Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1988)
Technology and Culture, v. 29, no. 1 (January 1988), 32-61
The familiar refrain, "Reach out, reach out and touch someone,"
has been part of American Telephone and Telegraph's (AT&T's)
campaign urging use of the telephone for personal conversations.
Yet, the telephone industry did not always promote such sociability;
for decades it was more likely to discourage it. The industry's "discovery" of sociability illustrates how structural and cultural constraints
interact with public demand to shape the diffusion of a technology.
While historians have corrected simplistic notions of "autonomous
technology" in showing how technologies are produced, we know
much less about how consumers use technologies. We too often
DR. FISCHER is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Some material presented here was initially delivered to the Social Science History Association, Washington, D.C., October 1983. The research was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (grant RO-20612), the National Science
Foundation (grant SES83-09301), the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Committee
on Research, University of California, Berkeley. Further work was conducted as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California, with financial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Archival
research was facilitated by the generous assistance of people in the telephone industry: at AT&T, Robert Lewis, Robert Garnet, and Mildred Ettlinger; at the San Francisco Pioneer Telephone Museum, Don Thrall, Ken Rolin, and Norm Hawker; at
the Museum of Independent Telephony, Peggy Chronister; at Pacific Bell, Robert
Deward; at Bell Canada Historical, Stephanie Sykes and Nina Bederian-Gardner; at Illinois Bell, Rita Lapka; John A. Fleckner at the National Museum of American History also provided assistance. Thanks to those interviewed for the project: Tom
Winburn, Stan Damkroger, George Hawk Hurst, C. Duncan Hutton, Fred Johnson,
Charles Morrish, and Frank Pamphilon. Several research assistants contributed to
the work: Melanie Archer, John Chan (who conducted the interviews), Steve Derne,
Keith Dierkx, Molly Haggard, Barbara Loomis, and Mary Waters. And several readers provided useful comments on prior versions, including Victoria Bonnell, Paul
Burstein, Glenn Carroll, Bernard Finn, Robert Garnet, Roland Marchand, Michael
Schudson, John Staudenmaier, S.J., Ann Swidler, Joel Tarr, Langdon Winner, and auditors of presentations. None of these colleagues, of course, is responsible for remaining errors.
? 1988 by the Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved.
take those uses (especially of consumer products) for granted, as if
they were straightforwardly derived from the nature of the technology or dictated by its creators.'
In the case of the telephone, the initial uses suggested by its promoters were determined by-in addition to technical and economic
cultural heritage: specifically, practical uses in
common with the telegraph. Subscribers nevertheless persisted in
using the telephone for "trivial gossip." In the 1920s, the telephone
industry shifted from resisting to endorsing such sociability, responding, at least partly, to consumers' insistent and innovative uses of
the technology for personal conversation. After summarizing telephone history to 1940, this article will describe the changes in the
uses that telephone promoters advertised and the changes in their attitudes toward sociability; it will then explore explanations for these
'See C. S. Fischer, "Studying Technology and Social Life," pp. 284-301 in High Technology, Space, and Society: Emerging Trends, ed. M. Castells (Beverly Hills, Calif.,
1985). For a recent example of a study looking at consumers and sales, see M. Rose,
"Urban Environments and Technological Innovation: Energy Choices in Denver and
Kansas City, 1900-1940," Technologyand Culture 25 (July 1984): 503-39.
