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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Madison's Most Important Phone Call

Richard Valentine, a telegraph operator in Janesville, went to Chicago in 1874 to see a man named Elisha Gray, who was experimenting with sending music over wires. He came back and strung a telegraph wire between his home and his brother's, stuck one of Gray's primitive devices on either end, and made the first Wisconsin phone call. Soon the two brothers had 15 more Janesville 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 to connect the mayor's office with the police and fire departments. Soon 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.

The first private phones in Madison were installed in 1878, showing legislators that something important was happening around them. In 1879 a demonstration of the remarkable new technology was held in the city to persuade lawmakers of the usefulness of this new medium. 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. They were so enthused that the press later reported they "Talked all night" (obviously the Capitol and the University got along better at the time than they have recently).

Legislators across the whole state were properly impressed, and Valentine's eccentric vision swelled into a wave of enthusiasm for the new device. To learn how phone service spread all around the state, see more Wisconsin telephone history elsewhere at

:: Posted in Madison on April 9, 2006

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