“The only large building in the world entirely devoted to telephone purposes”

Bell Telephone Building, 406-408 Market Street, 1972 (PhillyHistory.org)

Third and fourth floor of the Bell Telephone Building, 406-408 Market Street [1972] (PhillyHistory.org)

How did the thousands of Philadelphians wired for telephone service connect with one another? How would they talk with early adopters in other cities? Connectivity for the ever increasing numbers of subscribers was the ongoing challenge. As told recently in a post illustrated with the horse-drawn telephone parade float, Philadelphia’s telephone industry served less than 5,000 in 1895 but would balloon to more than 100,000 a dozen years later.

The American telephone industry needed investment and innovation. In 1901, the world’s total mileage of phone wire stood near five million. Just over a decade later the total stood at more than 29 million miles—half of the world’s total. Americans had poured more than one billion dollars into infrastructure, and it was paying off. By 1912, there were nearly 12.5 million telephones in the world; 67% were in American homes and businesses.

But none were useful without innovations that would enhance connectivity. That’s where Bell Telephone’s building 406-408 Market came in. After alterations by architect Addison Hutton in 1891, this purpose-built, four-story structure would accept 250 underground cables from the surrounding streets. “Believed to be the only large building in the world entirely devoted to telephone purposes,” 406-408 Market was expected “to meet every requirement of the present, and all the possibilities of the future.”

On the top, sun-lit fourth floor Bell installed a new Law switchboard, “the most wonderful of all of the many wonderful appliances for securing prompt and efficient service.” This 80-foot long “Law board” contained 2,500 mile of wire configured for 10,000 circuits allowing as many as 90 operators “to make any desired connection instantly.”

John F. Casey, an inventor from St. Louis, had patented this telephone system in December 1888. “The methods now in vogue,” read Casey’s discussion of his improvement, resulted in “great delay and embarrassment” when subscribers from different central offices want to speak with one another. A subscriber would call their central office and that office would connect with the second central office. Once connected, operators at both central offices would have to call and then reconnect the two subscribers before making the connection between them. Such bottlenecks wasted “a great deal of time” and were “very unsatisfactory.”

Casey’s invention required that central offices had permanent, open circuits with one another so that “both operators that make the connections in each office hear the call at the same time. This obviates the necessity of central office A first making connection with central office B, then calling up central office B and waiting until said central office B makes the connection.”

A Law Switchboard, ca. 1888 in Saint Louis Missouri. (Wikimedia.org)

“By my invention.” claimed Casey, conversations can take place “between subscribers connected with different central offices as expeditiously as between subscribers belonging to the same central office.”

But the success of America’s telephone industry’s would literally be in the hands of an army of efficient operators.

Want ads called for young women “of unquestionable character [with] 12th grade public school education” to apply in person. Fresh hires would “learn long distance telephone operating” at the Market Street facility while being paid. Graduates would be placed in telephone offices “convenient to home.” In 1912, the Bell Telephone bragged of its “enlarged operators’ school, second to none in the country in completeness… receiving more than 1100 students a year.”

With investment, invention, technology and training, American telephony had found its stride. But that didn’t stop company executives from looking for additional ways of to improve service, and the company’s bottom line.

“Courtesy Too Costly” read a New York Times headline in 1907, The Keystone Telephone Company’s top traffic manager in Philadelphia, A. J. Ulrich, insisted on dropping the word “please.” Ulrich had studied the situation and “found that patrons making calls and operators answering them” uttered the word “please” 900,000 times every day. He calculated that Keystone’s 450 “girl operators” and the subscribers they served wasted 7,500 minutes, or 125 hours, each and every day.

The Keystone Company banned use of the word “please.”

Not long after, AT&T attempted to dissuade its employees and customers from using the word “Hello.”

We know how that initiative on behalf of hyper-efficiency worked out.

[Sources: John F. Casey, A New Telephone System, U.S. Patent #394, 832, December 18, 1888. (PDF); Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians, (Philadelphia, The North American, 1891); Want Ads, The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1905; “Courtesy Too Costly,” The New York Times, September 6, 1907; Telephone Statistics of the World (American Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1912);  “A Year in the Bell Telephone Plant Department” (Advertisement) The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 1912.]

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