Bradford's telephone staff awaiting change over to automatic dialing, which was made on Wed., January 31, 1951. The seven operators lost their jobs as a result of the change.
Originally published on May 16, 2007
With our obsession for instant communication, with cell phones, blackberries and e-mail, it may not be difficult to understand why the coming of the telephone in the 1880’s brought such excitement.
On May 1, 1884, the first telephone system went into operation in Bradford. It had been less than twenty years since Alexander Graham Bell secured the first patent for the telephone. During the years between, Bell and others had worked through the difficulties of transmitting speech electronically. There was such interest in the business possibilities of the new invention that, according to telephone historian Tom Farley, at least 1730 telephone companies were formed in the first two decades after Bell’s invention. As a result, patent infringement suits were common in the industry.
On January 28, 1878, the first commercial switchboard began operating in New Haven, Connecticut. It served 21 telephones on 8 lines and resulted in the first telephone book. The New England Telephone Company, a forerunner of the strong regional Bell companies, was created in that same year. In 1885, American Telephone and Telegraph was established and after that, only local telephone companies operating under Bell granted licenses could connect to its long distance network.
When telephone service came to the Bradford area, it was offered by several telephone companies: the New England in 1884 and later the White Mountain Telephone Co in 1907, the Connecticut Valley Telephone Co. in 1917 and then again since 1947, the New England Telephone Co. From 1898 to 1918 there were actually two separate telephone companies serving Bradford. The “local” one was the Bradford Telephone and Telegraph Co. It was owned by John B. Hay and its “central” was located in private homes. The company also served neighboring towns and had an office in Wells River, later moved to Woodsville. The “central” for the long-distance New England was located on the second floor of the Doe Bros. building before moving to the second floor north front room in what is now Perry’s Oil Company. In those years, it was not possible to call from one company’s phones to the other, and some businesses had both phones installed.
Smaller neighboring towns seemed to have a somewhat less complicated local system. In Fairlee, West Fairlee, Corinth, Piermont and rural sections of Newbury, residents united to create a local telephone company. The central switchboard was in someone’s home and often each family was responsible for maintaining a section of lines and poles.
This new innovation helped to significantly reduce rural isolation. Sheldon Miller’s recollections of growing up in West Fairlee include the story that Freem Adams would provide entertainment by playing his Edison records over the telephone for all to hear. That one could listen in on the conversations of others on their party line certainly helped to reapidly spread news, to say nothing about gossip. Businesses caught on to the advantage of having a telephone, although in Bradford’s The Daily Opinion edition of December 23, 1884 (seven months after telephones came to town), only one business advertisement included any reference to it.
In that same edition, tucked away in the West Topsham column, was the following item: “H. G. Day of Bradford was in town last Thursday, but his horse decided to go home without him via East Topsham. Mr. Day made use of the telephone and his horse found the East Topshamites drawn up in a line to receive him…telephoning back in 30 minutes, they announced they had him in a barn. Considering that it is 5 miles over the hill, it was pretty good time.” This may well have been an advertising plant, designed to inform readers of the convenience of this new innovation, especially in an emergency.
In those days a person wishing to place a call would use a wall telephone equipped with a hand crank that generated the power to place the call. An operator would then ask what number was being called, manually plug the cable into the proper hole on the switchboard, thus connecting the two parties. The party being called would be notified by a designated combination of long and short rings on their telephone.
Those who shared a party line, as most did, would both hear the ring and could listen in on the conversation. The line would be busy until the two parties terminated the call, much to the aggravation of another who wished to make a call. If it was a line with a number of noisy neighbors, the volume would be diluted as others listen in on a conversation. One elder reported that her father would often have to yell into the receiver “Would you folks please hang up so that I can hear!!” With each hasty click of a replaced receiver, the volume would be restored. As late as 1954 the Topsham Telephone Co. still had some party lines with as many as 26 customers to a line.
Hometown telephone operators were central to the information of the community. They knew who was at home, details about illness and emergencies as well as other personal details of town life. You could just ask for “the grain store” and the operator would know which grain store your family used. While some of this came from the fact that one had to use their services to place a call, it also came from the ability of the operator to overhear conversations between parties. When asked if she ever listened in on private conversations, one elderly telephone operator said with a sly smile, “Of course not.”
As with any new invention, increase use demanded improvements. The wall telephone was replaced in the 1920’s and 30’s with the desk model, in the 50’s and 60’s with the princess telephone and then the touch-tone replacing the rotary dial. Home extension phones were being offered as well. Local companies were acquired by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. or the Continental Telephone Co. One exception was the Topsham Telephone Company which remained independent until 1998. For many years the high cost of long-distance calls made them an expensive luxury and one was received with the caution “Hurry up, its long-distance!”
A major change in service came in the 1950’s with the introduction of the dial system. In early February, 1954, the change to automatic dial telephone came to Bradford and the hand-operated central office was closed. As this system was installed in other area communities, local operators were retired or moved to offices in White River or Littleton. The local paper announced that most users had little trouble using the new system, although there were no longer local operators to help make a call without looking up the number or shut off “garrulous talkers.” “A few were overheard to vow that they would never make a telephone call again.” Operator assistance was still available for directory and long-distance service.
Each community had a telephone exchange name. A five digit number in Bradford had the prefix AC, for “Academy”, whereas Fairlee had the prefix FE for “Federal”. This system was used primarily for out of town calls as a caller in Bradford could still get a party by just using the last four digits, a practice abolished in 1959 by the requirement to use five digits and later, all seven. Party lines were gradually reduced as private lines became the rule
On December 3, 1967, direct dial long distance was introduced into the area. Bradford “Mayor” Bernard Crafts placed the first such call from his roll top desk at Gove & Morrill Hardware on Main Street. In 1973, a new system known as Automatic Number Identification was introduced into the area. Customers were able to dial anywhere in the country without an operator coming in on the line. Calls would be electronically identified and billed automatically. In 1982, the Topsham company became one of the first in New England to install a one party digital system.
Whether considered a convenient time-saver or an intrusion into a daily schedule, the telephone helped to transform our area. It connected family, friends, businesses and patrons. We will never return to the days when “people talked to operators, strung phone lines on trees to their neighbors’ houses and listened to other people’s conversations on party lines.” But we know that the internet and the cell phone will continue to make Bell’s invention an interregnal part of our lives.