2The primary sources used here include telephone and advertising industry journals; internal telephone company reports, correspondence, collections of advertisements, and other documents, primarily from AT&T and Pacific Telephone (PT&T);
privately published memoirs and corporate histories; government censuses, investigations, and research studies; and several interviews, conducted by John Chan, with retired telephone company employees who had worked in marketing. The archives
used most are the AT&T Historical Archives, New York (abbreviated hereafter as
AT&T ARCH), and the Pioneer Telephone Museum, San Francisco (SF PION MU),
with some material from the Museum of Independent Telephony, Abilene (MU
IND TEL); Bell Canada Historical, Montreal (BELL CAN HIST); Illinois Bell Information Center, Chicago (ILL BELL INFO); and the N. W. Ayer Collection of Advertisements and the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, National Museum of
American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. A bibliography on the
social history of the telephone is unusually short, especially in comparison with those
on later technologies such as the automobile and television. There are industrial and
corporate histories, but the consumer side is largely untouched. For some basic
sources, see J. W. Stehman, The Financial History of the American Telephoneand Telegraph Company(Boston, 1925); A. N. Holcombe, Public Ownershipof Telephoneson the
Continent of Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 1911); H. B. MacMeal, The Story of Independent
Telephony(Chicago: Independent Pioneer Telephone Association, 1934); J. L. Walsh,
ConnecticutPioneersin Telephony(New Haven, Conn.: Morris F. Tyler Chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America, 1950); J. Brooks, Telephone: The First Hundred Years
(New York, 1976); A. Hibbard, Hello-Goodbye:My Story of TelephonePioneering (Chiin Cancago, 1941); Robert Collins, A Voicefrom Afar: The History of Telecommunications
ada (Toronto, 1977); R. L. Mahon, "The Telephone in Chicago," ILL BELL INFO,
MS, ca. 1955; J. C. Rippey, Goodbye,Central;Hello, World:A CentennialHistory of North-
Claude S. Fischer
A Brief History of the Telephone
Within about two years of A. G. Bell's patent award in 1876,
there were roughly 10,000 Bell telephones in the United States and
fierce patent disputes over them, battles from which the Bell Company (later to be AT&T) emerged a victorious monopoly. Its local
franchisees' subscriber lists grew rapidly and the number of telephones tripled between 1880 and 1884. Growth slowed during the
next several years, but the number of instruments totaled 266,000
by 1893.3 (See table 1.)
As long-distance communication, telephony quickly threatened telegraphy. Indeed, in settling its early patent battle with Western
Union, Bell gave financial concessions to Western Union as compensation for loss of business. As local communication, telephony quickly
overwhelmed nascent efforts to establish signaling exchange systems (except for stock tickers).
During Bell's monopoly, before 1894, telephone service consisted
basically of an individual line for which a customer paid an annual
flat fee allowing unlimited calls within the exchange area. Fees varied widely, particularly by size of exchange. Bell rates dropped in
the mid-1890s, perhaps in anticipation of forthcoming competition.
In 1895, Bell's average residential rate was $4.66 a month (13 percent of an average worker's monthly wages). Rates remained high,
especially in the larger cities (the 1894 Manhattan rate for a twoparty line was $10.41 a month).4
On expiration of the original patents in 1893-94, thousands of
new telephone vendors, ranging from commercial operations to
westernBell (Omaha, Nebr.: Northwestern Bell, 1975); G. W. Brock, The Telecommunications Industry: The Dynamicsof Market Structure(Cambridge, Mass, 1981); I. de S. Pool,
Forecasting the Telephone (Norwood, NJ., 1983); R. W. Garnet, The TelephoneEnterprise: The Evolution of the Bell System'sHorizontal Structure, 1876-1909 (Baltimore,
1985); R. A. Atwood, "Telephony and Its Cultural Meanings in Southeastern Iowa,
1900-1917" (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1984); Lana Fay Rakow, "Gender, Communication, and the Technology: A Case Study of Women and the Telephone"
(Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1987); and I. de S. Pool,
ed., The Social Impact of the Telephone(Cambridge, Mass., 1977). (Note that AT&T,
Bell, and similar corporate names refer, of course, to these companies-or their direct ancestors-up to the U.S. industry reorganization of January 1, 1984.)
SStatistics from AT&T, Events in TelecommunicationsHistory (New York: AT&T,
1979), p. 6; U.S. Bureau of the Census (BOC), HistoricalStatisticsof the United States, Bicentennial Ed., pt. 2 (Washington, D.C., 1975), pp. 783-84.
4Rates are reported in scattered places. For these figures, see BOC, Telephonesand Telegraphs 1902, Special Reports, Department of Commerce and Labor (Washington,
D.C., 1906), p. 53; and 1909 Annual Report of AT&T (New York, 1910), p. 28. Wage
data are from Historical Statistics(n. 3 above), tables D735-38.
