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They said the telephone system simply would not work, they would break down or explode or some awful, awful thing would happen if any equipment manufactured by anybody other than man were ever attached to it in any way. Every time somebody dialed the phone, you know, at home, you go, look, look, look, look, look, look, look at the same time. Will you go click, click, click, click, click, click. Then it go. And Granges good afternoon. This is my comment on the telephone company. Do I have the party to whom I'm speaking? Hell's Bells. A radio history of the telephone.
Bring me up to 15 minutes so I won't forget to take the bread out of the oven central, I have put the receiver of the call, the baby's cradle, and if she wakes up and cries Franconia Health Center. Oh, please give me to my central. You train in the morning, I have a flight before you call. The year was 1985 in just one generation. The telephone had become such a part of everyday life, that subscriber's sometimes expected the operator to be their personal servant and information service. These quotes from a popular magazine of the time suggests that the public intuitively saw the telephone network as an intelligent, interactive service with a world of practical uses. One of the central themes which runs through the history of the telephone is the race for innovation to continually adapt and expand the system, to do new things, to serve new people, to meet very real human needs.
This is a truly exciting story of where constant improvements in technology, where technological innovation have directly benefited the consumer and easily measurable, invisible ways. Professor Michael Knowles of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California. Because of the use of automation and new technologies that have allowed more telephone calls to be carried over various transmission media that have allowed more telephone calls to be switched, that have allowed less and less labor to be used in the day to day operation of the telephone system. The net result has been to the consumer, lower costs and improved quality of service. I think that's an exciting story, a case in point that comes to mind terms of this in terms of just one little example that historically was the old days of telephone service. The actual final connections were made by human operators. Now, that was a problem.
There's little anecdotal story that is sort of told about the early days of telephony and an inventor named Allium B. Stroger. This is the day of manual telephony. And Stroger is an undertaker. And it was a competing undertaker in this little town where he lived. And he noticed that almost all the business went to his competitor and Hollamby. Stroger observed that his competitors wife was a telephone operator who ran the local exchange. So it's pretty easy to envision somebody passing away and calling and saying to the operator, could you get me the undertaker? And of course, what undertaker do you think wife would connect you to? But to her husband's business, he became absolutely convinced that this young gal had rerouted the funeral business, that one of his very best friends to his competition, telephone historian Dan Goldin. He became enraged when he saw a funeral procession going down the street for his best
friend. And he didn't arrange the funeral. So he was sure that cause he had suspected for quite a while that calls were being rerouted to his competition. So he fumed and said he's going to make a telephone system that doesn't need operators. So Stroger thought about this problem and said there must be some way where the use of the telephone could determine the party they wish to reach and have the connection be made automatically without the human intervention. So Stroger putting together, I think, using paper clips and a couple of coffee cans and things of this variety put together the idea that later became the first automated telephone exchange based on this switch that he Stroger invented. That to this day is known as the Stroger switch. And so an undertaker invented the dial. He got some other people to help him with the invention. And he kind of sobered up, you might say, and decided, well, you know, this is a pretty good invention. It really works. So I'm going to sell it to the Bell system to go with the bell system and said, hey, four hundred dollars, guys, you can buy my patents
system said not interested. It's a worthless invention. Why would we want to have what you call this a dial? Why would we want to have a dial system when our operators who are on duty 24 hours a day and they know where people are and you know, a machine can't know where people say you want to talk to the fire chief and there's a party at the schoolhouse, well, they're not going to bother calling to the firehouse. They're going to call the schoolhouse. Now, can your dial do that? No. Therefore, you have a worthless invention. Get out of town. So Stroger in 1894 installed his first exchange in Laporte, Indiana. It didn't work. Bummer. Laporte, Indiana, wouldn't put another dollar exchange in until the late 30s when they were sure the new stuff would work. How would they got a good place in history? The first first exchange first city that went to the new dollar exchange was La Porte, Indiana. Of course, it didn't work, but a funny thing happened. Investors knew that Stroger wanted to sell his patent rights, so they bought it. They called the company the Automatic Electric Company. They were extremely successful.
