISP does not consider the Internet as a public utility, only as a private money-making service. They are currently lobbying to end “net neutrality” through legislation because they don’t believe that the American public sees the internet as a public good. More importantly, they are emboldened to do this because–although not a monopoly–only a handful of ISPs control the vast majority of internet connections in the US and form a cartel. Because of this, their behavior mirrors that of monopolistic Bell.

-Ricardo Gomez

The Era of Competition: 1894 to World War I

Following the expiration of Bell’s key American patents in 1893-94, thousands of new telephone companies cropped up, including commercial ventures, mutual companies established by small town shareholder-subscribers, and simple “farmer lines” that crudely linked a handful of households. Although marginal, these independent operations were numerous enough to present a significant challenge to Bell. By 1902, 52 percent of towns with over 4000 in population had two or more telephone companies. In response, Bell preemptively founded exchanges in many areas and reduced prices, even to the point of draining their capital. Bell’s nterests also used financial and political leverage to block independents’ access to New York and Chicago, ensuring that regional companies would never match Bell’s long-distance networks. Despite Bell’s efforts, however, it had lost half the growing market to the independents by 1907.

When J. P. Morgan’s group won control of Bell that year, they brought Theodore Vail back to head the system. He decelerated expansion, eased price competition, and conceded markets to the independents by buying competitors and making interconnection agreements with small operations to absorb them. Within 5 years, Bell owned 58% of US telephones and was again
on the rise.

As with many other technologies, such as electricity, state and federal regulations compelled AT&T to serve undesirable markets and established price constraints. But they also supported high quality technology, consolidation, and uniform pricing – all of which were to Bell’s advantage. By accepting government regulation, Vail presented AT&T as the leader of a coherent, “universal” communications system.

In 1910, AT&T purchased Western Union, raising complaints from competitors and making itself an antitrust target for Washington, which was under the influence of the anti-corporate progressive movement. AT&T thus issued the 1913 Kingsbury Commitment agreeing to sell off Western Union, to only purchase other telephone companies with government approval, and to
interconnect lines with non-Bell companies. As a result, Bell was assured dominance of the market while large independent investments remained financially secure.

Throughout this era, consumers experienced a reduction of more than two-thirds in annual rates. Measured (as opposed to flat-rate) services increased and party lines helped lower costs for users with moderate incomes. With this radical drop in price, telephone adoption accelerated quickly, much of which occurred in small town and rural areas served by independents and cooperatives, instead of Bell. The use of nickel-in-the-slot public phones became common in major urban areas by the turn of the century. Telephone service, like other significant technologies such as the printing press that came before and the computer which came after, was transformed from a business tool and luxury good to a common utility.

-Genevieve Wong

World War I to World War II: Consolidation and Depression

Fischer makes it a point to argue that the widespread distribution of the telephone is closely linked with events that have greatly shifted the socioeconomic sector of society, such as WWI, WWII, and the Great Depression. Fischer explains how the telephone industry recovered during a time when there was change in the atmosphere, when the “technological environment changed with the proliferation of cars and radios (Fischer, section 50).” With the emergence of cars and radios, as well as, the New Deal, which focused on helping the economy bounce back from the Great Depression, the government heavily regulated technologies-the telegraph and the telephone included. The federal government’s involvement with the distribution of telephones interfered with the “see-saw” phenomenon which was occurring between Bell and the independent distributors, not to mention the fluctuating costs of service charges. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was in charge of overseeing the investigation of the industry and declared it a national goal: “To make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, a rapid, efficient, nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges (Fischer, 51).” Though the cost of telephone services, distributers, and telephone users continued to fluctuate, it is important that we appreciate Fischer’s text beyond its historical richness. We can tie the telephone’s history to what Robert L. Heilbroner calls “soft determinism” or when, “technology, while acting on society also reflects the influence of socioeconomic forces on its development (Heilbroner, 53).” While reading this piece one might be overwhelmed by, what seems to be, factual information given in a non-sequential way, however, Fischer is demonstrating how the emergence of the telephone, its use, its distribution, and, eventually, its commodity value emerged and how certain events helped mold its development. Though Heilbroner appeals to Marxist ideas when explaining how socioeconomic forces effect the development of technology, I think that something similar to soft determinism is being explained in Fischer.

After describing how the telephone was distributed in different in countries such as Canada, as well as, the European states, Fischer references Thomas Hughes’ piece and argues that both the technological developments of electricity and the telephone can be specifically characterized as “American.” Both Hughes and Fischer argue that the development of the electrical and telephone service were similar because they 1) involved creating networks 2) their importance relied on the support of a large number of customers 3) they [electricity and the telephone] both were intended to be delivered to local monopolies and 4) they were shaped by political context. In order to elaborate on Hughes’ claim that there is an “American style” of technological development he contrasts how the automobile was developed and distributed in Europe versus the United States. Juan touched upon Fisher’s explanation of the automobile; however, Fischer quickly elaborates that: many automobile companies, patent-sharing agreements, continuous technological development, and competition all helped spearhead the introduction of luxurious cars.

With luxury (well-respected or popular) cars comes advertising and regulations, “to continue new car sales, the industry adopted more aggressive advertising, credit plans, and annual model changes (Fischer, 58).” An industry for automobiles was growing and it was being regulated and expanded by the government. The government played a role in automobile diffusion by creating traffic laws, police tasks, parking, and improving roads. The government’s role in U.S. telephony was small compared to the automobile.

With Fischer’s comparison between the automobile and the telephone, we can see that the automobile industry was heavily influenced by the government, capital, the market, and demand-another example of Heilbroner’s idea of soft determinism. Keeping in mind Fischer’s outline of the technological developments of the automobile and the telephone in the United States, and in other countries, one question that I still have is: What are the generalized principles which are characteristic of a technological development that is considered “American?”

-Marianne Hanna

Towards the end of his piece, Fischer suggests that the histories of the telephone and the automobile have similarities and differences. Fischer touches upon some important points which are similar to what RL Heilbroner states in his piece, “Do Machines Make History?” Fischer agrees with Heilbroner regarding Heilbroner’s definition of technological determinism. Fischer states that the automobile and the telephone emerged from “parent” technologies, and that inheritance shaped their early histories. This could be tied in with Heilbroner’s example of the “sequence” where is gives the example of how, “the steam-mill follows the hand-mill not by chance but because it is the next “stage” in the technological conquest of nature that follows one and only one grand avenue of advance (Heilbroner, 55).” Analogously, the phone and automobile could be represented by the steam-mill and the telegraph and the bicycle the hand-mill. Fischer tries to establish the impact and importance of the telephone and he tries to tie in the telegraph by giving it credit, since, without it, most likely the telephone would have never have emerged. Fischer’s idea is similar to what Heilbroner states: “I do not think it is just by happenstance that the steam-mill follows, and does not precede, the hand-mill (Heilbroner, 59).” The emergence of the telegraph and the telephone was not intended for social use but eventually the only way it would bring out its true potential was for it to become accessible; when companies noticed this, they started working hard to upgrade it and make it appealing to society.

-Juan Rodriquez


Fischer, Claude S. 1992. Chapter 2 “The Telephone in America.” The Social History of the Telephone to 1940. University of California Press. Berkeley. pp 33-59.

The Business History Review, Vol. 54, No. 4, Business History and the History of Technology (Winter, 1980), pp. 459-479
Published by: The President and Fellows of Harvard College
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Blog Contributors: Cinthia Do, Ricardo Gomez, Marianne Hanna Juan Rodriquez, Keisha Soleta, Genevieve Wong

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