The Telephone Movement: Another Point of View

[The article on “Telephone Development in the United States,” published in The Atlantic for November, 1905, has called forth numerous letters from readers of the magazine, particularly in the Middle and Western States. Most of these correspondents felt that the article in question urged too strongly the advantages of a centralized control of the telephone business of the country. The Atlantic has never found it practicable to establish a department in which letters from its readers could be printed. Otherwise we should have been glad to publish some of the replies to the position taken in Mr. Coburn's article. In view, however, of the interest taken in this question by many of our correspondents, we have asked one of them to put the case for the Independent Telephone companies more fully than would be possible in a letter. — THE EDITORS.]

Strictly speaking, the telephone was not invented. Like Topsy it simply grew. It is not the result of accident; nor, after all, is any one man entitled to the credit of having first conceived or designed it. Rather is it the fruitage of years of unremitting experimentation, supplemented by a thorough study of the laws of electro-magnetism and sound. Although the law awarded Professor Bell a patent on his idea of the telephone, there are abundant reasons for our belief that that wonderful "device for the transmission of articulate speech by the agency of electricity” came, not through the doorway of invention, but down the straight and unmistakable pathway of evolution.

The first published conception of any plan or device looking to the transmission of human speech over an electric conductor appeared over fifty years ago in the columns of a magazine in Paris known as L'Illustration Journal Universelle. In the issue of August 18, 1854, will be found a communication by Charles Boursel, a man of somewhat advanced scientific notions, who, we are told, had been a "soldier in the African army of 1848, where he attracted the attention of the governor-general by a mathematical course delivered to his comrades of the garrison at Algiers.” Boursel made the rather startling announcement that the “spoken word in Vienna could be instantly transmitted by electricity to Paris.” As a means of accomplishing this seemingly incredible undertaking he described or outlined an apparatus, rather crude it is true, which, nevertheless, contained the vital and essential principle of the modern telephone. “Speaking near a movable disc sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice, and which alternately makes and breaks the connection with a battery,” he predicted, “you may excite the same vibrations simultaneously in another disc situated at some distant point. No apparatus is required save an electric battery, two discs and a wire.”

To what extent Boursel pursued his investigations, or whether he finally succeeded in transmitting the spoken word by means of the simple appliances suggested, we do not know. Like many another savant he may have been content to predict what the apparatus would do if constructed, leaving to others the less agreeable task of "working out the details.” His efforts, however, were not without good results, for others, mindful of his prediction, now began to experiment with batteries, discs, platinum points, and wire. Of the many persons who, meanwhile, were at work on the problem, no one seems to have evolved anything new or noteworthy till October 28, 1861, when Philip Reis, a teacher in a boys’ school in Friedrichsdorf, a village not far from Homburg in Germany, came before the public with an apparatus with which, as claimed, he was “enabled to reproduce the tones of various instruments and even, to a certain extent, the human voice.” The device, constructed along the lines laid down by Boursel, was first known as an acoustic telegraph; later its inventor called it the telephone, by which name it has since been known. Reis, moved by the enthusiasm which characterizes almost every inventor, persevered with his experiments unceasingly. As early as April, 1863, he had progressed so far that “by means of the telegraphic conductor with which the apparatus was connected, two remote parts of the city were united, and not only were the melodies of songs reproduced distinctly and perfectly at a remote station, but known voices could be recognized. All present capable of judging,” says one who witnessed the experiment, “agreed that the possibility is before us of making one's self understood verbally at any distance in the way shown by Mr. Reis.”

In August, Reis began the manufacture and sale of his telephone, “an apparatus,” as set forth in his prospectus or circular, “for the production of tones with the aid of galvanism.” Reis made the more delicate and important parts of the instrument himself, but intrusted the purely mechanical construction and the external outfit to J. Wilhelm Albert, a mechanician at Frankfort, who was likewise commissioned to sell it. The price was fourteen and twenty-one florins (eight and twelve Prussian thalers respectively), in two qualities which differed only in their external finish and make-up.

Of Reis, who made various forms of telephonic apparatus and achieved more or less success in his later efforts, it was said by a lawyer of ability and skill in electric litigation: “He was the first man in the world who ever spoke to an electric current, expecting to influence that current. His was a noble, magnificent invention, and when we consider that every telephone that was ever seen by any one has that precise feature in it, are we wrong in saying that Reis is entitled to as high praise certainly as Alexander Bell or any other man who made any claim, because there is no telephone known at this day of any commercial value which has not that feature copied servilely from Reis?”