For the first time in its history, the Bell system lost cities. It lost the city of Pasadena to the automatic telephone exchange, the home telephone company. They lost Washington, DC in 1896. Exchanges were installed, the exchange were installed in 1993 in Chicago, Illinois, we're talking major, major cities going away from the bell system because of the manual operators. And that invention forever changed Telefilm. It took more than 20 years before the Bell system adopted automation. In 1916, the bell system paid three point five million dollars for the patent rights, and Stroger kicked himself all up and down Fort Lauderdale, where he had moved with the small sum of money he'd gotten for his patents. When he heard the sum of money, he just about croaked. He couldn't believe how much money they pay for the patent rights. In 1918, the Bell system introduced the Eliot Ness style candlestick. Pretty neat telephone, and they improved upon the d'Alpuget a solid brass ratchet. It made it much more dependable than the automatic electric wemette. And for years the Motion Picture studios used these telephones to give the sound of a bit
of a dial would sound like so. George Raft and the other movie stars that were playing spy movies could tell who was calling what number by listening to the clicks on the dial. And eventually all telephone systems converted to automatic dialing and operators moved on to provide information and long distance services. With the era of the efficient Stroger automatic switch, callers assumed a little bit more autonomous control over their telephone communications, a trend which continues today. While the automated switches may have seemed cold and mechanical compared to the human switchboard operators, they are remembered fondly by Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo's Egg Stroh's, which is are wonderfully cool. Back in Buffalo, New York. When I was growing up, I used to be able to walk down to the telephone switch yard, which is a four story brick building with no windows on it, knock on the technicians door and they'd let you in and let you walk around these switches, which were rooms and rooms of rec panels,
and they had yellow ladders connecting one floor to another. It was a three story high with no ceilings, just ladders. And on these rack panels were these fantastic wire gizmos and and the gizmos. Every time somebody dialed their phone, you know, at home, you go, well, well, at the same time, over at Kensington Greatest Street in this in this three storey built brick building and really would go click, click, click, click, click, click. Then it goes up one level and the next up next number you dial. Go it go look, look, look, look, look at synchronization. You dial seven numbers in the thing with dial. Sometimes you're walking a log and at this telephone switch place and you see you don't just see all these things going click but you're listening to you hear everybody dial their phone and then and then there's this long distance toll room. You know, you're eight years old. You're walking around and you see this room that's all by itself with with a single door to it. And you walk into this long distance telephone room, which is where they keep all the
units of of long distance time that you've used. And it's a room that has little mechanical counters. Every time you make long distance telephone call, little counter goes click. And there's a number saying how many units of time you've used. And at noon every day they they'd let they let me walk in this room right at noon and they had a big flashbulb that would go wham and the whole room would be lit up by flash. Well, it turns out the way they did their billing was they had this four by five speed graphics up there. And at noon every day, they'd take a picture of all these little mechanical readouts and then they developed the picture, take it over to someplace, you know, and compare how many units of long distance telephone service you've used to, how many time, how many, how much you use yesterday. Highly cool. And, you know, you're seven or eight years old. You're walking around listening to all this stuff, nothing electronic, all mechanical gizmos. The telephone technicians truly loved this mechanism.
And then the, you know, any spare parts and give you him at the end of the day, it was so neat and there were technicians at the phone switch like 24 hours a day to make sure the phones were working. And these guys knew their stuff. They they'd say, oh, yeah, that one. There's a little bit obsolete. Look at this. How it would how the clickety clack know now it's gone. It's it's you go into these places. First of all, there's no people there. The phone system is so reliable that they might have like three guys covering like a quarter of the city telephony had moved from its beginnings of yeasty innovation and open competition to one of rigid but effective monopoly. AT&T masterfully fulfilled its mission of universal service, a social contract which granted it exclusive monopoly markets in return for assured, high quality, affordable, basic service to all AT&T controlled all long distance most manufacturing through its mighty affiliate Western Electric
and most local service through the various operating companies blanketing most of the nation. It wasn't a sexy business, but it served everyone and it worked extremely well. While the AT&T philosophy was that if there's anything wrong with your telephone system, we know it's AT&T fault because or anybody else who's involved in it. And we don't care whether it's inside your little black rotary dial telephone or whether it's in your neighborhood switching center or whether it's in the network somewhere. It's our responsibility. We will track it down and we will fix it and we will make the telephone system work. And we don't care where the wiring is inside your house or outside your house or wherever. We're going to make it work for you. Nicholas Johnson was a commissioner on the FCC from 1966 to 1973. Another thing we make fun of the two Dixie cups in the string, what we used to call pots, plain old telephone service, the black rotary dial phone and the crossbar switch and all that. And there there sometimes 50 year depreciation schedules. But the fact is, we had telephone service for 395 a month.
