The Early Days

How we communicate forever altered by telephone; but how did we get here?

Library of Congress photo A Western Union Telegraph envelope from the 1860s. The local Western Union operator is credited with bringing the first telephones to Warren.

It’s become second nature that we all have telephone capabilities at our fingertips.

Almost all the time.

To people of my generation, it’s almost unfathomable to live – personally or professionally – in any other way.

But that certainly hasn’t always been the case.

And it hasn’t been too many generations since the word “telephone” wasn’t part of our lexicon because the device hadn’t been invented yet.

Library of Congress photo An early telephone. The photograph comes from the Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a patent for his telephone in March 1876.

Two years later, the telephone had made its way to Warren.

From the Warren County Historical Society’s Stepping Stones publication in the 1960s, Robert Anstadt, who managed the local Bell Telephone Co. office, told the story of early telephony in the county.

James W. Stearns was the operator and manager of the Western Union’s telegraph office in Warren.

“(H)e was so impressed with what he read about the telephone and with the statements of his friends that it would in a short time supplant the telegraph, that he decided to get into this new business immediately,” the article states.

So Stearns rented two “telephone instruments” from the Bell Telephone Company and “strung the first telephone line in this part of the state from the Western Union office on Second (Ave.) next to Warren Savings Bank & Trust Company to his home at Second Ave. near East Street, four blocks away.

“These original instruments were hand receivers, placed to the lips for talking and then to the ear for listening, and the rental he paid for each was $10.00 per year. When a transmitter was developed later, he rented these from the Bell Company for $10.00 each, also.”

So the enterprising Stearns started stringing wires over the houses for other telephones – connecting 25 before he was summoned before the Warren Borough Council.

“In his boyish manner, he explained the great future of the telephone and the benefits to the public. He was not taken very seriously but was anxious to prove his statements and guaranteed to have one hundred telephones connected in Warren within a year’s time if granted a permit to set poles on all streets of the town under the supervision of the Burgess or his delegate,” the article states. “The document was drawn up and signed and this original franchise was in existence for a great many years. The Burgess humorously related years afterward that he was so hounded by persons about these poles and the trimming of trees that he was finally forced to resign.”

With telegraph lines strung around the region already, Stearns was able to expand his subscriber base when he “arranged with the telegraph operator at Dunkirk, N.Y., that each would connect a telephone to the telegraph line which traversed the poles of the Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley & Pittsburgh Railroad, and advertised that on a certain evening the public would be invited to attend a demonstration of long-distance telephony.”

Now it became a matter of figuring out whether the line would work.