After weeks of stringing wire from wooden poles, Akron finally answered the call.
The actual wording of that first telephone conversation was not preserved for history, but we can only imagine that it went something like: “Can you hear me? Hello? Is this working? Harrumph.”
There weren’t many paying customers when the Akron Telephonic Exchange began operation Aug. 15, 1879, in a “nicely papered and painted” office in Bennett’s Block at 131 S. Howard St. (later renumbered 31 S. Howard).
The company was incorporated with $5,000 in stock (about $178,500 today) and businessmen Wilson G. Robinson, Arthur L. Conger, Dr. George G. Baker, Ohio C. Barber and Noah Hodge serving as directors. The City Council awarded the company a 10-year franchise.
Oscar E. Madden, superintendent of the America Bell Telephone Co. in Boston, came to Akron to supervise the installation of a Williams switchboard, named for Massachusetts inventor Charles Williams Jr.
The mechanical device had an upright board with “75 enunciators,” an inclined board with six keys and a series of connecting strips. The back of the console was a jumble of exposed wires.
As the Akron Daily Beacon tried to explain: “By the proper manipulation of these keys and the insertion of the wedges, which work on a pulley system, directly under the enunciators, the required connections can be made.”
The cumbersome equipment allowed only six customers to be connected at the same time.
The Akron Telephonic Exchange ordered “a quantity of telegraph poles” and 15 miles of wire for the city of 16,000 residents. Subscribers used wall-mounted telephonic apparatuses and paid 5 cents per call.
The first call was Aug. 15, 1879, between the Daily Beacon and Paige Brothers Hardware Store. Although we don’t know what Editor Thomas Craighead Raynolds said to store owner David R. Paige, we secretly hope he offered to sell him a newspaper subscription.
The historic chat couldn’t have been any more mundane than inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s remark to assistant Thomas A. Watson in his first call in 1876: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”
Bell was a friend of Akron industrialist Benjamin F. Goodrich and gave him two black walnut telephones. Goodrich had a wire strung from his Akron factory to his home on Gimlet Hill at present-day Quaker and Bowery streets to establish the city’s first private line.
Anna Brodt was one of Akron’s first telephone operators, connecting calls as they sporadically arrived.
“My duties were comparatively light,” she joked nearly 50 years later. “All I had to do was to help keep the fire going, handle long distance calls, take cash to the bank, supervise the office and help out on local calls, take the manager’s place at noon, check tickets, make all reports, repair cords, test all lines and make minor repairs. They did not ask me to climb poles.”
By Sept. 1, there were 20 subscribers. By Oct. 1, there were 60. By Dec. 1, there were 80.
Lines were extended to neighboring towns.
Akron had phone service before its neighbor to the north. As the Beacon taunted Sept. 10, 1879: “Cleveland is elated over its proposed Telephonic Exchange. Come down to Akron, neighbor, and see a first class Telephonic Exchange operated by a stock company, owning its own poles and wires, maintaining a central office and doing a brisk business already.”
The Akron office added a night operator for 24-hour service. J.H. Stanford, chief engineer at the fire station, installed a wire to ring a bell that woke up the operator when calls arrived past bedtime.
Before the arrival of 1880, the exchange installed a switchboard from the Gilliland Manufacturing Co. of Indianapolis. The new console resembled a piano keyboard and allowed 400 simultaneous connections, a vast improvement over the original six.
Akron residents enjoyed playing with the new technology.
George G. Baker and his wife, Celia, held a piano, flute and cornet recital in their East Market Street home. A handful of telephone subscribers listened to “finely rendered music,” including the tunes “Home Sweet Home” and “Swanee River.”
The Rev. T.E. Monroe delivered a sermon at First Congregational Church that 13 subscribers overheard, technically making him the first televangelist in Akron history, although certainly not the last.
We assume that the first wrong number and first prank call were made during this time, too. Bored customers called the operator for the correct time or idle chatter.
In its 1880 directory, the exchange admonished subscribers: “Never carry on an unnecessary conversation.”
The Akron company boasted 140 customers, 250 poles, 160 miles of wire and four operators who received 1,400 calls a day.
On the first anniversary of phone service, the Beacon gushed: “Akron is the pioneer among Western cities in the use of the telephone and surpasses many larger places in the East, in the number of subscribers and the general popularity of this great public convenience. Long live and thrive the Akron Telephonic Exchange!”
In 1898, the Central Union Telephone Co., a Bell affiliate, purchased the Akron company, but many customers complained that the new service wasn’t nearly as good as the previous one. The city had grown to about 42,000 people and had 400 telephones.
After the city granted a 25-year franchise to Central Union in 1898, unhappy customers led a revolt. Akron businessmen organized a competing company, the Akron People’s Telephone Co., in 1899 with capital stock of $150,000. Its officers were President Will Christy, Vice President James Christy Jr., Secretary A.B. Conklin and Treasurer J.R. Nutt.
To ensure access to all customers, Akron businesses had to subscribe to both companies and maintain two phone numbers to handle incoming calls. The awkward situation continued until the rival firms consolidated in 1921 under the Ohio Bell Telephone Co.
In 1929, Ohio Bell built an Akron headquarters at Bowery and Quaker streets for its 42,000 local customers. And needless to say, there have been a few advancements in phone technology since then.
Nearly everyone in Akron has a phone today.
As the Beacon noted in 1879: “It seems to spread by contagion, if one takes it, another must have it, and so it goes, for nothing but trial is needed to prove that it is an economy as well as convenience.”
Mark J. Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3850.