And a lot of what we are today doing with the telephone we were able to do then with the telephone, and it was possible to keep the service to the homeowner very, very cheap and to provide universal service. So there really was a kind of public interest orientation and social mission on the part of the the Bell system family at that point. And they were not running off by an amusement parks in Australia and trying to get into the information business and where they were in the telephone business. And so, well, the price we paid for that was that we didn't have competition. We didn't have innovation. We did. But the benefit of it was we had a system that worked and we had very low cost. During the 1960s, AT&T and its Bell operating companies were making money hand over fist, but some of its self dealing accounting practices and strong arm political lobbying techniques began to arouse public anger.
At the same time, an explosion in business services and an upsurge in usage among low income residents overwhelmed network capacity in some cities. Phone stopped ringing, trunk lines choked, wires were crossed, repairs went unfixed. Operators became surly. And Grangemouth. Good afternoon. This is Miss Tomlin and the telephone company. Do I have the party to whom I'm speaking in his 1973 book, I'm sorry, the monopoly you have reached is not in service. Author Carbury Stone declared that the phone company had plunged from public servant to public enemy. Thank you. Now, Mr Millhouse, sir, we were just idly thumbing through our files and we noted that your telephone bill is now in the amount of twenty four thousand dollars and 32 cents. But we felt that was rather an excessive amount to allow on the basis of a ten dollar deposit. But oh dear sir, that may very well be, sir.
That may well be. But according to our files, you have been living at your present address only one year. But we like to keep closer tabs on our transient. Hello, America had had it up to here with the telephone monopoly, and there was nothing they could do about it until the landmark Carter phone case. The Carter phone case involved a fellow named Tom Carter, who was a cattle rancher in Texas. And this was in the days, you have to remember, when AT&T controlled everything and buy everything, we mean that they had an argument about foreign attachments. They called foreign attachments. They said that the telephone system simply would not work, that it would break down or explode or some awful thing would happen if any equipment manufactured by anybody other than them, wherever attached to it in any way. My analogy for them on this was the electric
power business. And it seemed to me that we had figured out a way that we could have multiple manufacturers of floor lamps and stereo equipment and dishwashers and whatever that plugged in to the electric system and seemed to work OK without all of them being manufactured by the electric utility. And I didn't see why you couldn't have similar standards, obviously. So plugs fit and power doesn't overload anything. Make telephone system work. Anyway, the phone company said no, that was impossible, that it would explode. But they carried this foreign attachment principle to the extent that you could not buy a white plastic cover to put over your black rotary dial telephone that was considered a foreign attachment. They never explained to me to my satisfaction why a white plastic cover over a black telephone was going to in some way impede the quality of the telephone network service. But that was nonetheless their position, which extended also to plastic covers over telephone books to prevent, wear and tear on the
cover. That plastic cover on the telephone book was a foreign attachment which threatened the integrity of the telephone network. Well, you've that it requires you to understand that in order to understand the Carter phone case, which is why I digress and tell you that that story by way of background. So along comes Tom Carter, and he invents a device that is not all together that complicated. I don't mean to deprecate the significance of his contribution, but it really was not very sophisticated technology compared with today. It was simply a way that cattle ranchers and other people who need to communicate with folks who are out away from the telephones landlines could nonetheless carry on a telephone conversation. And so that necessitated that you have a radio link. And now today we call that cellular telephone. But it's, in fact a radio signal, obviously. And so he had come up with a coupling device and enabled a cowboy out in a horse, or by then it was probably already pickup trucks
to call in on the radio. And the dispatcher would simply connect the radio in with a telephone. We've been doing that. An amateur radio for years is no big deal. And so it was a very convenient thing. And since it was invented by Tom Carter, it was called the Carter phone and he wanted to sell this. Well, AT&T just got you can imagine anybody want to keep plastic covers off phone books, how they would feel about somebody who was figuring out a way to actually make the telephone useful. So they filed all kinds of lawsuits and they kept after him and he kept after them for some 13 years. And that was still is, of course, one of the ways that large corporations win lawsuits is that they just wear down the other side because not many people can afford to pay a law firm, two or three million dollars a year to stave off your opponents in in court. But Tom Carter was a stubborn fellow and he kept after it.