SoURcEs.-U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statisticsof the United States, Bicentennial Ed., pt. 2 (Washington,
D.C., 1975), pp. 783-84; and U.S. Bureau of the Census, StatisticalAbstractof the United States 1982-83 (Washington,
D.C., 1984), p. 557.
small cooperative systems, sprang up. Although they typically
served areas that Bell had ignored, occasional head-to-head competition drove costs down and spurred rapid diffusion: almost a ninefold increase in telephones per capita between 1893 and 1902, as
compared to less than a twofold increase in the prior nine years.5
Bell responded fiercely to the competition, engaging in price
wars, political confrontations, and other aggressive tactics. It also
tried to reach less affluent customers with cheaper party lines, coinbox telephones, and "measured service" (charging by the call). Still,
Bell lost at least half the market by 1907. Then, a new management
under Theodore N. Vail, the most influential figure in telephone history, changed strategies. Instead of reckless, preemptive expansion
and price competition, AT&T bought out competitors where it
could and ceded territories where it was losing. With tighter fiscal con5BOC, Telephones,1902 (n. 4 above); Federal Communications Commission (FCC),
ProposedReport: TelephoneInvestigation(Washington, D.C., 1938), p. 147. AT&T has always officially challenged this interpretation; see, e.g., 1909 Annual Report of AT&T,
Claude S. Fischer
trol, and facing capital uncertainties as well, AT&T's rate of expansion declined.6 Meanwhile, the "independents" could not expand
much beyond their small-town bases, partly because they were unable to build their own long-distance lines and were cut off from Bellcontrolled New York City. Many were not competitive because they
were poorly financed and provided poor service. Others accepted
or even solicited buyouts from AT&T or its allies. By 1912, the Bell
System had regained an additional 6 percent of the market.
During this competitive era, the industry offered residential customers a variety of economical party-line plans. Bell's average residential rate in 1909 was just under two dollars a month (about 4
percent of average wages).7 How much territory the local exchange
covered and what services were provided-for example, nighttime
greatly, but costs dropped and subscriber lists
grew considerably. These basic rates changed little until World War
II (although long-distance charges dropped).
In the face of impending federal antitrust moves, AT&T agreed
in late 1913 to formalize its budding accommodation with the independents. Over several years, local telephone service was divided
into regulated geographic monopolies. The modern U.S. telephone
Bell local service and exclusively Bell longsystem-predominantly
distance service-was essentially fixed from the early 1920s to 1984.
The astronomical growth in the number of telephones during
the pre-Vail era (a compound annual rate of 23 percent per capita
from 1893 to 1907) became simply healthy growth (4 percent between 1907 and 1929). The system was consolidated and technically
improved, and, by 1929, 42 percent of all households had telephones. That figure shrank during the Depression to 31 percent in
1933 but rebounded to 37 percent of all households in 1940.
The telephone industry believed, as President Vail testified in
1909, that the "public had to be educated ... to the necessity and ad6See, e.g., Annual Report of AT&T, 1907-10; and FCC, ProposedReport (n. 5 above),
pp. 153-154. On making deals with competitors, see, e.g., Rippey (n. 2 above), pp.
71909 Annual Report of AT&T, p. 28. Charges for minimal, urban, four-party lines
ranged from $3.00 a month in New York (about 6 percent of the average manufacturing employee's monthly wages) to $1.50 in Los Angeles (about 3 percent of wages)
and much less in small places with mutual systems; see BOC, Telephonesand Telegraphs and Municipal Electric Fire-Alarmand Police-PatrolSignaling Systems,1912 (Washington, D.C., 1915); and Historical Statistics(n. 3 above), table D740.
vantage of the telephone."8 And Bell saluted itself on its success in
an advertisement entitled "Blazing the Way": Bell "had to invent
the business uses of the telephone and convince people that they
were uses.... [Bell] built up the telephone habit in cities like New
York and Chicago.... It has from the start created the need of the
telephone and then supplied it."9
"Educating the public" typically meant advertising, face-to-face solicitations, and public relations. In the early years, these efforts included informational campaigns, such as publicizing the existence
of the telephone, showing people how to use it, and encouraging
courteous conversation on the line.'0 Once the threat of nationalization became serious, "institutional" advertising and publicity encouraged voters to feel warmly toward the industry."
As to getting paying customers, the first question vendors had to
ask was, Of what use is this machine? The answer was not self-evident.
For roughly the first twenty-five years, sales campaigns largely employed flyers, simple informational notices in newspapers, "news"
stories supplied to friendly editors (many of whom received free service or were partners in telephony), public demonstrations, and personal solicitations of businessmen. As to uses, salesmen typically
8Testimony on December 9, 1909, in State of New York, Report of the Committeeof
the Senate and AssemblyAppointed to Investigate Telephoneand TelegraphCompanies (Albany, 1910), p. 398.