Omitting all account of the experimentation that succeeded or was set on foot by Reis’s invention,—and great strides toward ultimate success were meanwhile made,—we find ourselves in the United States Patent Office on February 14, 1876. On that day, strange to relate, two petitions asking for a patent on the telephone, describing it as an invention for “transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically,” were filed with the commissioner. One was a formal application by Alexander Graham Bell, of Salem, Massachusetts; the other, a caveat on the part of Elisha Gray of Chicago, llinois. It was a strange coincidence and probably without a parallel in the history of the Patent Office. As both covered practically the same ground and involved the same points, it was necessary later, when the question of priority arose, to examine the day-book or blotter in the chief clerk's office containing the entry of applications, to determine the exact time of day when the respective papers were filed.

On March 7, before a month had elapsed, the patent issued to Bell, and immediately thereafter the Bell Telephone Company was organized and incorporated in the state of Massachusetts. In due time it began the manufacture of instruments. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the action of the Patent Office, Gray and others similarly aggrieved, as a demonstration of their faith in the merits and efficacy of their respective inventions and of their unwillingness to leave the field undisputed to the Bell Company, also began to manufacture and put their apparatus on the market. Later, the Western Union Telegraph Company secured control of the device of Gray with the improvements thereon by Edison, the coming wizard of electricity, and entered into the business of installing and operating telephone exchanges in direct competition with the Bell Company. As might have been expected, the latter, realizing that the anticipated monopoly of the business was in serious danger, began to cast about for some effective means to rid the field of the obnoxious elements against which it was forced to contend, and which were daily growing in strength and popular favor. The first step in that direction was a deal made with the Western Union Telegraph Company, the details of which it is not necessary to enumerate here, whereby that corporation peaceably and gracefully withdrew from the telephone business. Thereupon the Bell Company brought infringement suits against all persons or concerns manufacturing or using telephones, save those operating under proper licenses from itself. These suits, begun in various parts of the country, were practically all consolidated into one cause when they reached the Supreme Court of the United States. The decision of that august tribunal was rendered March 19, 1888. Four of the justices favored the Bell Company; three, namely Justices

Field, Bradley, and Harlan, dissented. Justice Gray, having been absent when the cause was argued, and Justice Lamar, not having been a member of the court at that time, took no part in the decision. The chief justice, Mr. Waite, having, as was reported, risen from a sick bed to attend court, read the opinion. Four days later he was dead.

The members of the court who dissented based their opinion, not on the conflict with the claims of Gray as generally understood, but on their belief in the priority of the invention of Daniel Drawbaugh, an obscure mechanic who lived in the village of Eberlys Mill in Pennsylvania. Although denied the benefit of scientific training or education, Drawbaugh was not without decided inventive genius, added to great mechanical skill. As early as 1860 he was endeavoring, by experiments, using the primitive appliances within his reach, to prove that he could convey local sounds over an electric wire. He had probably never heard of Boursel or Reis; but between 1867 and 1869 he succeeded in constructing an apparatus consisting mainly of a glass tumbler, a tin cup, and a mustard can, connected through a membrane, by means of a wire leading from a battery, with another instrument placed some distance away. Through this apparatus he was able to transmit vocal sounds of a certain range. As the result of continued experimentation he gradually improved it. The thing was crude, it is true, and Drawbaugh was not sufficiently skilled to comprehend or explain the scientific principles involved, but that by means of it people at a distance were enabled to talk to each other there is no doubt. At the trial in the lower court over two hundred witnesses testified that Drawbaugh’s telephone was an accomplished invention prior to Bell's; seventy-five persons talked through it, and over one hundred and thirty saw the apparatus, which was then in court, and identified it as the instrument with which Drawbaugh had carried on the experiments in his shop. In this connection the following words from the dissenting opinion of Justices Field, Bradley, and Harlan may not be without interest: "We do not question Mr. Bell's merits. He appreciated the importance of the invention, which brought it before the public in such a manner as to attract to it the attention of the scientific world. His professional experience and attainments enabled him to see at a glance that it was one of the great discoveries of the century. Drawbaugh was a different sort of man. He did not see it in this halo of light. He was only a plain mechanic and looked upon what he made more as a curiosity than as a matter of financial, scientific or public importance.

