Category Archives: Telephone history

Carbon Button Microphone Amplifier


While they were rarely used in radio applications, the diagram here shows how a carbon button microphone amplifier could be used to drive a loudspeaker from a crystal set. This diagram is from 90 years ago, and appeared in the 1927 British Radio Year-Book.  The diagram actually appears in the advertisement for a book entitled Successful Crystal and One Valve Circuits by J.H. Watkins, who according to the ad was the wireless correspondent for the Daily Express.

The principle behind the circuit is very simple and almost self-explanatory.  The audio from the crystal set or other low-level source is fed to the traditional earphone.  A carbon button microphone is in physical contact with the earphone, and produces a stronger AF signal.  In this case, this stage is able to drive a loudspeaker.

This idea was rarely used in radio, since a vacuum tube amplifier provided better results and little additional cost.  The carbon button amplifier was more commonly used in telephone circuits, where they were the only method of amplification available prior to the vacuum tube.  They made long distance telephony possible.  They did have the advantage of a smaller size than a vacuum tube, and required less battery power.  Therefore, they did remain in use in hearing aids until the advent of the transistor three decades later.  You can read more about the carbon button amplifier at this site.

The advantage for the home constructor was probably cost, since driving a speaker this way would not require an expensive vacuum tube.  In fact, the carbon button amplifier could probably be constructed at home, which would be impossible in the case of a vacuum tube.  Students looking for a very novel science fair project might consider making one, since it would be possible to produce loudspeaker volume with entirely homemade components.

1917 Career Advice for Scouts: Electrical Engineering


A hundred years ago this month, the February 1917 issue of Boys’ Life gave some career advice to scouts who were busy working on the Electricity merit badge, by letting them know how they could become electrical engineers.

The railroads, for example, relied upon telephone and telegraph systems and power plants. The “untrained man” could start as a conductor or motorman, but would remain in the ranks of the unskilled unlesss he added to his limited daily experience by a course of study in an area such as electrical engineering.

Such study could be done through private study and reading and correspondence and night schools, as well as more formal trade and engineering schools. Even the poor boy was not necessarily barred, since the best schools were often not the most expensive.

The article noted that getting ahead after graduation meant hard, dogged work, since the graduate still had to learn many practical engineering skills to get his bearings. But there was no reason why a competent technical graduate wouldn’t be able to rise to $2000 per year.

It should be noted that the magazine’s proofreader apparently let one slip by. The Morse Code shown in the illustration reads, “BE PREPARED AND DO A GOOD TURN DAMLY.”

Answer to Yesterday’s Quiz


Yesterday, we presented the problem of how to hook up a telephone to talk across a river from Point A to Point B, without running a wire across the river.

Loyal readers knew the answer right away, because we presented a similar system for a 1940 wireless telegraph using four ground rods.  Each side of the circuit was connected to two ground rods.  The January 1957 issue of QST shows a similar arrangement for how the two Boy Scouts could hook up their field telephone:


Each telephone is hooked up to two ground rods.  The magazine suggests separating them by 20 times the width of the river (2000 feet).  There’s still a high resistance path between the two telephones, but the leakage resistance between A and A’ and between B and B’ is even higher.  The 1940 wireless telegraph, because it used an audio amplifier, could probably get by with less separation between the ground rods on each side of the river.  But with 2000 feet separation, the scouts’ telephones should work just fine, despite not being able to run any wire across the river.

Boy Scout Field Telephone-Telegraph, 1937

1937JanBLEighty years ago this month, the January 1937 issue of Boys’ Life carried this ad for the official BSA field set, a field telephone and telegraph.  For $9.50, a scout could acquire two such units.  The possibilities for use during hiking and camping, or between two friends’ houses, seem limitless.

More details are given in an ad appearing in the February 1934 issue, which reveals that the set is manufactured by the American Electric Company, of 1033 West Van Buren Street, Chicago, “one of the world’s foremost makers of commercial telephone equipment.”  Contained in a durable khaki colored weatherproof case having a strong carrying strap, the set was ready for use at any time by simply connecting to line wires.  The set was said to have a range to be able to signal and talk clearly over a thousand feet.  The set was switched from telephone to telegraph simply by switching the key into the telegraph position.

The set was patented under US Patent 2072264, which described the set as being “inexpensively and ruggedly built to fill the need for such an assembly by Boy Scout organizations and others having need for inexpensive equipment which may be employed to establish temporary or permanent telephone-telegraph communication between two points.”

