CHAPTER IV. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ART

In 1896 there came a most revolutionary change in switchboards. All things were made new. Instead of individual batteries, one at each telephone, a large common battery was installed in the exchange itself. This meant better signalling and better talking. It reduced the cost of batteries and put them in charge of experts. It established uniformity. It introduced the federal idea into the mechanism of a telephone system. Best of all, it saved FOUR SECONDS ON EVERY CALL. The first of these centralizing switchboards was put in place at Philadelphia; and other cities followed suit as fast as they could afford the expense of rebuilding. Since then, there have come some switchboards that are wholly automatic. Few of these have been put into use, for the reason that a switchboard, like a human body, must be semi-automatic only. To give the most efficient service, there will always need to be an expert to stand between it and the public.

As the final result of all these varying changes in switchboards and signals and batteries, there grew up the modern Telephone Exchange. This is the solar plexus of the telephone body. It is the vital spot. It is the home of the switchboard. It is not any one's invention, as the telephone was. It is a growing mechanism that is not yet finished, and may never be; but it has already evolved far enough to be one of the wonders of the electrical world. There is probably no other part of an American city's equipment that is as sensitive and efficient as a telephone exchange.

The idea of the exchange is somewhat older than the idea of the telephone itself. There were communication exchanges before the invention of the telephone. Thomas B. Doolittle had one in Bridgeport, using telegraph instruments Thomas B. A. David had one in Pittsburg, using printing-telegraph machines, which required little skill to operate. And William A. Childs had a third, for lawyers only, in New York, which used dials at first and afterwards printing machines. These little exchanges had set out to do the work that is done to-day by the telephone, and they did it after a fashion, in a most crude and expensive way. They helped to prepare the way for the telephone, by building up small constituencies that were ready for the telephone when it arrived.

Bell himself was perhaps the first to see the future of the telephone exchange. In a letter written to some English capitalists in 1878, he said: "It is possible to connect every man's house, office or factory with a central station, so as to give him direct communication with his neighbors. . . . It is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid underground, or suspended overhead, connecting by branch wires with private dwellings, shops, etc., and uniting them through the main cable with a central office." This remarkable prophecy has now become stale reading, as stale as Darwin's "Origin of Species," or Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations." But at the time that it was written it was a most fanciful dream.

When the first infant exchange for telephone service was born in Boston, in 1877, it was the tiny offspring of a burglar-alarm business operated by E. T. Holmes, a young man whose father had originated the idea of protecting property by electric wires in 1858. Holmes was the first practical man who dared to offer telephone service for sale. He had obtained two telephones, numbers six and seven, the first five having gone to the junk-heap; and he attached these to a wire in his burglar-alarm office. For two weeks his business friends played with the telephones, like boys with a fascinating toy; then Holmes nailed up a new shelf in his office, and on this shelf placed six box-telephones in a row. These could be switched into connection with the burglar-alarm wires and any two of the six wires could be joined by a wire cord. Nothing could have been simpler, but it was the arrival of a new idea in the business world.

The Holmes exchange was on the top floor of a little building, and in almost every other city the first exchange was as near the roof as possible, partly to save rent and partly because most of the wires were strung on roof-tops. As the telephone itself had been born in a cellar, so the exchange was born in a garret. Usually, too, each exchange was an off-shoot of some other wire-using business. It was a medley of makeshifts. Almost every part of its outfit had been made for other uses. In Chicago all calls came in to one boy, who bawled them up a speaking- tube to the operators. In another city a boy received the calls, wrote them on white alleys, and rolled them to the boys at the switchboard. There was no number system. Every one was called by name. Even as late as 1880, when New York boasted fifteen hundred telephones, names were still in use. And as the first telephones were used both as transmitters and receivers, there was usually posted up a rule that was highly important: "Don't Talk with your Ear or Listen with your Mouth."

To describe one of those early telephone exchanges in the silence of a printed page is a wholly impossible thing. Nothing but a language of noise could convey the proper impression. An editor who visited the Chicago exchange in 1879 said of it: "The racket is almost deafening. Boys are rushing madly hither and thither, while others are putting in or taking out pegs from a central framework as if they were lunatics engaged in a game of fox and geese." In the same year E. J. Hall wrote from Buffalo that his exchange with twelve boys had become "a perfect Bedlam." By the clumsy methods of those days, from two to six boys were needed to handle each call. And as there was usually more or less of a cat-and- dog squabble between the boys and the public, with every one yelling at the top of his voice, it may be imagined that a telephone exchange was a loud and frantic place.