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The Telephone in Wisconsin

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The telephone today is a ubiquitous or even obsolete tool of communication and information exchange. When it appeared in the nineteenth century, however, the new tool provided a radical way for individuals to talk to each other, person to person, in real time. Neither the postal system nor the telegraph could provide large-scale, everyday information as people created it, and deliver it immediately to someone else. The power of the telephone can be seen in its immediate spread across the country.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. He made his first call in March to Thomas A. Watson, saying, "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you." Few people considered Bell's invention more than a toy, but it did not take long for people to install telephones in their homes, businesses, or towns. Bell owned the patents to the equipment and leased them out. Like other new technology, fantastic rumors about its abilities spread as telephones appeared first in New England, but quickly spread west.

The first telephone appeared in Wisconsin in 1877 when Appleton banker Alfred Galpin ran a line from his residence to the bank. Several months later, he built a homemade switchboard for twenty-five telephones in Appleton. Rivaling Appleton for the earliest telephone was Platteville, having one at least in 1878.

Richard Valentine made a private line for himself and one for his brother in Janesville in 1877. In 1878, he built a line for the editor of the Berlin Journal and one for the Sheboygan and Fond du Lac Railroad in Dartford. The superintendent wanted a line from the train station to taverns on the other side of Green Lake. Valentine built one of the first switchboards in the country to connect the three phones.

Valentine visited Milwaukee to present the possibilities of the telephone to manufacturers there, to connect their businesses, factories, and warehouses. These men did not see, however, the use of the telephone. Valentine was laughed out of town.

In the 1880s, telephones spread to cities across Wisconsin. Initial forays into telephony followed the example of Galpin and Valentine. In Madison, the novelty stretched across the Isthmus. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, pharmasists, and store keepers, all interested themselves in the new means of communication. Foresighted men, regardless of occupation, also acquired the phone. Common lines allowed the prominent men of a community to share information and create virtual public spaces.

Charles H. Haskins brought the telephone to Milwaukee in 1879. His homemade switchboard became the Haskins Company. Haskins represented the Bell Company in Wisconsin. His firm developed into the Wisconsin Telephone Company, establishing local exchanges across the state.

Since larger cities provided more opportunities to expand, Bell advanced its service in the populated areas. Small towns and rural areas had no service. The rates were also very high, and the telephone remained a luxury throughout the 1880s.

In 1893 the patents owned by Bell expired. Like telephones themselves fifteen years earlier, small, independent telephone companies spread across the state. Some companies began as cooperatives. Others were incorporated; the prominent men of the community developing from telephone pioneers to telephone stock holders. Some independent companies viewed the venture as a way to network and advance the relationships within the community, ignoring profit and financial interests all together.

The Wisconsin Telephone Company and its parent Bell competed fiercely with the small companies, who fought among themselves as well. Subscribers to the service of one company could not talk to those of another, unless they wanted another line. Independent subscribers could not make long-distance calls from their telephones, as Bell owned all the toll lines. Bell offices could provide this service, for an additional charge. Government regulation in 1907 ended the era of competition. The state government granted the Railroad Commission of Wisconsin the right to regulate the utility. Like other progressive ventures of the period, Wisconsin was a leader in ensuring the best interests of the public in the telephone industry. Seeing the advantage of competition at an end, the Bell exchanges and the independent companies worked together to connect the various lines across the state. Many smaller companies sold out to the Wisconsin Telephone Company, which soon dominated in the larger towns and cities. Smaller companies continued to provide service to rural areas and small towns. The Dane County Telephone Company began in 1893. It lasted to 1909, when Wisconsin Telephone Company bought it.

In 1890, there were less than three telephones for every thousand people in Wisconsin. That ratio decreased steadily over the following decades. In 1926, there was a telephone for just over five inhabitants. In Madison, there were 17, 637 telephones. Throughout the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, Madison had no automatic telephones, the kind of dial service with which readers are familiar. Call went directly to the operator, who directed the call manually, transferring the connecting wire from one line to the other. Operators could listen to conversations, as could other people on a party line. In smaller companies, operating the switchboard remained a hobby for the operator, most of who had some other job or occupation.

Nearly all of the information for this essay comes from Harry Barsantee's article "The History and Development of the Telephone in Wisconsin" in volume ten of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, 1926-1927, pages 150- 163.

This story takes place in Detroit:

During my engagement as a messenger, the telephone was then being talked about, and one day we learned that Mr. McKenzie [a telegrapher], together with G. W. Balch, a board of trade operator, and Mr. Jackson, superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company, were on their way to New York. We messengers were told that Mr. McKenzie would bring back an electrical instrument by the use of which he could not only talk to us but could see if our shoes were blackened, our faces clean, and our neckties on straight. Well, that meant a good deal to us boys.

L. W. Burch, "Reminiscences of my sailor days" Wisconsin Magazine of History 18 (1934/35): 3-4. [Back]

General Grant came again in 1878, and had a public reception at the residence of Major Roundtree; while there some gentlemen from Lancaster, Wisconsin, wished to talk to him over a telephone, which had been built by Capt. W. H. Beebe-one of the first telephone lines in southern Wisconsin, if not the first. General Grant was sent for and came to Captain Beebe's office, and for the first time in this life used the telephone.

D. J. Gardner, "Incidents in the early history of the Wisconsin lead mines" Wisconsin Magazine of History 6 (1922/23): 46. [Back]

Another incident of note-I think in the session of 1880-was the stringing of a wire from the Captiol to the University, over which wire people were able to talk to one another. This was the first telephone in Madison. Ladies-among them my wife-tried the instrument, and they would turn and giggle and laugh when they heard the voice at the other end.

Nils P. Haugen, "Pioneer and political reminiscences" Wisconsin Magazine of History 11 (1927/28): 287-88. [Back]

Another story from Detroit:

In due time a switchboard was installed with ten telephones connected, among them one at Senator McMillian's residence, one at Colonel F. O. Davenport's residence, and one at Jacob Mann's brewery. In the office of the brewery was a cuckoo clock, and everyone took the receiver off the hook at the hour to hear the clock strike.

Burch, 4. [Back]

In this story a girl remembers a night when one of her father's typhoid patients, delirious, escapes from the doctor's home/hospital in Ashland, smashing through the window. The girl steps on a shard of glass:

While Dr. Shaw bandaged my wound, Papa was hastily dressing, phoning to the police, and alerting our neighbors about his AWOL patient.
It seemed to take forever to arouse central on the phone that hung in the hall. It did not work as quickly as modern ones do; you had to crank it to get central and wait until she plugged in the other party. (It was hardly worth the dollar-a-month rental). But Papa got through to the police station and gave the alarm.

Edith Dodd Culver, "610 Ellis and the Hospital Children" Wisconsin Magazine of History 60 (1976/1977): 132-133. [Back]

Here is a copy of the 1900 Madison, Wisconsin, phone directory. Christian Frautschi's number is listed along with his occupation. Callers would asked for Madison and then number 315.
For a closer view, click here.

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Fri Apr 21 17:26:46 2000