The only evidence of a surviving example I was able to find online was this eBay listing, which unfortunately contains only a photo of the unit in the closed position.

A resourceful Boy Scout owning such a telephone probably wouldn’t have had much trouble figuring out the Quist Quiz which appeared in the December 1956 issue of QST:


Two Scouts, one on each side of the river, are equipped with their official BSA field telephone-telegraph sets.  Without crossing the river or running a wire across the river, how can they hook up the phones?

Loyal readers of already know the answer, since we previously showed a similar system.  If you missed it, you’ll need to wait until tomorrow to see the answer.

1936 Inter-Office Intercom

1936decradioretailingCallers to this 1936 factory were never asked to hold the wire. With this intercom from Sound Systems, this efficient information clerk was able to reach anyone in the plant instantly. The photo appeared in the December 1936 issue of Radio Retailing, which reminded readers that inter-office communication systems saved footsteps and sped up routine.


1941 Chicago Talking Juke Box


Seventy-five years ago today, the Chicago Tribune, August 7, 1941, offered an interestingly candid look at the juke box industry in Chicago. Typically, a juke box would contain 20 records, and the patron put in a nickel in exchange for playing one of them.

Things changed when the K.P. Music corporation of 1057 Wilson Avenue came along with talking juke boxes known as “automatic hostesses.” Instead of twenty records, the patron had a choice of 680 records.  When the patron inserted his coins, he was connected, via leased telephone line, to a hostess at 1057 Wilson Avenue, with whom he could exchange banter, make a request, and even dedicate a particular number to his friends.

Eighteen taverns quickly signed up and junked their old jukes. This went over well with everyone, with one exception, and that was Michael J. Boyle, also known as the “Umbrella Man,” the head of the Electrical Workers’ union. He had two objections. He first argued that the new jukes were too good, and that hundreds of traditional juke boxes were in other taverns, with hundreds of dollars tied up. The new talking juke boxes would cut in too heavily, making the investment a “dead loss.”

Umbrella Mike got his name from his practice of hanging an umbrella from the bar when making a visit.  The owner of the tavern could then conveniently deposit an envelope into the umbrella so that Mike could be on his way with a minimum of fuss.

The old machines were serviced by, and more importantly, in the territory “belonging to” the Apex Cigaret Company of 4220 Lincoln Avenue. Depiste the name, Apex wasn’t in the cigarette business. Its business was juke boxes.

The newspaper identified Joseph “Gimp” Mahoney as the nominal president of Apex, “but Eddie Vogel, old time Capone gangster, is known as the power behind it. Those gentlemen’s relations with Mr. Boyle are cordial.”

To express their displeasure, the union’s business agent, along with about a half dozen members of the union, showed up at the 18 bars in question. They carried signs announcing that the talking jukes were “unfair to organized labor.” After picketing for a bit, the business agent would slip inside and unplug the machine. He also left some advice to the owners that “it was in their best interests that the boxes remain silent.”

Eleven of the 18 taverns took the advice, but at seven others, “the tavern owners showed the agent the door and the talking jukes went on talking.”

The newspaper reporter visited the talking jukebox studio and described the operation. The “hostess,” Miss Mickie Martin, shown above at the microphone, would be signaled by a light that some business was coming in from one of the taverns. Another indicator would show how many nickels had been fed in. Confirming that payment had been received, she would flip the switch and say sweetly, “hello, what can I do for you?”

The reporter noted that many voices would come over the wire, both old and new. “Some were those of strangers, some those of old friends who’d built up an acquaintance thru many nickels with Mickie.”

In one case, the connection was interrupted, and Mickie advised that they were having trouble at that establishment, since the business agent was there.

The firm’s attorney was dispatched to the bar in question, but by the time he arrived, the agent had pulled the plug and left the scene. The attorney lamented, “I’ve got 17 cousins on the police force, but what can you do when you run up against this kind of stuff?”

And not insignificantly, the old juke boxes were serviced by members of his own union.

Click Here For Today’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Cartoon

Hurricane of July 5 1916


One hundred years ago today, July 5, 1916, the U.S. Gulf coast was hit by a hurricane.  Mobile and Pennsacola were cut off from the outside world, and New Orleans suffered major effects.  The storm was initially reported on July 3 near Swan Island.  Weather along the coast was ordinary on the 4th of July, but the barometer kept dropping.  Winds at Mobile eventually peaked on the 5th at 106 MPH, and the barometer fell to 28.92 inches.