9Ayer Collection of AT&T Advertisements, Collection of Business Americana, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
'?See, e.g., Pacific TelephoneMagazine (PT&T employee magazine, hereafter PAC
TEL MAG), 1907-40, passim; 1914 advertisements in SF PION MU folder labeled
"Advertising"; MU IND TEL "Scrapbook" of Southern Indiana Telephone Company clippings; advertisements in directories of the day; "Educating the Public to the
Proper Use of the Telephone," Telephony64 (June 21, 1913): 32-33; "Swearing over
the Telephone," Telephony 9 (1905): 418; and "Advertising and Publicity-1906
-1910," box 1317, AT&T ARCH.
"On AT&T's institutional advertising, see R. Marchand, "Creating the Corporate
Soul: The Origins of Corporate Image Advertising in America" (paper presented to
the Organization of American Historians, 1980), and N. L. Griese, "AT&T: 1908 Origins of the Nation's Oldest Continuous Institutional Advertising Campaign," Journal
of Advertising 6 (Summer 1977): 18-24. FCC, ProposedReport (n. 5 above), has a chapter on "Public Relations"; see also N. R. Danielian, AT&T: The Story of Industrial Conquest (New York, 1939), chap. 13. For a defense of AT&T public relations, see A. W.
Page, The Bell TelephoneSystem(New York, 1941). Among the publicity efforts along
these lines were "free" stories, subsidies of the press, and courting of reporters and politicians (documented in AT&T ARCH). In one comical case, AT&T frantically and apparently unsuccessfully tried in 1920 to pressure Hal Roach to cut out from a
Harold Lloyd film he was producing a burlesque scene of central exchange hysteria
(see folder "Correspondence-E. S. Wilson, V.P., AT&T," SF PION MU).
Claude S. Fischer
stressed those that extended applications of telegraph signaling. For
example, an 1878 circular in New Haven-where the first exchange
was set up-stated that "your wife may order your dinner, a hack,
your family physician, etc., all by Telephone without leaving the
house or trusting servants or messengers to do it." (It got almost no
response.)12 In these uses, the telephone directly competed withand decisively defeated-attempts
to create telegraph exchanges
that enabled subscribers to signal for services and also efforts to employ printing telegraphs as a sort of "electronic mail" system.'3
In this era and for some years later, the telephone marketers
sought new uses to add to these telegraphic applications. They offered special services over the telephone, such as weather reports,
concerts, sports results, and train arrivals. For decades, vendors cast
about for novel applications: broadcasting news, sports, and music,
night watchman call-in services, and the like. Industry magazines eagerly printed stories about the telephone being used to sell products, alert firefighters about forest blazes, lullaby a baby to sleep,
and get out voters on election day. And yet, industry men often attributed weak demand to not having taught the customer "what to do
with his telephone."l4
In the first two decades of the 20th century, telephone advertising became more professionally "modern."'5 AT&T employed a Bos'2Walsh (n. 2 above), p. 47.
Schmidt, "The Telephone Comes to Pittsburgh" (master's thesis, University of
Pittsburgh, 1948); Pool, Forecasting(n. 2 above), p. 30; D. Goodman, "Early Electrical
Communications and the City: Applications of the Telegraph in Nineteenth-Century
Urban America" (unpub. paper, Department of Social Sciences, Carnegie-Mellon University, n.d., courtesy of Joel Tarr); and "Telephone History of Dundee, Ontario,"
City File, BELL CAN HIST.
'40n special services and broadcasting, see Walsh (n. 2 above), p. 206; S. H.
Aronson, "Bell's Electrical Toy: What's the Use? The Sociology of Early Telephone
Usage," pp. 15-39, and I. de S. Pool et al., "Foresight and Hindsight: The Case of
the Telephone," pp. 127-58, both in Pool, ed., Social Impact (n. 2 above); "Broadening the Possible Market," Printers' Ink 74 (March 9, 1911): 20; G. O. Steel, "Advertising the Telephone," Printers' Ink 51 (April 12, 1905): 14-17; and F. P. Valentine,
"Some Phases of the Commercial Job," Bell TelephoneQuarterly 5 (January 1926):
34-43. For illustrations of uses, see, e.g., PAC ...
Purchase answer to see full