Part 1 - Early Telephone Service

1877 - The First Telephone Line

In 1877, the first telephone line in Atlanta was a private line connecting the Western and Atlantic Freight Depot with Durand's Restaurant in the Union Passenger Station. At each end of the telephone line was a Box Phone.

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The box phone was a wooden box with one hole for both talking and listening. To use it, you had to yell into it, then move your ear close to listen. There was no signaling device like a bell or buzzer to get the person's attention at the other end. People would sometimes tap a pencil against the diaphragm or just yell.

The person on the other end had to be nearby to hear it. This was more like a very crude intercom system than a telephone.

The telephone was a new invention. The Bell Telephone Company had not yet formed and A.G. Bell and his associates were installing these point-to-point private lines around the country. For some of these, the customer's privately owned telegraph line was used for the telephone circuit. In other cases, a telegraph line was leased from Western Union.

1879 - The First Telephone Exchange

In 1879, the first telephone exchange in Atlanta was opened. The company at this time was The National Bell Telephone Company.

The exchange was called The Atlanta Telephonic Exchange. It was located in a single room on the top floor of the Kimball House Hotel on the corner of Wall and Pryor streets. The Kimball House was built in 1870 by Hannibal I. Kimball. 1879_kimballhouse.jpg

The first switchboards in most cities around this time were on the top floor of a building so that the wires could easily be strung out of the building to telephone poles.

The Atlanta Telephonic Exchange probably consisted of a small, single switchboard, like this one, which handled about 25 lines. This was a common design in use at the time. The first switchboards were usually operated by teenage boys. Most of the lines in the Atlanta exchange were shared party lines with 2 or 3 subscribers. So there were over 60 subscribers.

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There were no telephone numbers at first. The operator memorized the names of the subscribers and everybody asked for each other by name. This became impractical as the number of subscribers increased, resulting in the use of telephone numbers. 1881_Telephone_Directory.jpg

By 1882, the company name had become American Bell Telephone Company. Soon after that, Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company was formed.

Over the next 12 years, the telephone office in the Kimball House expanded several times and experienced tragedy on at least two occasions. On August 12, 1883, the hotel caught fire and was completely destroyed. Following reconstruction, the New Kimball House opened with a new switchboard. Several years later, another fire destroyed the switchboard, but the building was saved.

Telephone Sets

1878_butterstamp_phone.gif The telephones connected to The Atlanta Telephonic Exchange consisted of a single handheld piece — used for both talking and listening — and a button for signaling the operator. This phone was known as the Butterstamp Phone because of the resemblance to a butter stamp that was used around this time.

Early Exchanges

In 1884 there were about 370 telephone subscribers served by the Atlanta Telephone Exchange and a telephone exchange also existed in Decatur. A call from Atlanta to Decatur was long distance. The charge was 15 cents for 5 minutes.

As telephone service continued to expand, a larger switchboard with multiple operators was needed. An evolution of switchboard design was happening throughout the Bell System in the United States. Larger switchboards required a coordinated effort between the multiple operators to complete each call. In the New Haven, Connecticut office, for example, there was a system of metal bars running horizontally across the room. One operator would connect the caller to one of these horizontal bars and then shout orders down to another operator, who connected the called subscriber to the same bar. The shouting apparently made it hard to hear customers and resulted in customers having to shout as well.

Around 1887, to solve some of these problems, the "multiple switchboard" was invented. This arrangement repeated each subscriber's line jack multiple times so that it appeared in front of each operator, allowing a single operator to connect a call to any subscriber in the office. Early versions of this system had problems too. For example, it was difficult to tell when a particular line was in use before connecting a call to it.

Hello, Central?

When the operator answered a subscriber's call, at first there was no standard phrase in use and answers varied. "Hello!" was commonly used. Later on, "What Number?" became more common and in some places they answered "Central!".


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Long Distance to the Midwest

On February 2, 1890, the first long distance line to Chicago was completed. It was now possible to call Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh. At this point, there was no long distance service to the Northeast or the West.

1892 - The Pryor Street Central Office "Main"

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After having outgrown the switchboard at the Kimball house and after enduring 2 fires there, Southern Bell constructed a new central office building at 78 South Pryor Street. The new building, completed in 1892, housed Southern Bell Headquarters, Atlanta's "Main" central office, and the Atlanta toll switchboard. Operators on the Atlanta toll switchboard handled long distance calls originating in Atlanta and surrounding communities and calls coming in from distant points and terminating in the Atlanta area.

Around this time, as in other cities around the country, it was determined that the boy operators were rude and that young ladies made much better operators. The operators were sometimes called "telephone girls" or "hello girls".

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Around 1895, the Bell System adopted the standard "Number, Please!" as the appropriate way to answer a switchboard as procedures and practices for telephone operators began to be formalized. Training for telephone operators by the Bell System became a very serious matter. Operators were trained on how to sit and how speak correctly. They were taught to look straight ahead, not to look around the room and not to talk to each other. When talking to customers, operators were only allowed to use a limited set of phrases. Please and Thank You were considered very important. Customers could be very abusive at times. But no matter how rude or insulting a customer was to the operator, she was always required to say Thank You.

