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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Valentine's Callers

Many people realize that Wisconsin was a pioneer in electrical invention, offering the first electric power for sale anywhere in the world and pioneering the manufacture of electrical appliances. But few know that Wisconsin residents played key roles in introducing the telephone, too, thanks largely to Richard Valentine of Janesville.

In 1874 Valentine, a telegraph operator in Janesville, went to Chicago to see a man named Elisha Gray, who was experimenting with sending music over wires. On February 14, 1876 -- Valentine's Day -- Gray and Alexander Graham Bell both filed patents for an "electric speaking telephone" but Bell was given rights to the device. Valentine, who'd strung a telegraph wire between his home and his brother's, stuck one of the primitive devices on either end of their telegraph line in 1877 and made the first Wisconsin phone call. Soon the two brothers had 15 more people connected, and so was born the first telephone network in the state.

Valentine's strange idea caught on. At the end of 1877 the Milwaukee City Council leased three of the devices from Alexander Graham Bell's company in order to connect the mayor's office with the police and fire departments. So many people wanted telephones that switchboards were needed to connect everyone together, and Valentine set up the first one in Wisconsin near Dartford, in Green Lake Co., in 1878. In 1879 a demonstration of this remarkable new technology was held for lawmakers in Madison. Lines were strung over buildings and through trees to connect the Capitol with Science Hall on the UW campus, and legislators at one end got to speak with professors at the other. The whole state was properly impressed, and Valentine's eccentric vision swelled into a wave of enthusiasm for the new device.

One of the people who caught that wave was Angus Hibbard, who perhaps did more than any other person to spread wires, switchboards, and connections across Wisconsin. He founded the Wisconsin Telephone Co., which extended wires between cities in the 1880s. Many years later he wrote a long memoir about those early days, when conversations went dead because Indians along the line helped themselves to a bit of copper wire to make jewelry, and first-time users were amazed.

For example, in Wausua in 1881 he demonstrated it to two lumberjacks who were just in front the woods. After connecting with a caller on the other end of the line, he offered the phone to the pair. One of them held it up to his ear, "and said in a gruff unnatural voice, 'Hello!' and then dropped the instrument as if it had been red hot, exclaiming, ' Well, I'll be damned. Come on out of this, Pete! It said, "Hello yourself!" Can you beat that!'" A Swedish immigrant, amazed at the power of Hibbard's technology, blurted out, "By yiminiy, she talks Swedish!"

In Milwaukee Hibbard at first employed telegraph messenger boys to connect callers at the switchboard, but he soon found their streetsmart ways were not well-adapted to polite customer service. Greeted by an unhappy phone customer, "the boys sassed back and telephone exchanges became, in many places, exchanges of loud and lurid language... Boys would be boys and they seemed to have in them some kind of uncontrollable deviltry that made them practically unendurable as telephone operators. They became impossible, they blew up -- and a cry for help arose in the land. At once from here, there, and everywhere came the girls. Almost at once, before we could realize it, the telephone girls were seated at switchboards in all parts of the country, giving such service as had not been thought possible before, smoothing out the difficulties and bringing down blessings on their heads."

Pauline Juneau, who started about 1883 recalled, "Of course the work was very strange to us, but we weren't long in getting on to things ... We were kept busy all day long, as the number of subscribers was constantly on the increase and those subscribers certainly believed in using their telephones! ... There was one customer who told me over the wire to 'keep my shirt on.' Naturally, I had intended to do that anyway, but I was highly insulted and reported the incident..."

From that point onward the number of telephones and callers has grown steadily, until today they are nearly ubiquitous. If he could see sweethearts connecting on their cellphones tomorrow as they cross campuses and sit in parks, Richard Valentine would probably be delighted at the way things turned out.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 12, 2006

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