And in order to do that, he had to keep selling off cattle ranches. And fortunately, he had a lot of cattle ranches. And so he was able to support this litigation over the course of 13 years. And finally, it came to me, I was serving as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission and most of my seven years there in nineteen sixty six to seventy three, most of that time was spent writing dissenting opinions. I sort of made a career out of writing dissenting opinions. I just described the case in language that anybody could understand. I was a law clerk to Justice Black at one point, and he trained his clerks to say he wanted us to work on opinions that people could read and understand. So I would take some 170 page, single spaced, impenetrable prose of the commission majority and turn it into something that. A reporter or a member of Congress could read or a member of the public could read and
comprehend, but on this particular occasion it got assigned to me and why the majority went along with me, I never will understand to this day. But they did. And so, of course, I wrote an opinion saying that I thought that I didn't see any just awful harm that was going to come to the telephone system as a result of permitting this foreign attachment, and that therefore it ought to be permitted. And as a result of that, that was really the the beginning of the break in the logjam of AT&T control over all the equipment. And is the is the origin of your ability today to walk into a hardware store or drugstore or whatever and pick up a extra telephone instrument manufactured by goodness knows who? And some are of good quality and some aren't. And and so it's buyer beware. But at least you have a range of choice and you have a lot more features on the phone. We used to have I mean, during most of my growing up time, we had
rotary black phones and that was basically what you got that and crossbar switching to take care of them. So the range a variety of things you can do with the telephone today in large measure goes back to that Carter phone decision. The telephone industry, the largest single employer in America, became a world unto itself. Communications consultant Tom Reed. For 40 years, there was hardly any innovation that consumers could see. Innovation really dried up once peace was established in the telecommunications competition wars of the early part of the century. That doesn't mean there wasn't any innovation, but it wasn't showing up in consumer products. It was going on behind the scenes, allowing more and more phone conversations to be carried on one wire, that kind of thing. The sparks of innovation struck again as the worlds of computers and telephony
began brushing against each other in the 60s and 70s, AT&T had attempted to move powerfully into this market, too, but was kept out by regulators who believed its control was already too vast, an IBM employee warned. Kristiansen was one of the first computer hobbyists, a tiny group of enthusiasts who saw the potential for personal computers on the desktop. Again, a small individual invention turned out to be a key turning point in the history of telecommunications. Kristiansen, along with his friend Randy Souce, invented a communications medium that millions of individuals use today the computer bulletin board. There's actually amusing little history to it, it was caused because of a Chicago snowstorm and it was on the 16th of January in 1978 that I went out to shovel my way out of the alley and after two hours realized there was no way I was going to work that day. So being a computer hobbyist, I called up a buddy of mine, Randy, and and I said, well,
I'm not going to work today. And I was looking at the phone recorder sitting in the corner of my family room that that handled announcements for the computer club meetings. The next meeting will be at Debray on the 27th of blah, blah, blah. So the phone line was there and so was the second computer. And I said, hey, how about if I put up a system on this phone line and people can call in and upload newsletter articles and we do a club project? And Randy said, no, that's that's by committee. Let's just the two of us do it. You do the the software. I'll do the hardware. When will you have it ready? So there was the challenge. And by early February, which was only a matter of weeks, we were actually trying something. And people don't believe we actually got something going that soon. So we declared the birthday to be February 16th, a month from the day it was conceived. So it just came about. We had some other names we tossed about. Randy came up with some names, and I finally decided that since I'd patterned it after a physical bulletin board, then it should be called the computerized bulletin board system.
As with automated switching and many other important telecommunications breakthroughs, the Bell system had nothing to do with its success. Science fiction writer and technology journalist Bruce Sterling observes that revolutionary technological breakthroughs are not always appreciated by the established industry. Well, it's certainly true. I mean, the Telegraph itself got the same problem in the United States as Alexander Graham Bell was trying to sell his his telephone invention. The first people he went to the Western Union Telegraph Company. And so he went to Western Union. He said, well, you know, I've got this thing that you sort of attach to a telegraph wire and you speak into it and a voice comes out the other end and they said, well, what use is it? And it was dismissed. They literally refused to buy his patent. They offered it to them for ten thousand dollars, which I guess today would be about a million dollars. But they just refused to do it. They referred to it as an electrical toy. I wonder if that process still goes on today where the telephone industry scoffs at the next generation of technology. I don't doubt that that's the case at all.
