Category Archives: Telephone history

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.

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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


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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.


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First Broadcasts: Paris, 1891, Newark, 1911.

Most will be surprised to learn when the first broadcasts took place. In other words, people in their homes could, for the first time, listen to music, news, or entertainment originating from a central studio. The answer, it turns out, is Paris in 1891, when the Theatrophone first started broadcasting.

The Theatrophone didn’t use radio–it broadcast programs to subscribers’ homes by telephone line into a dedicated telephone instrument. Surprisingly, despite the later competition from radio, the Paris Theatrophone held on until 1932. Similar systems were soon in operation in Budapest and London.

In about 1911, a group of New Yorkers were traveling in Budapest and were surprised to find the service available in their hotel. Upon doing some investigation, they decided to offer a similar service. It was decided to install the new system in Newark, New Jersey, and later expand to New York. They formed the New Jersey Telephone Herald Company and began operations either in late 1911 or early 1912.

NJTelHeraldRxThe drawings of the home receiver instrument and main studio shown here are from the June 1925 issue of Radio News.  The article notes how similar the studios of the Telephone Herald were to those of a radio broadcast station of 1925. Broadcasting took place from 9:00 AM to 11:00 PM daily, and included, music, news, market reports, and even bedtime stories.

The company leased telephone lines from the New York Telephone Company in order to bring the service to individual city blocks. From that point, the Herald had its own lines to run the programs to individual subscriber homes. There were some mechanical amplifiers used in the distribution process, consisting of telephone receivers and transmitters connected by a rod. The main downfall of the system was the limitations in amplifying the telephone signal, which could never get above headphone volume. As the Radio News article pointed out, the system would have worked quite well had vacuum tube amplifiers been available. But they were a few years off, and radio had a firm hold on broadcasting by the time they were available.

The New Jersey Telephone Herald office and studios.

The New Jersey Telephone Herald office and studios.

Interestingly, the New York Telephone Company was initially unwilling to lease the lines, and the Telephone Herald had to go to the New Jersey Board of Public Utility Commissioners to force the telephone company to lease the lines. The Commision agreed with the Telephone Herald.  The Commission held that the Telephone Herald was not a “public utility,” but instead just another telephone customer, and they telephone utility was obligated to make the lines available on the same terms as for any other customer.

The price of the service was $1.50 per month, or “five cents per day,” as the marketing people put it. At its peak, the New Jersey system had about 5000 subscribers. However, as the novelty wore off, many subscribers defected, and the service seems to have ended by the end of 1912.

A similar service, the Oregon Telephone Herald, was operated in Portland, Oregon, in 1912. The 1913 advertisement shown below is for the San Francisco Telephone Herald Company, which apparently never began operations, but planned a similar service.


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Liberty Bell Sounded, 1915

LibertyBell1915A hundred years ago, the Liberty Bell was sounded for the first time since 1835, and the sound transmitted by telephone to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. The photo here appeared in Popular Mechanics, May 1915.  (More details are available in that month’s issue of Electrical Experimenter.) The article also notes that a phonographic recording was made.  It was apparently recorded again in 1917, but it appears that neither recording has survived.

It was recorded again in 1944 as part of a D-Day broadcast, and there is also a computer-generated recreation of the bell’s original sound.  Both of those recordings are available at the National Park Service.

The same issue of the magazine carries an interesting article summarizing how the warring powers of Europe are using wireless as part of the war.


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Emergency Telephone Hookup


It’s a relatively trivial matter to hook up two telephones so that you can talk from one to another. Virtually any old telephone can be used, and it’s simply a matter of placing a battery (the voltage is not critical) in series. So if you need to hook up two telephones to talk, it’s about as easy as it gets.

It’s more difficult, however, to figure out a way to make the other telephone ring. The telephone itself operates off DC. The ringer sounds when an AC voltage is applied. And there’s no particularly simple way of generating that AC voltage. The easiest way to solve the problem is to run a second circuit with a bell, buzzer, or light. If you want to talk to the other station, you push a button, a bell (separate from the phone) sounds at the other end, and the other person picks up the phone.

The ingenious arrangement shown above shows a way to wire it all up so that a single circuit can handle both the bell and the telephone line. When one station wants to call, he pushes the button to signal the other station. Then, both sides put the switch on position 2, and they can talk. This circuit, and all the details for constructing it, are found in the April 1966 issue of Radio Constructor, a British electronics magazine.

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US-Japan Radiotelephone Circuit, 1935

JapanOperatorSix years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, radiotelephone service was inaugurated between the United States and Japan. Shown here is Chiduko Kashiwagi, the Japanese telephone operator at the Tokyo end of the circuit. The radio link was between the transmitting stations at Dixon, California, and the receiving station at Komuro, Japan. The signals going the other way went from Nazaki, Japan, to Pt. Reyes, California. The control points were located at San Francisco and Tokyo, from which points the signals were linked to the respective national telephone networks.

JapanRXTo ensure secrecy, the signals were scrambled. The Komuro receiving station is depicted here. The U.S. transmitting station at Pt. Reyes had a signal of about 20,000 watts.



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Merry Christmas!

Santa1914Santa hasn’t changed a great deal over the last hundred years.  Here, he’s shown in a 1914 Ohio newspaper, answering the phone.

The accompanying advertisement reminds readers how much more convenient both Cristmas and life in general would be if they had a telephone installed in their homes.

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German Field Telephone, 1914


A hundred years ago today, the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, November 30, 1914, carried this photo of a German field telephone in use.  The caption notes that the Germans’ extensive telephone network has made much trouble for the Allies.

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