Old time telphony: cable crazy
June 11, 2018 9:07 PM   Subscribe

In the early days of the telephone, about a decade after Alexander Graham Bell's telephone (patented in 1876), telephone poles were the skyscrapers of their day. Hundreds of lines could be strung from a single pole or structure, often collapsing each winter under the burden of snow. The era of these many-tiered poles lasted only about ten years, with the development of telephone cables. Many telephone wires were contained in one telephone cable, and with better insulation, employed for aerial, underwater and underground use starting around 1879. Meanwhile, barbed wire was used by Great Plains farmers to transmit telephone calls.
Left to telephone companies and their bottom lines, farm people would not have had telecommunications at all. Building lines was expensive, and hardly worth the effort in sparsely populated areas. But, according to historian Ronald R. Kline, manufacturers underestimated the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit of these men and women. “Ranchers and farm men built many of the early systems as private lines to hook up the neighbors,” writes Kline, “often using the ubiquitous barbed-wire fences that divided much of the land west of the Mississippi.”
Barbed wire telephone lines brought isolated homesteaders together -- and then let them snoop on each other.
posted by filthy light thief (16 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Telephony nerd here!!! Thanks for all of this.

Also, let us not forget how the automation of directing calls began, with an undertaker developing the first telephone switches to undercut the competition.
posted by theartandsound at 9:20 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Strowger, an undertaker, was motivated to invent an automatic telephone exchange after having difficulties with the local telephone operators, one of whom was the wife of a competitor. He was said to be convinced that she, as one of the manual telephone exchange operators, was sending calls "to the undertaker" to her husband.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:55 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


The 1927 silent documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis has lots of shots of those massive telephone poles.

Never knew about barbed wire telephones! Super cool!

Also, before telephones, a common way of communicating in some parts of the South was hollerin'.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:03 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


There's a novel called "Slim" by William Wister Haines, about the building of electric/phone lines across the country during the Depression. The author himself worked as a lineman during that time. It's really quite evocative about the type of men and type of work that was done during that period: savage, raw, funny. I liked it.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:06 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]


The grandfather of an ex talked about barbed wire phone lines being still in use in Texas in the 1960’s.
posted by nikaspark at 1:19 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


The sequence “A short history of America” by Robert Crumb, from Crumb, graphically illustrates how telephone wires have evolved as well as their impact on the landscape.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:44 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]


Very cool!

Professionally, I have to support getting a variety of cables installed and tested--fibre and cat 6 copper these days. While I doubt barbed wire could support gigabit speeds, it is an ingenious solution to the Last Mile Problem.

It also reminds me of the coat hanger speaker wire.
posted by MrGuilt at 6:16 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


While I doubt barbed wire could support gigabit speeds

Guess what‽
posted by traveler_ at 6:43 AM on June 12 [10 favorites]


Barbed wire? Pft. Try using electrolytes in maple syrup like my company did to carry broadband! ;-)
posted by terrapin at 8:23 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


I didn’t know about barbed wire phone lines. My family was on a party line for awhile. Pain in the butt! Nosy people.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:54 AM on June 12


While I doubt barbed wire could support gigabit speeds

Guess what‽


DAAAAAMN!

OK, I'm replacing all the Cat6 in my data center with barbed wire. Not only will it carry the data, but it will enhance my physical security rating.
posted by MrGuilt at 9:56 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


terrapin: Try using electrolytes in maple syrup like my company did to carry broadband! ;-)

*eyes old rangeland fences, imagines delicious pancakes and waffles*
I would gladly trade you barbed wire for your surplus maple syrup.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:39 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Reminded me of this TED Talk from Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO) about the early days of electricity. The talk is fascinating, but I always find it more interesting that he spent his time studying that period for inspiration as to how the expanse of the Internet would manifest itself.
posted by lubujackson at 11:43 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


The concept of "surplus maple syrup" is quite foreign to me.
posted by terrapin at 1:50 PM on June 12 [2 favorites]


I misunderstood you and thought you modified maple syrup to make it carry a signal, but I see from the press release that this is not the case ;)
posted by filthy light thief at 7:51 PM on June 12


Katjusa Roquette: "My family was on a party line for awhile. Pain in the butt! Nosy people."

They're still used a fair bit in areas with a lot of Amish people. Folks will have a phone out in a shed, just for emergencies, and it doesn't make sense to pay for a separate line.

I remember being baffled when I moved to Lancaster County, PA after college, and being asked if I wanted an individual line or a party line. "...you mean like on Green Acres or whatever?"
posted by Chrysostom at 9:09 PM on June 13


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