… It is regarded as incredible that so great a discovery should have been made by the plain mechanic and not by the eminent scientist and inventor. Yet the proof amounts almost to demonstration, from the testimony of Bell himself and his assistant, Mr. Watson, that he never transmitted an intelligible word through an electrical instrument, nor produced any such instrument that would transmit an intelligible word, until after his patent had been issued; whilst for years before, Drawbaugh had talked through his so that words and sentences had again and again been distinctly heard. Drawbaugh certainly had the principle and accomplished the result. He invented the telephone without appreciating the importance and completeness of his invention. Bell subsequently projected it on the basis of scientific inference and took out a patent for it. But, as our laws do not award a patent to one who was not the first to make an invention, we think that Bell's patent is void by the anticipation of Drawbaugh.”

By the slender majority of one in the vote of the judges the claims of Alexander Bell had now secured the indorsement of the highest judicial tribunal in the land. From that decree there could be no appeal. By virtue of it every rival or competitor of the Bell Company was driven from the field, and that corporation rested, serenely content, in the undisputed ownership of one of the greatest benefactions that ever came to bless mankind. Thus equipped, it not only set about to enlarge its manufacturing capacity, but in other ways undertook to develop and extend the business of which the law had given it such absolute and unrestricted control. It leased instruments to subordinate companies, which, in turn, installed and began to operate exchanges in the larger and more important business centres of the country. Being relieved from all danger of competition, its policy became arbitrary in proportion as its rates increased.

Thus far the telephone had scarcely been used for social purposes, and in many of the smaller cities and towns it had not been introduced at all. To the majority of the people it was still a scientific curiosity, with mechanism apparently too delicate and complicated for practical every-day use. No farmer had ever seen it; much less dared he dream that some day he might speak through one attached to the wall of his own home. The owner of the only authorized speaking telephone for commercial use in the world, the policy of the Bell Company was shortsighted. With demands for the new invention coming from every quarter, it restricted its operations to that territory alone which promised the most immediate and bountiful returns. In this respect it ignored and neglected portions of the field, the whole of which it should have served. It attempted neither to extend nor to nationalize the new industry of which the law had so magnanimously given it sole and undisputed control. The door of opportunity which competition has always opened to ambition it effectually closed. If a man conceived or invented an improvement to the telephone, unless he yielded to the terms of the Bell Company and disposed of it to them, he could find no market for his device. Thus it may truthfully be said that, instead of stimulating, its policy proved a virtual hindrance to inventive genius, and that, the field being thus restricted, the telephone movement, instead of expanding and benefiting mankind, really languished, and, to that extent, failed of its benign purpose.

This was the condition of affairs when, on March 7, 1893, the original patent issued to Professor Bell expired by limitation of law. In December, 1894, before the Independents had established a foothold, there were 291,253 complete telephones in the United States. At that time a receiver was in most cases used both as a transmitter and receiver, the royalties being almost prohibitive against equipping with both. Instantly, and as if by magic, telephone exchanges sprang up everywhere. Companies to manufacture instruments and switchboards organized in almost every state west of the Alleghanies and north of Mason and Dixon’s line. The farmer was now permitted to buy his own telephone,—a thing unheard of under the Bell regime,—and, over a wire running along his fence or from tree to tree, was enabled to talk to his neighbor, and beyond him to the next neighbor, and thence on to the village. In the Mississippi Valley the movement was especially strong and noteworthy. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri soon became one vast network of wires and poles. In one county alone, containing a population slightly in excess of 21,000, a manufacturer sold over 2500 telephones in 23 months. The movement became so spontaneous and general, and the response of the people so overwhelming, that the Bell Company undertook to perpetuate its lease of power by the aid of the famous Berliner transmitter case. This was an infringement suit for the use of the transmitter which had been invented by Emile Berliner, and with which almost every telephone then in use was equipped. The Bell Company had purchased Berliner’s rights, but, by means of continued and repeated amendments, delayed the issuance of letters patent thereon till a short time before the expiration of the original Bell patent. The application was filed June 4, 1877, and the patent issued November 17, 1891. By this means it hoped to prolong its monopoly of the telephone for another patent period. The outside companies were aroused. A national meeting was called in Detroit, and here, on June 22, 1897, with the representatives of telephone companies and manufacturers from Charleston to Duluth, was born the Independent Telephone Association of the United States. A fund of generous proportions was raised to fight the Berliner case through all the courts, and thenceforward the telephone industry of the country was lined up, with the Bell Company on one side and all other interests consolidated under the Independent banner on the other.

The Independent movement gathered force and momentum from the very start. Limited at first to the Central States, it has spread until it has found its way into every part of the public domain. For obvious reasons it is weakest in the Eastern States, although in conservative New England, the home of the parent Bell Company, there are to-day from twenty-five to fifty independent exchanges, and numerous plants under construction. A franchise has recently been taken up in New York City by a combination of strong financial interests, which have announced that they will begin operations with an immediate capacity of over two hundred thousand telephones. The remainder of New York State is well developed. There are good exchanges in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, and many other places. These exchanges are all growing rapidly, the Cleveland exchange having increased over 10,000 telephones in twenty months, and Kansas City showing a gain of over 13,000 in two years.