Warnings were surprisingly effective.  In addition, the fact that the storm made its presence known on a holiday meant that the number of ships in peril were minimal.

The weather bureau at New Orleans reported that the “warning was given an extraordinary distribution. It was send by telephone to the docks with instructions to send it to Grand Isle by motorboat. The boat traveled 18 miles, warning points along the way. The warning was also sent to all telephone exchanges with instructions to disseminate the warning widely. It was also sent to all telegraph stations with similar instructions.

Those warnings were heeded, and most craft remained in port. At New Orleans, a number of vessels stopped in the Mississippi until advised that it was safe to proceed. In addition, all trains crossing Lake Pontchartrain were suspended.  Similar warnings were distributed at Pensacola and other points.


Cotton bale debris in Mobile.

Cotton bale debris in Mobile.


Distance Education for Disabled Students, 1941


Shown here is Mary Ellen Lydon, a teacher at Monroe Junior High School in Mason City, Iowa, instructing her class 75 years ago. In addition to teaching the students in the classroom, you will notice an intercom sitting on her desk. With this device, she was able to bring instruction to shut-in students at home, as described in the June 1941 issue of Service magazine.

Mason City student Mary Brown receiving her instruction at home.

Mason City student Mary Brown receiving her instruction at home.

The article reported on the experiences of fifteen rural Iowa school districts which, mindful of their responsibility to furnish education to physically handicapped children, relied upon this method. The program began in Newton, Iowa, in 1939, when the school was unable to provide teaching facilities to a disabled student. The experiment proved a success. In particular, there was such a benefit to her morale and physical condition that she was able to return to school before the end of the semester, despite an earlier prognosis that she would be disabled for an entire year. In many cases, the shut-in students excelled academically, and in one cases, the shut-in was elected class president.  In total, over a hundred sets were in use in Iowa classrooms.

The equipment consisted of standard commerical intercoms, along with transformers to allow their use over standard leased telephone lines. At school, as the students went from class to class, the intercom was brought to the next teacher’s room to allow the student to attend the full schedule of classes.  The cost of equipment was about $40 per pupil served, and the phone lines were leased at a monthly rate of $1.25 for the first quarter mile, and 75 cents per each additional quarter mile. The longest distance served was about five miles.

Click Here For Today’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Cartoon


Battle of Fort Rivière, 1915

Battle of Fort Rivière. USMC image.

Battle of Fort Rivière. USMC image.

A hundred years ago today, November 17, 1915, the United States fought the Battle of Fort Rivière.  Chances are, most Americans have never heard of this battle, even though it resulted in three Medals of Honor being awarded to U.S. marines or sailors.

Among the Medal of Honor recipients was then-Major, later General Smedley Darlington Butler, who led the U.S. forces in the battle, which was part of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, which had begun on July 28, 1915.  The occupation had been motivated by two factors.  Those factors overlap a great deal, and historians have debated the relative importance of each.  First of all, there was a need to protect U.S. commercial interests in Haiti.  The country had potential with agriculture, minerals, and ports.  American interests were hampered by, among other things, the fact that foreigners were not allowed to own property.

The other concern was German influence in the Western Hemisphere, and the United States viewed Germany as having too much influence in Haiti.  While the German population was quite small, it did have a very great commercial influence, since a very large portion of the commercial activity was controlled by German families with strong ties to the old country.  Also, the Germans were more willing to marry in to prominent Mulatto families, thus skirting the property ownership laws.

President Wilson sent in the marines in July, and the largest battle took place on November 17 as U.S. sailors and marines stormed an old French fort where the peasant rebels were holed up.  The battle against the poorly equipped rebels was over quickly.  Over 50 rebels were killed.  The only U.S. casualty was a marine who had two teeth knocked out by a rock thrown at him by one of the rebels.  While a few later skirmishes took place, this was the decisive battle.

Under the occupation, Haiti adopted a new constitution written by then-Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.  It gave U.S. officials more or less absolute veto power over acts of the Haitian government, and also guaranteed foreigners the right to own property.

The occupation did have the result of modernizing Haiti.  For example, Port-au-Prince became the first location in the Caribbean to have an automated dial telephone system.  Also, Haiti had radio broadcasting as early as 1926, as reported in the February 26, 1927, issue of Radio World.

General Smedley Butler

An adult male looking to the right in a military uniform; military ribbons are visible.

