When the telephone came to the Monadnock region

A Peterborough telephone exchange, c. 1920.

A Peterborough telephone exchange, c. 1920.  PHOTO COURTESY MONADNOCK CENTER FOR HISTORY AND CULTURE


For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 07-26-2023 2:40 PM

The telephone – where would we be without it? Most of us are familiar with the story of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. But if you were living in Jaffrey or Peterborough in 1899 or so, what did your actual experience with the telephone look like? I am going to answer that question. But first, a little history.

At 24, Bell was appointed professor of vocal physiology at Boston University. Always an inventor and a tinkerer, he began to see the possibility of conveying speech over an electrically charged wire. He was working in a cellar in Salem, Mass., at his residence, but later rented space out on Court Street in Boston. It’s here that the famous March 10, 1876, event occurred, when Bell spilled something and said to Watson, his assistant, “Mr. Watson – Come here! I need you!” – a command Watson heard clearly from another room.

On April 4, 1877, the first telephone line was opened. It connected the workshop of Charles Williams, Jr. – Bell’s landlord – on Court Street with his house in Chelsea. With patents secured, and Thomas Watson making every telephone himself, Bell Telephone Company was born. Soon the demand was too much for Watson, so Western Electric was formed to make the actual phones.

In the early 1900s, telephone wires ran between each customer and a local “central office,” which was staffed by a human operator. To make a call, one would remove the handset from the hook and crank the generator to ring the bell at the central office. The operator would respond, and the customer would tell the operator the telephone number (or name of the called party). The operator would say, “I will connect you,” and connect a patch cable between the calling party and the called party. That completed the connection.

“Telephone switching” is what the operator did, using a board with cords and plugs. The operator created a manual connection between the telephone in the caller’s hand and the phone being called across town. Voice transmission then took place by means of analog electrical signals derived from a vibrating diaphragm in one handset and translated back into sound waves in the other. The system was marvelously simple, but, by technological standards, dreadfully labor-intensive. If all the calls in the United States were handled that way today, every citizen would have to be a telephone operator.

After Bell’s patents ran out in January 1894, the independent telephone exchanges took off. By 1903, the independents had over 2 million subscribers using 6,150 exchanges nationwide, nearly twice as many as the Bell Company. The telephone “exchange” literally means the switchboard office, and the typically one operator it employed. By 1913, AT&T was offering long-distance connections, and they allowed the little independents to connect in.

The Western Electric Magneto village switchboard was the most common. The early telephones worked on the Magneto system. The telephone was wired to a central switchboard that would connect the caller to another telephone via cords. The telephone microphone was powered by a local battery and called the exchange switchboard by means of a hand generator. The switchboard would also call telephones by the use of a hand generator. On finishing a call, both users would go on hook and then crank their generators to signal to the exchange switchboard that they had hung up (this is known as ringing off).

Agents spent so much time on the job that they picked up some unusual technical skills. They rang someone’s phone by spinning the crank that stuck out of the switchboard. The Magneto generated current strong enough to ring the bell on the distant phone. Because of the electrical losses in the wire, the further away the phone was, the harder the crank was to turn. Likewise, if there was a trouble spot on the line, depending upon where and what the trouble was, the Magneto would crank harder or easier than usual. One woman in particular had such a knack with the Magneto and knew the area so well that if there was a trouble on the line, when a repairman came out, she’d say where she thought the trouble location was and she was generally right, said the lineman.

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In July 1882, the owner of the Fitzwilliam Inn obtained a license to erect poles for the telephone from the depot in Fitzwilliam to his hotel. Other notes from the town indicate that his original lines ran tree to tree. The second line was connected to the local physician, Doctor Emerson, so that residents of the depot area could summon the doctor without having to travel to his home in the village. The third one was located at the J.W. Parker store. 

Interestingly, the town offices did not have a telephone until 1913. Town officials were obliged to use phones of their neighbors to conduct business. The first exchange didn’t open until 1903, located in the Fitzwilliam Tavern on the common (demolished in 1946). It had 12 subscribers.

The first telephone in Stoddard was at the Stoddard Lumber Company boarding house, operated by Charles Merrill, the owner. He strung his wires from tree to tree. His phone was connected to the Island House Hotel in Mill Village (which he also owned). In 1885, he took on private customers. Newspaper reports from the time relay that subscribers were ready to give up their instruments, since there were days at a time when there was no answer at the central office. Finally, a new line from Munsonville was run in 1889.

In Dublin, the lines came in about 1895 and were carefully strung tree to tree. Shortly thereafter, pole licenses were issued and a long-line connection to Boston was put up. By 1897, the telephone office was located upstairs in Gleason’s store.

Momentous as the leap was from telegraph to telephone, I am drawn to the human side of the story. Mary Silver was one of the first operators in Dublin. The Silvers had three children and a spacious apartment above Gleason’s store. The telephone board was located at the landing between downstairs of Gleason’s store and the upstairs, facing Route 101. In an oral history interview taken of Dublin resident Dorothy Worcester in 1989, Worcester noted, “I remember one day someone called me and rang and rang, and there was no answer. Mary Silver broke in and told her, ‘I know she’s not home, I just saw her go into the church.’ ”

Worcester related how people would call the operator to ask what was playing at the movies in Peterborough or Keene.

“If you wanted to acquire information, Mary knew it,” she said.

This is a common theme at the time. The operator was a trusted individual who could be counted on to know everything going on in town, but also keep confidences. Initially, men were the operators. After a time it became clear that women were much less chatty, less impolite and could keep confidences better, so the industry norm moved to women operators.

Another longtime Dublin resident, Eleanor Flynn, became the operator around 1926 and stayed in that position as the agent for 20 years. There were a lot of party lines; the “farmer’s line” had 13 subscribers. Flynn talked about hiring a girl from New Brunswick, Canada, to help out during the day because by then the switchboard had to be open 24 hours. This girl lived with them in the apartment above Gleason’s store.