I think the telephone industry's got a great deal at bulletin board systems, for instance, it took faxes a surprisingly long time to catch on. They were around quite a while before they actually actually broke. And the distributed computer networks like the Internet, many people scoffed at the Internet as, you know, sort of an academic toy when they thought that all computer networks were going to be commercial computer networks along the line of, say, prodigy, CompuServe, etc., etc. Instead, you now find that all these networks and even the bulletin board systems are gradually going for Internet access themselves. So they're all going to become part of this of this one one system, which at the time, you know, was was considered something quite sort of obscure and academic. But it's proved and proven to be enormously potent. So innovation seems to have a three part history to it. The first part was wild competition over patents and the
building out of the telephone network. The second part was the consolidation behind the scenes and the third parties, another round of wild competition built on a backbone network that is being stripped down to its bare essentials. Remember our story earlier about the telephone operator who diverted calls from the competition to her family's business? The human operator was what today we would call a bottleneck in the system. And Allmon Stranger's invention of automatic dialing found a way around that bottleneck throughout the history of the telephone. One key invention after another has come from an individual with a vision of how to do more with the telephone than the existing monopoly would allow. Yesterday's monopolies have become today's dominant players, who use their networks and political machines to control profitable markets while breaking a bottleneck today is both a technical challenge and a political struggle. The marketplace is exploding with opportunities for innovators.
But should the battleground of change be dominated by a few multibillion dollar corporations? As consumers, citizens, policymakers and competitors, we face confusing new options and responsibilities as together we write the next chapter in the history of the telephone. Hell's Bells, a radio history of the telephone, was written and produced by Greg McVicar of Pacific Multimedia with research by Tom Read and original theme music by Larry Council. The project director was Leo Lee. Funding was provided by the Telecommunications Education Trust, established by the California Public Utilities Commission to order audiocassettes or written transcripts of the series. Send us a fax at five one zero nine three eight 28 15.
Hell's Bells: A Radio History of the Telephone
Episode Number
No. 2
Producing Organization
Western Public Radio (San Francisco, Calif.)
Pacifica Multimedia (Firm)
KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Contributing Organization
The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia)
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Episode Description
This is Episode Two. It focuses on the race to innovate. Includes Professor Michael Knowles.
Series Description
"Western Public Radio and Pacific Multimedia proudly submit this entry to the Peabody Awards committee -- Hell's Bells: A Radio History of the Telephone -- a no-holds-barred examination of the rise and fall of the world's largest and most powerful monopoly. Ten years after the breakup of AT&T, what has changed? Who has benefited? What do the lessons of history suggest for our future? "Hell's Bells accomplished something very rare -- providing listeners with rich historical insights into hot contemporary issues before the issues exploded across the nation's front pages (e.g., the TCI/Bell Atlantic merger). "The eight-part series was written and produced by Gregg McVicar, creator of The Privacy Project: Personal Privacy in the Information Age (1991), and Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (1992). Pacific Multimedia is a leader in the use of digital techniques to create and distribute high quality programming. Hell's Bells was digitally produced on the Digidesign ProTools? system and was initially broadcast from DAT tape in July 1993, then distributed to stations throughout California and selected national markets on Compact Disc in September. American Public Radio then began broad national distribution via satellite in December. Hell's Bells was also disseminated worldwide by Internet Talk Radio. Even the press materials and graphics were distributed on computer diskette to stations. In other words, we are not only talking about new trends in technology, we are introducing digital techniques into the mainstream of American radio broadcasting. "Underwriting: Hell's Bells: A Radio History of Telephone was made possible through the generous support of The Telecommunications Education Trust, established by the California Public Utilities Commission to educate rate payers and policy makers about the fast-evolving telecommunications environment."--1993 Peabody Awards entry form.
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Producing Organization: Western Public Radio (San Francisco, Calif.)
Producing Organization: Pacifica Multimedia (Firm)
Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
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The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia
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Chicago: “Hell's Bells: A Radio History of the Telephone; No. 2,” 1993, The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 26, 2022,
MLA: “Hell's Bells: A Radio History of the Telephone; No. 2.” 1993. The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 26, 2022. <>.
APA: Hell's Bells: A Radio History of the Telephone; No. 2. Boston, MA: The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from