Telephone service spread rapidly to Lewiston and Maine after Bell’s breakthrough

The first phone. Library of Congress

Most people can’t live without their cell phone these days.

But not so long ago, talking with someone across town felt more like a curiosity than a necessity.

“The experience of 75 years ago has become the necessity of today,” proclaimed the Lewiston Evening Journal in 1951.

Almost 150 years ago, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received the first US patent for a telephone completely unrecognizable from modern devices. The first telephone had two conical shaped pieces, one for talking and one for listening.

After years of work, Bell and his associate, Thomas Watson, had the first-ever telephone conversation on the top floor of a boarding house in Boston.

“They were experimenting, as usual, to produce something more than just a drone or a suggestion of human speech,” the Evening Journal noted. “Suddenly, in faint but distinct tones, came the message – the first intelligible words ever transmitted by electricity: ‘Mr. Watson. . . Come here . . . I want you.”

The two were trying to improve the telegraph, not create the first telephone, said Dave Thompson, equipment maintenance expert and tour guide at the Telephone Museum in Ellsworth, Maine.

Cities and businesses quickly adopted the new technology, and Maine was no different. By 1880, over 50,000 telephones were in use across the country, including Lewiston.

Lewiston’s first telephone line was installed in 1877 – a year after Bell and Watson’s breakthrough – to link the offices of the Lewiston Gas Light Company and the Franklin Company, both located in the Dewitt Hotel block on the corner of Park and Pine. Next is a line four-fifths of a mile long between the gas company office and the Lincoln Street gasworks.

Another article in the Lewiston Journal Magazine section claimed that Lewiston and Auburn’s first telephones were installed in Maine’s Central Station.

“There was of course no central office, and an agent could attract the attention of others by banging on a parchment drum head,” the newspaper read.

During these early years and decades to come, the National Bell Telephone Company of Maine was the dominant operator in the state, and its system grew rapidly. In an 1880 advertisement soliciting subscribers, the company boasted that Lewiston telephones would soon connect to Portland.

“Especially here in Maine, the telephone was probably the first electrical device people had in their homes,” said Josh Zuckerman, also a volunteer at the Telephone Museum. Many homes had telephones before electricity, he said. The phone ran on batteries, which were changed by the phone company every few months.

But while Lewiston’s telephone service was run by Bell Telephone Company, Auburn’s first telephone system was built by an independent company, Eastern Telephone Company. The city granted the company its license in 1899, according to the Daily Sun.

Early telephone systems required operators to manually connect callers to the people they wanted to reach using switchboards. Until the mid-20th century, it was common for multiple households to share a single telephone line, meaning only one person could make a phone call at a time. It also meant that onlookers could listen in on neighbors’ phone calls.

These shared lines could have up to dozens of homes on the same line. Each household on a shared line had its own unique ring pattern to distinguish who the call was for.

The Bell Telephone Company focused primarily on expanding its services to urban areas, where there were profits to be made. This meant that telephone service in rural towns was mainly provided by independent companies, some of which were family owned.

This photograph was published in the Lewiston Evening Journal.

Before Bryant Pond’s last crank-operated telephone system in the country was sold and converted to a dial in 1983, its two telephone operators worked from the family home of Elden Hathaway, where the switchboard was located.

But Bryant Pond was the exception. Maine’s first telephone service to switch from crank to dial in 1929 was Bristol, according to Thompson. Small independent telephone companies like Bristol’s were quicker to switch to dialing than the Bell Telephone Company which preferred carriers, according to Thompson.

The Bell Telephone Company felt that carriers provided better service, he continued, unlike rotary phones that automatically connected people without an intermediary.

They were so big on having phone operators that when the Bell Telephone Company took over Auburn’s phone lines, the company converted the system back from a rotary phone to a switchboard operator system, Thompson said. .

The Bell Telephone Company would later become the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, often known by its initials AT&T. In 1982, before the company was forced to dissolve due to an antitrust lawsuit by the United States Department of Justice, AT&T was virtually the only provider of telephones and telephone services across the United States. Thompson said the company controls 93% of US phone lines.

Still, the independent telephone companies served a larger geographic area in Maine than AT&T, he added.

At first, households served by independent phone companies could typically only make calls within one city, perhaps two, Zuckerman said.

“They didn’t expand much further because they were probably surrounded by Bell territory,” Zuckerman said. “They were just in a rural area that Bell had no interest in being in because it’s too expensive to bring service there. They would never recover their investment.

Thompson worked for an independent telephone company in Liberty for 27 years after moving to Maine in 1964, sometimes traveling across the state from Fryeburg to Fort Kent to help fix telephone systems.

Today’s phones are very different from those he had when he worked in the industry.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I understand the logic of the equipment I have worked on. I never really got into solid state logic (modern phones).

Now he volunteers for the Telephone Museum, keeping his old telephone systems working. Unlike most museums that prohibit visitors from touching the exhibit, visitors to the Ellsworth Museum – one of the only museums devoted solely to telephones in the country – can actually make calls and operate their switchboards.

It’s a reminder of what phones used to be and how far technology has come in the last 150 years.

An 1883 telephone advertisement in the Lewiston Evening Journal.

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