Magneto Telephones

When the larger switchboards were introduced around this time, the subscriber telephone sets used were of the magneto type. This gets its name from the magneto generator, operated by a crank on the side of the telephone. The magneto generated the current needed to signal the operator switchboard, even over long rural lines. The early switchboards also had a magneto generator to ring the subscriber. In smaller offices, the operators had to turn a crank. Larger offices had a motor-generator or some other common source of the ringing current.

The early magneto telephones where wall mounted with a separate transmitter and receiver. Batteries were used to supply the electrical current needed for the transmitter. This was known as talk battery. Having the source of current within the telephone was called local battery.

The term talk battery stuck with telephony into the modern age, even after local battery was no longer used.

The "Three Box Phone" consisted of three wooden boxes on the wall with a hand-held receiver, a Blake Transmitter, a magneto crank, and a battery box. To place a call, you turned the crank to ring the operator, then picked up the receiver. The operator would then answer. You gave the operator the name of the party that you wanted and the operator connected you.

At the end of your call you had to signal the operator to disconnect the call. To do this, you had to hang up the receiver and turn the crank to produce a short ring. This was called "Ringing Off".

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1882_battery.jpg A telephone company employee had to visit every telephone to replace the batteries about every six months. The first batteries were wet cells, containing corrosive acid, which would occasionally leak. Later on, dry cells were used.

Number, Pleeyazz!

One of the interesting things that appeared in old movies from the 1930s was telephone operators using exaggerated pronunciation of certain words, supposedly to make them easier to understand over poor quality telephone circuits. The word please was supposed to be pronounced PLEEYAZ, the number 9 was to be pronounced NYUN, and line was LIYUN. Nobody is sure how widespread this was or how long it lasted. It might have been mostly a Hollywood thing.


Overhead Wires

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At first, all telephone lines consisted of individual wires strung down the street on telephone poles. The mass of wires cast a shadow over the streets in many cities during this period. It was several decades before telephone cable was introduced.

1899 - A Second Telephone Company

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In 1899, a second telephone company began service, competing with Southern Bell. The new company was initially called The Atlanta Standard Telephone Company but later dropped "Standard" to become The Atlanta Telephone Company. The new company promised lower rates and better service than Bell. Advertised rates for unlimited service were $36 per year a business line and $24 for a residential line.

Duplicated Service

The two competing companies did not provide interconnecting service. You could only call other customers served by the same company. This forced most retail businesses to have dual service, listing both telephone numbers on their advertising. Some businesses managed to get the same telephone number on both systems. Others had completely different numbers on the two systems.

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An ad for Loftis Plumbing shows that they could be reached on Atlanta Telephone's exchange by asking for number 1184. On Southern Bell's system, they were on the Main office, number 1846. Some businesses, such as Williams Lumber had the same telephone number on both systems. This type of competition was very common during this period in cities throughout the United States and Canada.

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Atlanta Telephone's first central office was opened at 104 Edgewood Avenue.

The Candlestick Phone

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The candlestick phone, also called the "upright" was introduced around this time. This was before the introduction of the one piece handset. For the candlestick transmitter to work properly, you had to hold the phone in an upright position.

The first candlestick phones were introduced when the magneto system was in use. This meant that the phone was connected to a large wooden box called a "subset" which contained the battery, bell, and magneto crank.

The wall mounted, 3 box phones were probably still very common.


Party Lines

Many telephones were on party lines. A party line was an arrangement where you shared the same telephone line with other subscribers. In cities, typically 2 or 4 residences or businesses shared a line. In rural areas, anywhere from 2 to 20 parties sometimes shared the same line, although 10 was the usual limit. All customers on the same line would have the same telephone number plus a letter to identify the individual customer. A person's number might be 357-J.

In most cases, Southern Bell used the letters J and L for two-party lines and J, M, W, and R for four-party lines. Sometimes "-2" was used to identify a party line subscriber. Atlanta Telephone used letters A, B, M, and F. It is unknown today what the significance of these letters were and why they were chosen.

There were a few rural lines connected to the Atlanta exchange. These were lines strung out into remote areas and probably had more parties on them than normal city lines. Southern Bell designated rural lines with a telephone number followed by "R" and the party number.

There were several systems invented for ringing an individual on a party line. The earliest and simplest system was called "coded ringing". Each party had a distinct ringing pattern. For example, one party might be instructed to listen for "two short rings". Everyone on the party line heard the ringing and had to listen for his or her assigned ringing pattern, while ignoring everyone else's. At first, the operator was responsible for generating the ringing codes by flipping the ringing key in the required pattern.

On the first telephone lines, using only a single wire, coded ringing was the only system available. With the two-wire system and later improvements, it was possible to selectively ring an individual party's telephone.

1900 - The North Avenue Central Office "North"

In 1900 Southern Bell opened the North office on North Avenue in what is known as Midtown today. Customers on the north side of town were given "North" numbers. Since there were now two Southern Bell central offices in Atlanta, customers needed to give the operator the name of the office plus the number. So you would say "Main 134, Please" or "North 583L, Please".

