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The Old Timer at W.S. Museum (A Trip Back In Time)


By Norris Chambers

The telephone arrived in our part of the country in the 1890's. I wasn't there then, but I heard a lot about the early days as I was growing up. We did have one of the old phones, and it was connected with an uncle's line about three miles to the west. To the east we connected with another uncle about 3-1/2 miles away. From either uncle's house, the line ran to other settlers and eventually to a little town with a central office ten miles to the east and to another about six miles to the northwest. The central offices had lines to larger communities. You could call about anywhere, but no one made a long distance call unless it was an extreme emergency.

The typical telephone was housed in a box about eight or ten inches wide and possibly 18 tall and about six or seven inches in depth. There was a small crank on the right side and on the left, near the top, was a hook with a "receiver" hanging on it. The receiver was a cone shaped Tube about six inches in length and two inches in width at the large end. An electrical cord came out of the small end and connected the receiver to the works inside the box. On the front there was an adjustable arm with a round device on it that was called the "transmitter". You talked into this object after adjusting the position for the most comfortable gossiping. Most phones were mounted at a height on the wall where it was comfortable to stand and talk, holding the receiver to your left ear. There was a sloping table near the bottom of the box where you could write comfortably if necessary.

At the top of the box, on the mounting board were two connection posts. One of these connected to the telephone line and the other to a rod driven into the ground. Only one wire was necessary to transmit the voice, the ground operating as the second conductor. This type of transmission, without any amplifiers, required a high voltage. The was acquired by passing the current from the carbon-granule transmitter through the primary winding of an induction coil. The few volts supplied by the two dry cell batteries was stepped up by t he coil to several thousand volts. This was enough to overcome the resistance of the ground and serve as a conductor. The same ground and line served as a route for the ringing current. A generator was turned by a stepped up gear ratio by the crank, and several thousand volts was generated and sent over the line and the ground.

Each telephone had a bell that rang continuously as the crank was turned.

If there were several connected to the same line, each had a different ring, determined by the number of times the crank was turned, and the duration of each turning cycle. In other words, if your ring was a long and a short, the crank was turned swiftly for a few seconds, then turned again for about half that long. This created a long and a short ring on all the phones on the line. The one who had that ring answered it. Our ring was two longs and two shorts.

If we wanted to talk to someone past one of the uncle's house, we called the uncle and told them who we wanted. They had big double switches on the wall above the phone. The switch that went to our party's line was connected. When they answered, they turned the switch to our line on, and we were all connected together. When we got through, we would give a short ring. This final ring was called the "ring off". This told the uncle that we were through, and he could return the switch to its normal position. The other line, which was not normally connected to the phone was connected to a small box containing a bell. This box was called a "call bell". When someone on that line turned their crank, the call bell rang. the uncle connected the switch and conversed as desired.

Some houses had as many as four or five call bells and switches, all going to different lines.

The "central office" was usually located in a small town and had many lines coming in from all directions. These lines were connected to a "switch board". The switch board was on a base at chair height and had a work table in front of the operator. The board itself was at the back of the table and had many "phone jacks" on the front. These jacks were connected as required with jumper cords with plugs. There was a generator crank on the front of the table, and when the operator wished to ring a number a cord from the generator was plugged into the desired jack. Each jack was connected to a different line. The jacks were numbered. This made it possible to call another phone by number. When you cranked the line to the central office, an indicator dropped down on the jack that went to your line. It could also be switched so that a bell would ring. The operator then plugged a cord into your line and answered:

"Operator" or "Number please." When you responded with a number or a name, a patch cord was plugged from your line to the one you were asking for. Again, you were supposed to give the short ring off turn when you were finished so the cord could be removed and the board cleared. In smaller towns the office was usually in a home and the bell was necessary to alert the operator. Well maintained central offices placed telephone poles alongside the roads with one or more cross arms across the top. Glass insulators were placed on top of these arms, and many lines were supported by the same poles. The poles supported more lines as the distance to the office decreased. As they got farther from the office, more and more of the lines dropped off at houses or were diverted away from the road to one or more houses in the country. Because the company wires were mounted on insulators and maintained and the ground connections were kept wet for better contact with the soil, the reception was excellent.

Privately owned lines were not as well maintained, and were not as well insulated. Instead of poles, the wires usually ran from one tree to another and sometimes along the top strand of a barbed wire fence. Using the fence wire saved wire and labor in stringing a line and worked well in dry weather, even without insulators. The ground wires for individual phones were nothing more than a piece of iron pipe or rod driven two or three feet into the ground and connected by a wire to the phone. In dry weather it was necessary to keep the soil moist. When the phone rang, the kid in the house was usually told to go pour a bucket of water on the ground wire. Or, if there was difficulty in ringing another phone, the same procedure was followed.

When storms came, it was common for trees to fall on the line and break it, or maybe just the swaying of a smaller tree was enough to snap the wire. Before the phone could be used, it had to be spliced.

To splice the wire, an extra piece of wire was tied to one end and a loop was made in the other end. The stretch wire was placed through the loop, and the wires were pulled together as far as possible, then a forked stick was tied to the stretch wire and it was twisted around and around the stick until the wire was very tight. The two were then tied together and the wire released. The tension pulled it back in the air, and it was ready for service.

I remember one time I went with my dad and brother to fix a line. While we were tying it together we kept getting a terrific shock. The shocked person would drop the line and yelp like a wounded dog, and we would have to start over. About the time we would get it spliced, another shock would startle the one holding the line. We were pretty upset. We found out after finally getting the line fixed and returning home that Clifton was turning the crank to see if the line was fixed. The remedy for prevention of this obstacle was to disconnect the line before going on a fixing trip.

When the phones were first installed in the late 1800's the settlers took turns presenting programs over the phone. All the lines were switched together and the performers were on the air. Usually the program consisted of fiddle music, singing, reciting, debating, etc. My mother said that the phones were loud enough that the listeners could hear for several feet without holding the receiver. I wonder sometimes what the quality of the music was, but since there was no radio, phonograph or stereo to compare it with, it must have served the purpose as entertainment.

When thunder storms came the telephone lines were disconnected and grounded to keep lightning from coming into the house. Some had switches outside to do this and others just untwisted the wire and tied it to the ground wire. This was an important precaution since lightning anywhere along the line would travel in either direction and could either start a fire or burn out the phone. There were always times when someone forgot to disconnect the line or was not home and in many cases either the phone was ruined or a fire resulted. In later years "lightning arrestors" were installed on the phone or were attached outside.

In later years old telephone generators had another use. They were used to shock fish .

Usually a wire was connected to the output of the generator and placed into the water at one end of the boat and a wire connected to the frame, or ground side, was dropped in the water on the other end. When the crank was turned, a current flowed between the two submerged wires and a fish swimming between received a shock that was strong enough to stun it and cause it to come to the top of the water where it was rescued for later table decoration. This worked because the body of the fish was a better conductor of electricity than the water and the current passed through it. The larger the fish, the more current it received.

My cousin Rex once conducted some tests to find out how much voltage and current it took to stun a fish. He had an elaborate tank set up that was well stocked with fish. He also did experimenting to find out what it took in the way of electric current to cause fishing worms to come out of the ground.

Of course this type of fishing is illegal. It was even illegal in the old days.

After WWII the old telephones were discontinued in most areas. Government subsidized lines were installed complete with dialing equipment. The old wall phones that are available now are considered antiques and are very valuable.

When you push your automatic dialing phone to call a number, pause for a moment to consider how much the system has improved. If people had improved as much as phones, we would really be a nice group of human beings!

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