“I discovered I was paying the electric light bill for the entire store downstairs. I took care of that too!” Flynn said in her interview.

In another oral history interview, Dublin resident Martha Blagden recalled that getting a long-distance call was quite exciting in those days, and typically one would call down to Flynn and tell her where they were going for dinner in case a call came through, and to send it there. Another common theme from town to town was missing children. People would ring the operator and ask the operator to call down to the garage and ask them to send their son home for dinner. Missing ministers were also common. People were always looking for the minister, who often walked around going house to house visiting.

Peterborough seems to have had a bit of a slow start to acquiring the telephone. It wasn’t until 1891 that a number of private lines were installed. George Farrar and his son had a line installed that connected their blacksmith shop with their wheelwright shop, and the father’s house on Elm Street and the son’s house. Twelve other such private lines were installed in that year as well, but it wasn’t until 1895 that a switchboard was installed at the rear of Kye’s dry goods store. In October 1901, the switchboard was moved to the Savings Bank building, as the clerk could not keep up with both the switchboard and servicing the customers at the store.

Typical of the era, Sunday service was only one hour in the morning and again in the evening, and there was no phone service from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at any time. By 1904 the “farmers’ line” became a thing, which was a large party line.

Rindge was even later than Peterborough in adopting the telephone. The first exchange in Rindge came in on June 10, 1905, with 28 subscribers. The office was located in the Thrasher Hotel, run by Ned Thrasher. Ned had a son, Oscar, who was running the switchboard at the age of 7, according to an article that appeared in the Boston Post newspaper, crediting Oscar as being the youngest operator in the United States. Thrasher built a room in the ell part of the hotel just for the switchboard, and the chief early operators were he and his wife, their two sons, Perry and Oscar, and Mrs. Blanche St. Peter. A foldaway bed was set up for the night operators, another common theme.

The operator was the center of information for the town. They had to know where all the firemen lived and worked in case of a fire. They had to know who everyone’s neighbors were in case they needed to find them. They kept the road agent informed of who was pregnant and when the baby was expected, and who was sick and may need a doctor. The operator even knew who cooked what for church suppers, and in the spring and fall, operators received a lot of calls regarding the time change and whether they were setting your clock forward or backward.

In Rindge, there were very few private lines; most people used the party line. Harris Rice had line No. 1. The parsonage was line No. 2. Fuller’s store was No. 3, and the library was No. 4. If you were on the party line, you would tell the operator “Number 5 ring 4,” which meant the operator plugged the call into line No. 5 and rang the bell four times. Everyone else on that party line would hear the four bells and know that so-and-so was getting a call. Of course, people with nothing better to do would often lift the receiver very carefully and listen in on the conversation.

By 1922 there were 133 subscribers in Rindge, but in our area, the telephone business doubled during the summer due to the influx of summer people.

In Jaffrey, in 1896 a private line came in at Squantum connecting the Annett factory and two dwellings of the family. That line was extended later to East Jaffrey, with seven lines connecting, including the railroad station. In 1897, there was a phone established at the Goodnow store on North Street that was available to the public. It was soon moved to the Bascom store on Main Street. In 1899, a switchboard was installed there with Edith Spaulding as operator.

In 1906, the telephone office moved to the Duncan Drugstore on the corner of Main and River streets, where it remained for seven years. After that, it migrated over to the Granite State Hotel, where it stayed put for six years. In 1919, the exchange moved to Depot Square to the C.E. Sweatt house, and then over to the Bean Block with Ella Grass acting as operator. After 1929 the trail goes cold.

Historians of the telephone will hold me remiss if I didn’t address the automatic switch, which was developed and patented by Almon Strowger in 1891. It was rather crude; one had to push buttons. For example, you would have to push a button nine times to indicate a nine. In the Strowger switch, pulses generated at a subscriber’s telephone directly moved electromagnetic contacts in a two-way motion in a stack of rotary contacts, thus selecting a telephone number, one digit at a time, without operator intervention.

By 1900, these much-improved Strowger switches had entered commercial use in a relatively small number of independent (non-Bell) exchanges in the United States, typically in small or medium-sized cities. Advocates promoted the switch as private; detractors called it a lower grade of service. Their use did spread. By 1904, some 4 percent of independent lines were on automatic exchange. By 1914, the automatic switch was used in about 14 percent of phones in the United States. Although the AT&T Bell system investigated automatic switching as early as 1903, it resisted adopting such switches for several reasons.

Bell’s strength was in the nation’s large cities, with a large number of telephones and with a large percentage of calls requiring routing between exchanges within a city. Bell’s studies showed that Strowger switches were slower than AT&T’s improved manual switches in such instances. Also, Bell needed to make any switching innovations compatible with existing switches, as subscribers on any Bell automatic exchange would need to be able to efficiently contact subscribers still connected to manual exchanges.

Eventually, upgrades to electromechanical systems made automatic switching the norm in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rindge switched over to all-number dialing on Feb. 8, 1962, at 1 p.m. The first call on the dial system was placed by Rep. James Allen, standing at the fire station, to the home of Harold Savage, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. There were a lot of people standing in attendance for this event. Some weeks later, a “Thank You” reception was held for the Rindge operators, with 300 attending. Operators from surrounding towns attended, gifts were given to the honored guests and a humorous skit was performed, called “The Party Line.” The fire chief gave remarks thanking the operators for their service and the great assistance they gave during fires in town.

The last Magneto village switchboard in use in New Hampshire was in Meriden. Meriden didn’t cut over to dial until 1973. In the United States, the last Magneto was unplugged on Oct. 10, 1983, in Bryant Pond, Maine.