Plants are building in Chicago, Spokane,San Francisco, Portland, and Detroit; franchises pending in Milwaukee, Nashville, Cincinnati, Tacoma, and Omaha. In Portland, Oregon, the second Independent exchange is being built, the first having been purchased by the Bell

Company about four years ago. The latter's action in dismantling the plant and raising the rates aroused such general disapproval that early in 1905 the Council was forced to submit the matter to a popular vote. The election held on June 5 resulted in 13,213 votes in favor of an Independent exchange and 560 votes against it.

In most of the states of the central west the Independent companies reach over seventy-five percent of the post-offices, the farmers' lines being run to these centres, where they are switched from one line to another, and to the long distance lines now reaching from one city to another and across several states. With the foregoing figures before us, is there any reason to question the claim of the Independent companies that they have manufactured and placed in service in ten years (the first three of which were fought every inch of the way, while contending with litigation on patent subjects) more telephones than their competitor has in twenty-seven years, during the first seventeen of which the latter had absolute control of the field? The Independent companies claim to-day over 3,000,000 subscribers, while the Bell Company, according to their August statement, claimed 2,600,000.

By reason of its priority in the field and its ample command of capital, — for it represents over sixty-five per cent of the total telephone capitalization of the United States,—the Bell Company has easily been in the lead over all others in the matter of long-distance toll lines; but even in that regard it is safe to predict that the days of its supremacy are numbered. Independent companies are paralleling the Bell toll lines in every direction. Not only are the former arranging, by a division of the territory they cover, to care for the toll business between counties, but also from state to state, until to-day first-class service is furnished across a number of states. A federation of strong and determined long-distance companies in the Central States is now in existence, which announces that within the year it will be possible to talk from Kansas City to Cleveland and Albany, and from St. Louis and Indianapolis to Pittsburg, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, entirely over Independent long-distance lines.

Paradoxical though it may seem, yet, unlike other corporations which serve the public, the telephone has no competitor. Steam railroads compete with electric roads; gas companies are competitors of electric light companies; and, although the telephone to some extent invades the field hitherto filled by the telegraph, yet the latter is not, in any appreciable degree, its competitor. In fact, since someone has discovered that a telephone and telegraph message can be sent simultaneously over the same wire without interference, the telephone bids fair to become the first as well as the most serious competitor the telegraph has ever had.

Telephone stocks and bonds, which, for a time, received scant recognition in the financial world, have, as the result of a patient, persistent struggle to keep their footing, gradually won their way in value, till now, in many of the money centres, they rank with the best securities in the market. The failures of telephone companies are few,—in fact as compared to bank failures the percentage is almost infinitesimal. They have suffered less by the depression resulting from hard times than the securities of other public-service corporations. In 1893, the panic year now famous in history, the receipts of all the wire-using companies were greater than in 1892. Being of more recent issue. Independent securities, although many of them have found their way into some of the stronger trust companies and other financial institutions of the country, have met only a limited demand in the general market. This is due largely to the fact that in the Eastern States, where the Bell Company is so thoroughly intrenched, capitalists and inventors have thus far not had the proper conception or appreciation of the scope and extent of the Independent movement. In some respects this has been a wholesome thing, in that it has compelled the Independent companies to look to their own localities for financial assistance; so that each town or city to a large extent holds the securities of its own telephone company, just as it owns or controls the financial destiny of the bank, factory, gas, water, or electric light companies which furnish service to its people. No foreign corporation has ever been able to compete successfully with that kind of ownership in any other line of business.

But the financial end is not the only consideration involved when we come to estimate the real value of a public utility. Other features are to be taken into account. There is the economy of time, the saving of labor, and the general good resulting to mankind. Viewing it in this light, who can deny that the mission of the telephone has just begun ? Vast numbers there are whose steps have not been lessened, whose burdens have not yet been lightened by it. The future may have still greater wonders in store for us. Perhaps some day we may be able to see as well as speak to our friend at the other end of the line; and the line may be, after all, not a wire, but a stratum of the blue ether extending through infinite space. Who can tell? But even though human ingenuity should devise nothing further and we are made to be content with the present appliances, be they Bell or Independent, let us not forget the debt we owe to him who, first of all men, had faith to believe in the transmission through space of the “spoken word.”