CHAPTER IV. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ART

Several years before the telephone got a switchboard of its own, it made use of the boards that had been designed for the telegraph. These were as simple as wheelbarrows, and became absurdly inadequate as soon as the telephone business began to grow. Then there came adaptations by the dozen. Every telephone manager became by compulsion an inventor. There was no source of information and each exchange did the best it could. Hundreds of patents were taken out. And by 1884 there had come to be a fairly definite idea of what a telephone switchboard ought to be.

The one man who did most to create the switchboard, who has been its devotee for more than thirty years, is a certain modest and little known inventor, still alive and busy, named Charles E. Scribner. Of the nine thousand switchboard patents, Scribner holds six hundred or more. Ever since 1878, when he devised the first "jackknife switch," Scribner has been the wizard of the switchboard. It was he who saw most clearly its requirements. Hundreds of others have helped, but Scribner was the one man who persevered, who never asked for an easier job, and who in the end became the master of his craft.

It may go far to explain the peculiar genius of Scribner to say that he was born in 1858, in the year of the laying of the Atlantic Cable; and that his mother was at the time profoundly interested in the work and anxious for its success. His father was a judge in Toledo; but young Scribner showed no aptitude for the tangles of the law. He preferred the tangles of wire and system in miniature, which he and several other boys had built and learned to operate. These boys had a benefactor in an old bachelor named Thomas Bond. He had no special interest in telegraphy. He was a dealer in hides. But he was attracted by the cleverness of the boys and gave them money to buy more wires and more batteries. One day he noticed an invention of young Scribner's - a telegraph repeater.

"This may make your fortune," he said, "but no mechanic in Toledo can make a proper model of it for you. You must go to Chicago, where telegraphic apparatus is made." The boy gladly took his advice and went to the Western Electric factory in Chicago. Here he accidentally met Enos M. Barton, the head of the factory. Barton noted that the boy was a genius and offered him a job, which he accepted and has held ever since. Such is the story of the entrance of Charles E. Scribner into the telephone business, where he has been well-nigh indispensable.

His monumental work has been the development of the MULTIPLE Switchboard, a much more brain-twisting problem than the building of the Pyramids or the digging of the Panama Canal. The earlier types of switchboard had become too cumbersome by 1885. They were well enough for five hundred wires but not for five thousand. In some exchanges as many as half a dozen operators were necessary to handle a single call; and the clamor and confusion were becoming unbearable. Some handier and quieter way had to be devised, and thus arose the Multiple board. The first crude idea of such a way had sprung to life in the brain of a Chicago man named L. B. Firman, in 1879; but he became a farmer and forsook his invention in its infancy.

In the Multiple board, as it grew up under the hands of Scribner, the outgoing wires are duplicated so as to be within reach of every operator. A local call can thus be answered at once by the operator who receives it; and any operator who is overwhelmed by a sudden rush of business can be helped by her companions. Every wire that comes into the board is tasselled out into many ends, and by means of a "busy test," invented by Scribner, only one of these ends can be put into use at a time. The normal limit of such a board is ten thousand wires, and will always remain so, unless a race of long-armed giantesses should appear, who would be able to reach over a greater expanse of board. At present, a business of more than ten thousand lines means a second exchange.

The Multiple board was enormously expensive. It grew more and more elaborate until it cost one-third of a million dollars. The telephone men racked their brains to produce something cheaper to take its place, and they failed. The Multiple boards swallowed up capital as a desert swallows water, but THEY SAVED TEN SECONDS ON EVERY CALL. This was an unanswerable argument in their favor, and by 1887 twenty- one of them were in use.

Since then, the switchboard has had three or four rebuildings. There has seemed to be no limit to the demands of the public or the fertility of Scribner's brain. Persistent changes were made in the system of signalling. The first signal, used by Bell and Watson, was a tap on the diaphragm with the finger-nail. Soon after- wards came a "buzzer," and then the magneto- electric bell. In 1887 Joseph O'Connell, of Chicago, conceived of the use of tiny electric lights as signals, a brilliant idea, as an electric light makes no noise and can be seen either by night or by day. In 1901, J. J. Carty invented the "bridging bell," a way to put four houses on a single wire, with a different signal for each house. This idea made the "party line" practicable, and at once created a boom in the use of the telephone by enterprising farmers.