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Ann Arbor Yesterdays ~ From 'Bell's Toy' To Echo I

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Ann Arbor Yesterdays

-From ‘Bell’s Toy’ To Echo I

By Lela Duff

The decade centering around 1880 must have been a lively one in Ann Arbor. During that short period a spectacular new Court House was built, many of the large store buildings now still standing on Main St. and many of those on State St. were erected, and three new public utilities had their beginnings here which were to revolutionize the processes of daily living. I speak of course of electricity, the common water supply, and the telephone. Of the three, the one that must have seemed most like magic was the telephone. People had always had water and light of some sort, but before recent announcements of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, they had never even conceived of projecting the human voice beyond the reach of one’s own lung power.

The first telephone in Ann Arbor was set up by Eberbach and Co. between their store at 112 S. Main St. and Herman Hutzel’s clothing store adjacent on the south.

The connecting wire had to extend only through a hole in the brick wall. Scientific investigation must have been the only purpose, as it is doubtful that business matters between the neighboring stores were especially urgent.

Very soon afterward Clark Cornwell connected his office in Ypsilanti with his paper mills at Lowell and Geddes, and Thomas Keech, prominent lumber dealer and fire commissioner of Ann Arbor had his three business places connected by phones as a means of issuing an early fire warning. Five others presently installed phones in a spirit of whimsical curiosity, but to the usual hard-headed businessman, “Bell's toy," as it was nationally dubbed, was an impractical piece of extravagance.

These early private lines were unconnected with each other by a central switching point, and it took considerable persuasion to secure the remaining 18 subscribers to make up the 25 required to bring an exchange board to Ann Arbor in 1880. It then took further argument to find a place to house the little switchboard. The third floor of Reinhardt’s shoe store at 42 S. Main could be rented only after the owner was assured by his attorney that all the probable flashing and sputtering of such a contraption would not nullify the insurance on his building. The early switchboards contained no numbers. The caller merely told the operator the name of the person with whom he wished to talk and she looked over her collection of outlets to find where to insert the plug.

The company owned no special poles at first, merely extending the single strand iron wires between housetops and trees. The connection was usually noisy and one had to shout into the instrument. A new difficulty arose in 1884, when Ann Arbor’s first electric plant produced such heavy interference as to render local phones useless. The introduction of the return ground wire system was the answer to this problem. Long distance communication had been established between a number of Michigan cities in 1883, and not long afterward the one-wire grounded arrangement was supplanted by the magneto system.

There seems to have been no complaint about either service or rates, which were $48 a year for business places and $36 for private residences. Anyone who went so far as to have a phone at all must have thought it worth the money.

I have seen no pictures of the instruments first used in Ann Arbor, but many of us will remember the clumsy wall phones long in use consisting of two wooden boxes mounted on a panel. The upper one, with its mouthpiece usually placed opposite the hypothetic face of a very tall man, contained the sending and receiving machinery with the receiver on a hook at the left, a handle to twirl on the right, and two gongs near the top with a little hammer between. (The speaker was admonished to “Please ring off when through talking.”) The large lower box contained batteries. How different from the dainty pastel “Princess" hand - sized phones now on display in the local main office, arranged.with as delicate and elaborate a setting of gilded grapevines and wire trellises as one might expect to see in a lingerie shop or a perfumer’s window! Of course in the interim have come in their turn many improved models: the desk phone, the "French phone,” and the self-dialing instrument.

Before the end of the 19th century various rival companies sprang up throughout the country, offering telephones at lower rates. A number of these came and went in Ann Arbor, the last one of which was finally absorbed by the Bell Co. in 1913. In 1898 the New State Co. had paid its stockholders a dividend of 7%, but a vicious sleet storm in December caused a sharp drop in revenue. Of course the real loser in the dual system was the business or professional person required to be supplied with both phones.

In the early 1900’s telephoning still seemed a romantic new experience, as witness popular songs of the day, such as the plaintive “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” and the frolicsome “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon!” But the wonders of the telephone have not ceased. This summer we watched with open mouths as Echo I moved serenely across the sky, a celestial relay station. Almost as aweinspiring have been the ease of transoceanic conversation, and the announcement of long-distance dialing and of the tiny pocket gadget by which one can be buzzed wherever he strays when wanted on the phone.

Ann Arbor makes good use of the primary object of "Bell’s toy." N. J. Prakken, local manager, tells me that there are at present in the community 24,097 main line telephones.