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History Corner: It’s Like This Folks…

History Corner: It’s Like This Folks…

We all learned about Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone, right?  We need to reteach this information.  Now don’t put the paper down, this gets more interesting, I think.

You know that middle name of his?  Well, if he hadn’t pleaded with his parents for a middle name like his two brothers, we would have had to remember Alexander Bell but somehow the Graham always creeps in.  First at the age of 12, he built a homemade device to mill flour and the mill owner, seeing his intelligence and creativity gave him the run of the mill for “inventions.”

His mother, growing deaf, made Alexander aware of acoustics, but at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, he left at the age of 15 with an undistinguished record marked by absenteeism and lackluster grades.  Hmm.  His main interest was science, treating other subjects with indifference.  As he matured, he embraced his father’s occupation in elocution and became interested in working with deaf people.  Sound intrigued Alexander and throughout his lifetime sought to integrate the deaf and hard of hearing with the hearing world.  To this end he encouraged speech therapy and lip reading.

While he was working with private students, one of his students was Helen Keller who later praised him for his passion to see that the deaf would be able to achieve complete assimilation into society.  Bell was fascinated by sound, sound made with tuning forks, each different when struck so he gave up his teaching to concentrate on ideas, ideas that ran through his head as he stayed up nights with his thoughts.  A breakthrough came when he experimented with a phonautograph, a pen-like machine that could draw shapes of sound waves on glass by tracing the vibrations.  He began working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire.

Meanwhile, in 1874, the telegraph was expanding and the then president contacted Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid costly multiple lines.  Hearing of Bell’s experiments, backed him in his efforts.  Bell was encouraged by a comment that if he didn’t have the necessary knowledge to pursue his ideas of sound he needed to “get it”.  Bell went on to meet Thomas Watson.  Do you remember him from school?  The rest is history but still very convoluted with this one and that one claiming patent rights.  If you don’t remember the Mr. Watson story…ask me.

The details are irrelevant here but oh my are there details, but this was only the beginning; the beginning of transmission of the human voice over a wire.  What I am leading up to with these first paragraphs is to enlighten you with the difficulties of the invention of the telephone, an instrument that took on a life of its own.  Telephone company after telephone company vied for the market and what has spiked my interest is a 9’ piece of copper, carved with intricate designs that was almost turned into scrap had it not been for my sister who asked if she could have it as it was being torn from the S.N.E.T building on Chapel & State in New Haven during demolition.

The relief, as it is called, is hanging on the wall of the OHS research center awaiting an exhibit of telephones through the ages.  New Haven was the site of the first commercial telephone exchange beginning operations in 1878 in what was known as the Boardman Building.  George W. Coy designed and built the world’s first switchboard for commercial use, inspired by Alexander Graham Bell’s lecture at the Skiff Opera House in New Haven in 1877.  See?  I told you there would be more interesting “stuff”.  See the quotes on “stuff”?  I use it for fun but it really isn’t a very good word for those of us who should have a better, working vocabulary.  I could use words like material, information, details, but “stuff” is more fun.

Oh, did I forget to tell you that the Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877 and by 1886 more than 150,000 people owned a phone in the United States??  Yup.  At first Bell and his associates offered their patent for the phone to Western Union for $100,000 and the president said that the telephone was only a toy.  Two years later he was quoted to say that if he could get the patent, he would pay $25 million, considering it a bargain…hey buddy, you snooze you lose!

In that same year, 1877, Coy applied for and received a franchise from the Bell Telephone Company for New Haven and Middlesex counties, establishing the District Telephone Company of New Haven on January 15, 1878, the same year our own Academy was built.  The switchboard Coy built was constructed with carriage bolts, handles from teapots and bustle wire, oh my…at that time the furnishings and switchboard were worth less than $40.  As many as 64 customers could be connected, only two conversations handled simultaneously and six separate connections had to be made for each call!  Hello, hello?  Number please.

The cost to the subscriber in 1878 was $1.50 per month and by February, a telephone directory was published listing 50 subscribers with only 11 residences.  The New Haven District Telephone Company, note the change in the name, grew quickly and re-organized several times.  By 1880 it had the right from the Bell Telephone Company to service all of Connecticut and Massachusetts and as it expanded became Connecticut Telephone and then, ta ta ta tat ta…Southern New England Telephone Company, S.N.E.T.

Now, I don’t like to write the negatives but you know what?  Sometime after the site of the First Exchange was given the designation of a National Historical Landmark in 1964 with a plaque presented in 1965, the building was acquired by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency in 1968 and in 1973, the building was gone.  Remember the relief I told you about?  Well, we at OHS have it and in commemoration of the Southern New England Telephone Company we are going to present the world of phones on the 2nd floor of the Academy starting after the Bicentennial for Orange kicks off.

There you will see a historical collection of phones, old ones, not the old iPhone you replaced last year which folks refer to as my old phone, but the really old ones.  Children will be encouraged to call each other on a set of phones, drop a dime into the pay phone and hear it clink, and turn the crank of the old wooden wall phone to make it ring.  We are getting donations from everywhere.  So, you won’t have to ask why S.N.E.T?  I will just say this, leaving the details to the exhibit, in 1895 the first telephone system was inaugurated among 3 houses and one store and by 1908 subscribers increased and voila, S.N.E.T.  Now don’t ask me any questions…come see the exhibit after May 28th and have some fun.

P.S.  By the way, if you have the opportunity to refer to S.N.E.T., do NOT say snet, it’s “s” “n” “e” “t”.

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