Telephone service begins, 1878

The first telephone conversation in Springfield took place on Feb. 28, 1878, over a line between the city office of Western Union, Sixth and Monroe streets, and the company’s branch office at the state Capitol.

That phone call began with discussion of Congress’s override of President Rutherford Hayes’ veto of the Bland-Allison Silver Repurchase Act (Springfieldians favored the override).

The conversation, however, then devolved to comments about the weather and a couple of musical selections:  Col. W.L. Gross, in the main Western Union office, sang “Home Sweet Home,” to which George Kelchner at the Statehouse responded by playing an “operatic air on the concertina, every note sounding with distinctness to the city office.” (Kelchner was the local Western Union manager.)

One version of Elisha Gray's battery-powered telephones (Western Electric News, 1917)

One version of Elisha Gray’s battery-powered telephones (Western Electric News, 1917)

The Illinois State Journal described the rudimentary telephone apparatus, which was based on a design by Elisha Gray (a competitor of Alexander Graham Bell’s) and manufactured by the Western Electric Co.

There are two “hand apparatus,” of rubber and called “tubes,” attached to the case or box at each end – one for the mouth and the other to be placed against the ear, or one may be used for both purposes, so that the other “tube” may be utilized by a second listener or speaker, at either terminal point. Within the “tube,” and to be spoken against, is a sort of “disk,” of thin metal, which vibrates and carries the sound. It is held in front of the mouth and spoken against, and the sound is thus carried along the ordinary telegraph wire to the end of the circuit.

“(I)t was plain that the telephone is a great and remarkable institution and destined to prove of great convenience,” the newspaper concluded.

In fact, telephone use did grow rapidly in Springfield, and in July 1879, Kelchner announced Western Union would create Springfield’s first telephone exchange. For $4 a month, he promised, a subscriber would receive a free phone instrument and access to other phones on the exchange, including such sites as the Statehouse and courts.

“This enterprise will prove of great value to business and professional men, and its convenience will be especially appreciated during warm weather like the present and during stormy weather at other seasons,” the Journal said.

Many businessmen and professionals quickly seized the opportunities offered by the new technology. By the time the exchange was created, coal dealer C.A. Starnes already was running daily newspaper ads touting the company’s telephone connection. And the first list of exchange subscribers included (among others) three newspapers, four law firms, two hotels, five physicians, two druggists, two banks, two grocers, the offices of the Sangamon County sheriff, federal court clerk and postmaster – and Starnes.

The use of telephone numbers went into effect in late 1879. Based on telephone numbers given in newspaper ads, the number of phones in Springfield totaled more than 450 by 1885, and telephone directories were in use by the late 1880s.

Hat tip: To Joe Armstrong and Mitch Hopper of the Sangamon Valley Radio Club, whose dual presentation to the Sangamon County Historical Society in September 2015 was a great help to researching this topic. schs logo (2)

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4 Responses to Telephone service begins, 1878

  1. Andrew Trello says:

    I’ve noticed in newspaper clippings from the turn of the century into the mid teens there are many references to “old phone” and “new phone” when numbers are given. Many also say “both phones.” What does this mean? I’ve always loved the concept of using the exchange names in early phone numbers. I wish my cell line didn’t have a 1 in it. My phone number growing up would have been Lakeside 9-7406. It just has a wonderful ring to it.

    • editor says:

      Andrew: That’s a very good question, and I don’t know the answer. Let me see if I can find out. Thanks.

    • editor says:

      Andrew: An update. The “new” and “old” listings appear to be related to competition between the Central Union Telephone Co. (“old”) and the upstart Inter-State Telephone Co. (“new”).

      I can’t find any old/new listings prior to 1906. Inter-State went into business here in late 1903 or 1904. For a while people seem to have specified which company’s number they had by name, but I’m guessing they then switched to old/new for brevity and convenience. Somewhere in there also, Central Union became Bell.

      Look for a full entry on all this sometime soon, as well as a description of Inter-State’s telephone exchange operations (the “Hello Girls”). Thanks for the ideas.

  2. Lloyd says:

    What was the exchange name for Chatham’s “48” exchange?

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