The first telephone. Library of Congress

Most people can’t live without their cellphones these days.

But there was a time not all that long ago when talking with someone across town was more akin to a curiosity than a necessity.

“The experiment of 75 years ago has become the necessity of today,” proclaimed the Lewiston Evening Journal in 1951.

Nearly 150 years ago in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received the first U.S. patent for a telephone completely unrecognizable from modern devices. The first phone had two conical-shaped pieces, one to speak into and one to listen.

Following years of work, Bell and his associate, Thomas Watson, held the first ever telephone conversation on the top floor of a boarding house in Boston.

“They were experimenting, as usual, to produce something more than a mere drone or suggestion of human speech,” the Evening Journal noted. “Suddenly, in faint but distinct tones, came the message – the first intelligible words ever transmitted by electricity: “Mr. Watson . . . Come here . . . I want you.”


The two were trying to improve the telegraph, not create the first telephone, said Dave Thompson, the equipment maintenance expert and a tour guide at The Telephone Museum in Ellsworth, Maine.

Cities and businesses were quick to pick up the new technology, and Maine was no different. By 1880, more than 50,000 telephones were in use across the country, including in Lewiston.

Lewiston’s first telephone line was installed in 1877 — a year after Bell and Watson’s breakthrough — to connect the offices of the Lewiston Gas Light Company and the Franklin Company, both located in the Dewitt Hotel block on the corner of Park and Pine streets. Next came a line four-fifths of a mile long from the gas company office to the gas plant on Lincoln Street.

Yet another article by the Lewiston Journal Magazine Section claimed that the first telephones in Lewiston and Auburn were installed in the Maine Central train station.

“There was of course no central office, and one agent could call the attention of the others by rapping on a drum head arrangement made of parchment,” the paper read.

During those early years and for decades to come, the National Bell Telephone Company of Maine was the dominant operator in the state, and its system grew rapidly. In an 1880 ad soliciting subscribers, the company boasted that Lewiston phones would soon connect to Portland.


“Especially here in Maine, the phone was probably the first electrical appliance that people had in their house,” said Josh Zuckerman, also a volunteer at The Telephone Museum. Many households had a telephone before electricity, he said. The phone ran on batteries, which were changed by the telephone company every few months.

But while Lewiston’s phone service was run by Bell Telephone Company, Auburn’s first telephone system was built by an independent company, Eastern Telephone Company. The city granted the company its permit in 1899, according to the Daily Sun.

The first phone systems required operators to manually connect callers to the people they wanted to reach using switchboards. Up until the middle of the 20th century, is was common for multiple households to share a single phone line, meaning only one person could make a phone call at a time. It also meant nosy people could listen in to their neighbors’ telephone calls.

These party lines could have as many as dozens of households on the same line. Each household on a party line had their own unique ring pattern to distinguish who the call was for.

The Bell Telephone Company mostly focused on expanding its services in urban areas, where there was profit to be made. That meant that phone services in rural town were mostly provided by independent companies, some which were family businesses.

This photograph ran in the Lewiston Evening Journal.

Before Bryant Pond’s last-in-the-country hand-crank telephone system was sold and converted to dial in 1983, its two telephone operators worked out of Elden Hathaway’s family home, where the switchboard was located.


But Bryant Pond was the exception. The first phone service in Maine to convert from hand-crank to dial in 1929 was Bristol, according to Thompson. Smaller, independent phone companies like the one in Bristol were quicker to switch to dial than the Bell Telephone Company which preferred operators, according to Thompson.

The Bell Telephone Company felt that operators provided better service, he continued, unlike dial phones that automatically connected people without an intermediary.

They were such a fan of having telephone operators that when the Bell Telephone Company took over Auburn’s phone lines, the company converted the system back from dial phone to a switchboard operator system, Thompson said.

The Bell Telephone Company would later evolve into the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, often known by its initials as AT&T. In 1982, before the company was forced to breakup due to an antitrust suit by the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T was virtually the sole provider of telephones and telephone service throughout the United States. Thompson said the company controlled 93% of U.S. phone lines.

Still, independent telephone companies served a greater geographical area in Maine than AT&T, he added.

In the early days, households served by independent phone companies could typically only make calls within one town, maybe two, Zuckerman said.


“They didn’t expand much further, because they were probably surrounded by Bell territory,” Zuckerman said. “They were only in a rural area that Bell had no interest in being in because it costs too much money to put service in there. They would never recoup back their investment.”

Thompson worked for an independent phone company in Liberty for 27 years after moving to Maine in 1964, at times traveling across the state from Fryeburg to Fort Kent to help fix phone systems.

Phones today look far different than when he worked in the industry.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I understand the logic of the equipment that I worked on. I never really got into the logic of solid state (modern phones).”

Now, he volunteers for The Telephone Museum, keeping its antique phone systems functional. Unlike most museums that bar visitors from touching exhibit, visitors at the Ellsworth Museum – one of the only museums focused solely on telephones in the country – can actually make calls and operate their switchboards.

It’s a reminder of what phones once were, and how far technology has come in the last 150 years.

A 1883 telephone advertisement in the Lewiston Evening Journal.

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