General Smedley Butler. Wikipedia photo.

As a result of the battle, Butler received the first of his two Medals of Honor, and he went on to become, at the time, the nation’s most decorated military hero, and made a name for himself two other times off the battlefield.

The first was in in 1934 when he testified before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, revealing what came to be known as the “Business Plot.”

He testified that he had been called upon by business leaders to lead a march of veterans on Washington, at which point he would stage a coup against President Roosevelt. Roosevelt would be kept on as a puppet figure, with Butler wielding most of the power. Butler had been a key figure in earlier marches by veterans, was respected as a military leader, and the conspirators, most of whose names were never publicly revealed, planned to use Butler as their puppet, so he testified.

The Committee, and the American press, generally dismissed Butler’s testimony as an implausible conspiracy theory.  The phrase “tinfoil hat” hadn’t yet been coined, but if it had, it probably would have been applied to Butler.  Compounding the problem was that Butler seemingly hadn’t named any names, although this wasn’t entirely true.  He had named names, but since most of his allegations amounted to hearsay, the Committee had refused to make them public.

The most plausible explanation, it seems to me, is that there was indeed a conspiracy to overthrow the government, and that Butler was approached to lead it. It doesn’t appear that he had any motive to fabricate the story. However, it also seems likely to me that the conspiracy wasn’t as large as he was led to believe by those who approached him.

In 1935, based upon his experiences as a career military officer, Butler published “War is a Racket,” a widely-distributed pamphlet in which he argues that war is, indeed, a racket, which he summarized as follows:

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

Butler’s recommendation was to make war unprofitable by conscripting soldiers only after conscripting capital.  Of course, the naysayers would say that this runs roughshod over private property which, of course, it does.  But conscription of soldiers also runs roughshod over their own personal liberties, so the idea doesn’t strike me as too farfetched.  Butler also recommended that the declaration of war be done not by congress, but by a referendum of those subject to service, and also a restriction of the military to self-defense only.

The book is available online at numerous places, including


Click Here For Today’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Cartoon

SS Eastland Disaster, 1915

S.S. Eastland.  Wikipedia photo.

S.S. Eastland in 1911. Wikipedia photo.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the greatest loss of life in the history of the Great Lakes, the shipwreck of the SS Easland in Chicago on July 24, 1915.

The ship was commissioned in 1902, and served as a passenger and tour boat based in Chicago, with a dock on the Chicago River.  The ship had significant problems with listing from the start. The ship was topheavy, and the ship would list from passengers congregated on the top deck. In a 1903 incident, overcrowding caused water to flow up one of the ganglplanks.

On July 24, 1915, the ship and four other ships were chartered by Western Electric to take employees to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Ironically, safety measures on the ship made the ship more dangerous. In the wake of the Titanic disaster, ships such as the Eastland were required to carry a full set of lifeboats. The added weight on the deck probably made the top-heavy ship more dangerous.

Passengers, many of whom were low-wage immigrant Czech workers, began boarding for the picnic at 6:30 AM. By 7:10, the ship had reached its capacity of over 2500 passengers. The ship began to list to port (away from the wharf), and the crew attempted to stabilize by taking water into the ballast tanks. In the next 15 minutes, a number of passengers rushed to the port side and the ship lurched and rolled onto its side.

SS Eastland capsizied.  Wikipedia photo.

SS Eastland capsizied. Wikipedia photo.

The river was only 20 feet deep, and the side of the ship rested on the river bottom. Because of the cool weather, many passengers had already moved below deck, and found themselves trapped. Some of them were crushed by heavy furniture as the ship suddenly tilted. Even though the ship was only 20 feet from shore, a total of 844 passengers and four crew members died in the disaster.

Most of the Western Electric employees had worked at the company’s Hawthorne works. While the plant was open the following Monday, the workers spent most of the day gathered in small groups mourning. The plant was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday for workers to attend funerals. Later that week, the entire Bell System declared a day of mourning, with only essential workers coming in to work, and with memorial services across the country.

A few weeks later, Alexander Graham Bell himself spent the day touring the factory and taking the time to stop at each work station and desk to speak to employees about the disaster.

The ship was raised in August and eventually sold to the Navy.  After conversion, she served as the U.S.S.  Wilmette, and served largely as a training vessel at Great Lakes Naval Base.  The ship was used until being scrapped in 1947.


Read More at Amazon


Click Here For Today’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Cartoon