It was mid-winter, 1892, and an illness known as lagrippe was exacting a grim toll in the Tuscaloosa area. The term “lagrippe” derives from an old French verb meaning “to seize or grasp” and was then used to describe what is now called influenza, or simply, “flu.”
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.
On a Sunday in December of 1871, a most singular event occurred. Writing in Tuscaloosa’s The Independent Monitor, Editor Ryland Randolph described it thus...
Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Miller were walking toward the end of Washington Street, now known as Lurleen B. Wallace Boulevard North in downtown Tuscaloosa. It was Friday evening, September 21, 1900. In the darkness, the 68-year-old Mrs. Miller did not see the edge of a gully that had eaten into the street, and she fell to her death. Later, her husband received a settlement from the City of $2500—equal to about $65,000 over a century later.
It was Tuesday evening, and the Tuscaloosa Citizens Cornet Band was playing, when suddenly their practice room filled with fluttering birds. The “affrighted” creatures had been shaken from their roosts in trees outside an open window. All over town people fled outside, fearing their houses would fall.
A sharp succession of shots rang out, and a gray clad figure fell. It was February of 1883, and two cadets were fighting a pistol duel on the porch of Woods Hall on the University of Alabama campus. The integrity of a young woman had been questioned, and a challenge was issued in defense of her honor. Cadet William Alston of Selma succumbed to wounds inflicted by Cadet H. K. Harrison. Over a year later, Harrison was found not guilty of murder.