Tales of Tuscaloosa: First Phones (January 3, 1884) Featured

Left: While working for Alexander Graham Bell in 1877, Tivadar Puskás in invented the telephone exchange. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Middle: Before the invention of telephone wires that could carry multiple circuits, the streets of Tuscaloosa may have somewhat resembled this New York City from 1888. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Right: Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for the first telephone in 1876. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Left: While working for Alexander Graham Bell in 1877, Tivadar Puskás in invented the telephone exchange. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Middle: Before the invention of telephone wires that could carry multiple circuits, the streets of Tuscaloosa may have somewhat resembled this New York City from 1888. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Right: Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for the first telephone in 1876. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

In late 1883, Tuscaloosans heard for the first time a sound that signaled profound change. That sound was the ringing of telephones connected to the area’s first telephone exchange. According to the Tuskaloosa Gazette, the exchange was quietly organized “by a few of our local business men to facilitate commercial transactions and in some instances social convenience.”  

The history of the telephone is complicated and often confusing. There was a dizzying array of patents, claims, lawsuits, and mergers that lasted for decades. However, two basic patents upheld by United States courts became the foundation for modern telephonic communication. The first was an electric telephone that could send and receive understandable voice messages to another telephone along a wire. The second was a telephone exchange that allowed users to connect to different phones. 

Beginning in the 17th century, a number of inventors worked on devices for voice communication over distances further than the range of human hearing. The earliest attempts to create a telephone were by mechanical means (vibrating strings or wires, speaking tubes, etc.) However, by the mid-19th century, several inventors were developing “acoustical telegraphy” or the sending of modulated audio frequencies by electricity over telegraph wires. Alexander Graham Bell, a native of Scotland, was a teacher of the deaf, inventor, engineer, and scientist. While working in Canada and the United States, Bell developed a device that received the first American patent for a telephone in 1876. 

The telephone exchange was invented in 1877 by Hungarian engineer Tivadar Puskás, while working for Thomas Edison. Puskás’ exchange allowed a human operator to manually connect calls between different people. One of the first commercial telephone exchanges, established in 1878 by Thomas Glidden in Lowell, Massachusetts, had 50 subscribers.  

On January 3, 1884, the first local telephone directory was published in the Tuskaloosa Gazette. These are the first 20 telephones to serve Tuscaloosa and Northport: 

  1. W. I. Woodruff, manager
  2. Alston & Fitts Bookstore
  3. R. Jemison’s residence
  4. Allen & Jemison’s Hardware
  5. J. H. Fitts & Co., Bankers
  6. Dr. J. T. Searcy’s residence
  7. W. J. Fitts’ residence
  8. G. A. Searcy’s residence
  9. G. A. Searcy Wholesale Grocer
  10. J. Gansel, Jeweler
  11. Southern Express Co.
  12. Tuskaloosa Gazette Office
  13. E. Snow & Co. Dry Goods
  14. Hanley’s Livery Stable
  15. Hays & Gaines, Northport, merch.
  16. J. R. Kennedy’s Warehouse
  17. J. Snow & Co, Hardware Store
  18. J. Snow’s residence
  19. University of Alabama
  20. Western Union Telegraph Office

Edward J. Kennedy, long-time organist for the First Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa, installed this first exchange. Upon his death in 1905, he was widely eulogized. The West Alabama Breeze declared him to be a “musical and mechanical genius.” The Tuscaloosa Times-Gazette wrote that he was “a man of bright mind and rare intelligence.” He was also credited with numerous musical compositions and was said to have “a particular turn for electrical contrivances.”  

Today, telephones are ubiquitous; there are billions in service around the world. Whether they connect by traditional landline, internet, cellular transmission, or satellite, they share a common beginning. It all started with the work of numerous inventors and the efforts of countless people in local communities, such as Tuscaloosan Edward J. Kennedy.

Rate this item
(0 votes)

Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

captcha 

Most Popular