Times a Changin’

From 137 telephones in Warren to us all being connected just over a century later

Library of Congress photo A photo from 1904 showing a fashionably dressed woman speaking on an early telephone.

James Stearns was the driver behind bringing the first telephones to Warren.

As popularity grew, so did the size of the network.

According to an article in Stepping Stones, the publication of the Warren County Historical Society, that expansion passed a big test on a call from Warren to Dunkirk.

From the article: “The appointed night arrived and the people crowded into the little telegraph office. Mr. Stearns spoke into the instrument, then shouted, then shouted again. ‘Can you hear me now?’ were the words of what might have been a historic message had it been completed. People took turns listening with the instrument and some thought they caught the sound of a human voice. Finally, Mr. Stearns telegraphed his teammate to ‘put on’ some music; the man in Dunkirk played several selections on a cornet, and the sound of the instrument was heard over the telephone in Warren.”

Stearns initially conducted business as the “Warren Telephone Exchange.”

“On March 1st, 1879, he installed a switchboard in the Western Union office and the and the various subscriber lines terminated in extension bells; cowbells were used and every possible kind of a contrivance for making a distinctive sound, for only by this means could the operator tell who was calling. This office was burned out at the time of the Warren Savings Bank fire in 1888 and the telephone business was conducted temporarily from an upstairs office directly across the street while the Bank was rebuilding. Afterward, the central office was moved to the third floor of the Warren Savings Bank Building where it remained until June 1925, when the new telephone building at 101 Pennsylvania Ave. W. was completed and occupied.”

Stearns managed the business and a G.L. Lawrence took over when Stearns was promoted “to Jamestown as superintendent of this district comprising many counties in Pennsylvania and New York.

“During this period, Mr. F.O. Lesser of 122 Water St., served the Telephone Co. as a boy switchboard operator in Warren during the vacation period of the regular switchboard operator. Mr. Lesser stated the entire switchboard was in a box two feet high by three feet long.”

By 1896 – twenty year after invention – there were 137 telephones in operation in Warren.

By that stage, a subscriber would pay a variable fee for installation and then a $4 per month charge for businesses and $3.00 for residence.

“This covered the rental of one hand telephone and the switching service. The subscriber had to purchase a magneto bell for $12.50 and his hand telephone cord for 50 cents.”

Unsurprisingly, the first subscribers were local banks as well as some business offices.

A Dr. Dan Stranahan “rented only one instrument but had a wire to both his house and his office and used to carry the telephone under his arm from one place to the other, four blocks away. Two months of this wore down his resistance and he finally rented a second instrument,” the author recalls.

The oil boom of the 1880s pushed telephone service into the more rural areas of the county, “the wire being strung on poles along the road and fastened to the trees through the woods… A charge of $25.00 per day, plus the cost of the extension line, was charged for this service and was readily paid, the news telephoned in by the ‘Scouts’ steading or breaking the market.

“The first toll line in this locality, and this was also grounded iron wire circuit, was from Warren via Kinzua to Bradford. The second was from Warren to Jamestown and this was eventually extended over to Dunkirk and connected with the ‘long lines’ when they came through,” the author wrote. “Subscribers assumed in those early days that they should be given the free use of any lines that were build and connected to their switchboard, and objected strenuously to paying for toll calls to Bradford and elsewhere.”

Anstadt, the author, provided data on the number of telephones in service: 1881 – 60, 1900 – 386, 1910 – 1,192, 1920 – 3,170, 1930 – 5,331, 1940 – 4,959, 1945 – 5,821, 1950 – 8,192, 1959 – 11,360.

The number of calls per business day was just over 21,000 in 1939 but over 45,000 by 1959.

“The highest ceiling rate in a single day in the Warren Exchange occurred during the flood of 1956 when 87,000 local and long distance calls were made by Warren subscribers in one day,” he reported.

So how did we get from Bell in the 1950s to Verizon in the 21st century?

It’s the result of an anti-trust action filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1974.

American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) was the lead company of the Bell system and Bell was essentially the only provider of telephone service for most Americans.

The Bell system was broken up into seven “Baby Bells,” one of which became Bell Atlantic which subsequently changed its name to Verizon.

So while the technology has come miles and miles from those early years, our current providers have essentially descended directly from the company named for the very man who founded the telephone.