Telephony in 1927

This may seem like an odd topic to write about. The topic comes from browsing through the 2.8 million documents from 1927 that just entered the public domain as the original copyrights expired. The big national headlines focused on Winnie the Pooh, Disney’s Steamboat Willie, and Sherlock Holmes entering the public domain. But it’s fascinating to browse through the wide range of documents that provide a snapshot of the science, technology, and culture in 1927.

Today’s blog comes from a 12-page pamphlet on The Telephone: Its History and Methods of Operation, published in 1927 by the Illinois Committee on Public Utility Information. The document is a great primer on the state of the telephone industry that year. The most interesting impression for me seeing how pervasive the telephone became only 51 years after the first lab test of the technology.

Some of the more interesting facts from the pamphlet:

  • There were 18 million telephones in the U.S. that year, including 1.6 million in Illinois. That’s one telephone for every 15 people.
  • The U.S. had 61% of all working telephones in the world at the time. Europe had 27%, with only 12% of telephones for the rest of the world. Illinois had 1,189 central offices.
  • We talk about industry consolidation today, but in 1927 there were 39,000 telephone companies in the country, most serving small towns or neighborhoods.
  • There were 380,000 people employed by telephone companies in the U.S., including 15,000 girls employed as private branch exchange operators, just in in Illinois. Illinois had over 30,000 telephone-related manufacturing jobs.
  • A state-of-the-art handset is shown as the picture at the top of this blog.
  • Telephone service cost an average family less than 1% of household income, and it was the affordability that led to the rapid acceptance and deployment of the technology.

The pamphlet gushes about the deployment of telephone technology. “Yet behind this little act of calling by telephone and holding converse with some distant person, there is the story of a marvel so great as to almost put to shame the winder of Aladdin’s Lamp. . . Beginning 5 years ago, the record and the development of the telephone has been so wonderful, so vital in the affairs of man, that it has actually changed the course of human history and has played no small part in the civilization of mankind.”

There were three types of central offices in 1927. Small exchanges used the magneto system that had a battery at the base of each telephone that was charged by turning a crank on the telephone. Larger telephone exchanges used a common battery system that supplied power to telephone sets over copper wires. This system alerted an operator that somebody wanted to place a call by lighting a small lamp on a switchboard. Operators manually placed calls to other exchanges to arrange the connection of a call. Large city exchanges were using the new switchboard technology that allowed an operator to complete calls by connecting a jack to the appropriate trunk line, eliminating most of the time-consuming labor needed to set up a call.

There is a fascinating section describing the network used to place transatlantic calls. A U.S. originating call used a voice path to Europe routed to Rocky Point, Long Island, where the calls were transferred to a powerful radio system that transmitted the call to Cupar, Scotland. The return voice path took a similar path from Rugby, England to Houlton, Maine.

Within seven years of this pamphlet, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1934, which put some regulatory restraints on the large Bell Telephone monopoly that was gobbling up telephone systems across the country. Looking at telephony from a 1927 perspective shows us a time when telephony was still new and was a wonderment to most people.

Here is a look at all of the books and periodicals from 1927 that are now in the public domain. Here is the Telephone Pamphlet. Pay particular attention to the last section that instructs people how to talk on the telephone.