19th Century Telephones – Can You Hear Me Now? Good!

One of the most fun historical details that I’ve included in my Montana Romance series is the use of telephones in the late 1890s. I don’t know if my readers were surprised when Eric Quinlan makes a telephone call to Benton Chase one morning in around May of 1896. I’m not sure if anyone thought “Wait, did they have telephones back then?”, but the answer is yes, they did. The fun part was figuring out how to write that telephone call.


You see, in 1896, placing or receiving a telephone call, particularly a long-distance call, was a whole lot more complicated than it is now. Now it’s possible to push one speed-dial button and be connected to someone on the other side of the world in an instant. In 1896, in order to be connected to someone in the next town over you had to pick up a newly-invented device, speak to a local operator who would then manually connect your line to another line on a switchboard and then ring the person you were trying to reach and put your call through. If it was a long-distance call you would have to find a specially designed long-distance phone and go through several sets of switchboard connections until the other party was reached. In other words, you’d need to set aside a good chunk of time to make the call.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s hard to say when the telephone was invented. Like so many life-changing inventions of the 19th century, it had its roots in the technology of the Industrial Revolution. Railroads, in this case. The first device that gave rise to the telephone was the telegraph. A very early telegraph line was installed between the 13 miles from Paddington station in London to West Drayton in 1839. It wasn’t much, but it allowed messages to be transmitted over a long distance.

Meanwhile, in America, another electrical telegraph device was being independently developed by a guy you might have heard of named Samuel Morse. Morse’s telegraph and his code were patented in 1837, and for a big stretch of the middle of the 19th century they were the method of long-distance communication. Telegraph lines were as important as the railroads as settlements expanded in the west. The frontier was a vast and lonely place, and the local telegraph office was sometimes the most comforting link to civilization that some people had.

Actual telephone from 1896

Actual telephone from 1896

But the great inventors of the late 19th century knew it wasn’t enough. As soon as the technology was developed to transmit signals across distances using wires, they knew that it should be possible to transmit voices as well. All that was needed was for the right method to be used by the right man to come up with the right technology.

So Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, right? Wrong. In fact, arguments could be made for several men to be called the inventor of the telephone. Men like Charles Bourseul, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, and Elisha Gray spent years devoted to discovering the best way to transmit electrically generated auditory signals … and years arguing over patents and rights. The important thing was that the technology was discovered and the devices were invented, produced, then mass-produced.

The irony of those early claims and counterclaims was that the inventors involved were fighting over the devices themselves. In the very earliest days of telephones, the 1870s, only two devices were connected with a direct wire. Then the idea of a switchboard came along. But in those earliest of days the switchboards were still local with extremely limited connection capabilities. A few dozen lines may have been controlled by a given switchboard, but only one call and later two could be connected at a time.

The real expansion and profitability in telephones came not from the devices, but from the networks that developed and expanded. And this is where Bell and the Bell Telephone Company got the jump on the competition. The fact that they won the patent fight in court was just the beginning of their effort to lay down a telephone infrastructure that would allow communication across cities, states, and continents. The importance of the new device was obvious right from the start and demand for the technology was fevered right from the beginning. Remember how fast the internet took off once that technology was discovered? Same thing with the telephone.

Switchboard operator, 1900

Switchboard operator, 1900

Another interesting aspect of those very early days of the telephone was the role that women played in the new industry. As switchboard technology developed to enable more and more calls to be placed at a time, women were the ones who were called on to be switchboard operators. Maybe it was because they had pleasant voices and were nicer to talk to while connecting a call. More likely it was the fact that the first telephone switchboards were set up in the operator’s house. A woman would, in theory, be home all day and able to connect the calls that came through no matter when they were placed.

Of course, it wasn’t long before call volume was so high that switchboards of epic proportions needed to be housed in buildings built specially for the task. The board itself expanded from desktop size to floor-to-ceiling size. Then adjustments were made so that an operator on one end would connect the incoming call and a second operator on the other side would connect the outgoing call. Whew! Granted, these manual switchboards began to be replaced by automatic switchboards as early as 1919, but they were still in place in many areas into the second half of the 20th century.

So yes, Eric Quinlan would have been able to place a phone call to Benton Chase in 1896. And it would have taken just as long and been just as complicated as I hope I presented it in Fool for Love. And Christian Avery really would have taken all afternoon to make four long-distance phone calls in In Your Arms. But you’ll have to wait until November to find out why he needed to go through all the trouble.


All pictures are public domain images, courtesy of Wikicommons


One thought on “19th Century Telephones – Can You Hear Me Now? Good!

  1. Today, as we search for new technologies, I hope a version of your sentence reading “All that was needed was for the right method to be used by the right man to come up with the right technology” could be revised to say “by the right person.” Alas, that still may not be the case, especially when women make up less than 30% of silicon valley staffers. At least we were capable of operating the switchboard.

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