In the terminology of the Bell System in North America at the, the term "Exchange" usually referred to an entire city or local calling area. Using this definition, the entire metro Atlanta area would be one exchange. The individual switching centers inside the city such as Main or North were called "Central Offices" or "Offices" but this rule was not always observed by news media. Sometimes even the telephone company was inconsistent.

Common Battery Service

Around the turn of the century, the magneto system with its cranks and batteries was being phased out. By this time, The Bell System had introduced the Common Battery Switchboard. The new system placed the power supply in the central office and eliminated the need for batteries in the subscriber's telephone. The crank was also eliminated. When you wanted to place a call, you would simply pick up the receiver and wait for the operator. When you finished your call, you could just hang up. You no longer had to crank again to signal the operator to drop the connection.

The standard telephone instrument was still the candlestick phone, which still required a subset. The subset contained the ringer and an induction coil. But the crank and batteries were no longer required and the subset could be mounted on the wall and out of the way.

After the invention of the common battery system, magnetos were phased out in most cities but continued to be used for many decades in rural areas.

1905 - The Ashby Street Central Office "West" and the East Point Office

In 1905, Southern Bell opened an additional central office on Ashby Street. Sometime between 1902 and 1905, the East Point office was opened.

Also around 1905, calls between Atlanta and Decatur became local calls and Decatur became part of the Atlanta Exchange.

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There were now 5 central offices in the Southern Bell Atlanta Exchange.

Atlanta Telephone Company had central offices in mostly the same places as Southern Bell's and served the same general areas.

Atlanta Telephone Company 75 Edgewood Avenue Central Office

In 1905, Atlanta Telephone's main central office was moved to a bigger building at 75 Edgewood Avenue and the company's name was changed from The Atlanta Standard Telephone Company to Atlanta Telephone and Telegraph Company.

Atlanta Telephone Company Growth

By 1909, Southern Bell and Atlanta Telephone had several thousand customers each. The Atlanta Telephone Company now served more customers than Southern Bell but there is very little known about the service they provided. It is not known what type of telephones and switchboards they used and whether or not customers were generally happy with the service or not.

By 1915, Atlanta Telephone provided long distance service to Forest Park, Hapeville, and Mountainview. The toll charge was 15 cents for each 5-minute interval. Due to a lack of interconnection between independent companies like Atlanta Telephone and AT&T, you would not have been able to call beyond this area on their system.

In most cities where an independent telephone company like Atlanta Telephone provided competing local telephone service, the split was generally along social class lines. The less affluent people tended to have the less expensive service, provided by the independent company. The social elite tended to have Southern Bell service.

Southern Bell had a significant competitive advantage, being part of the Bell System. The Bell System included the regional Bell operating companies and AT&T Long Lines, which was building an extensive long distance network in the U.S.

1908 - The Auburn Avenue Central Office "Ivy"

On the night of April 11, 1908, Southern Bell opened the new Ivy office at 25 Auburn Avenue. On its first day of operation, the office took over serving the north part of downtown, replacing the North office. Telephone numbers continued to be called "North" at first. So customers did not even need to be aware of the change.

The new switchboard had 14 sections and initial capacity for 4,000 subscribers with capability for growth up to 13,000 subscribers.

The second cutover occurred on the night of Jun 28, when many additional customers were transferred from the Main office to the new Ivy office. This cutover coincided with a new telephone directory and the office name "Ivy" was officially introduced. All customers north of Ellis Street now became part of Ivy. The name "North" was no longer used.

Around the same time, Southern Bell company headquarters were moved from 78 South Pryor to 56 Marietta Street, leaving the Main central office and the Atlanta Toll board in the South Prior building.

1917 - The Crescent Avenue Central Office "Hemlock"

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In 1917, Southern Bell opened the new Hemlock Office on Crescent Avenue at Tenth Street in Midtown. When it was finally removed from service in 1951, the Hemlock office ended up being Atlanta's longest-lasting manual office.

The Hemlock office would have had the latest technology available in 1917. At this point this would have been the Divided Multiple Switchboard using "Straightforward Operation" Using this system, you gave the "A" operator the name of the office and the number you wanted. The "A" operator the plugged in to a trunk to the office desired and passed the number to the "B" operator over the trunk itself.

The new switchboard equipment also had automatic listening and automating ringing. This allowed "B" operators to handle calls faster. The equipment connected the "B" operator to the calling "A" operator automatically (automatic listening). When the "B" Operator plugged in to a customer line to ring it, the equipment rang the line automatically, returning an audible sound to the calling party (automatic ringing). If the called line was busy, the "B" operator plugged the cord into a special jack that returned a busy signal to the caller.

The Divided-Multiple Switchboard

In the first few years of manual telephone service, a single operator could answer all of the calls in the central office and make the necessary connections. Then, in the late 1880s, the "Multiple Switchboard" was invented which allowed multiple operators to answer customer lines and complete calls. Then in the early 1900s, the "Divided-Multiple Switchboard" was placed into service.

Lines connecting one central office to another are called trunks.

The Divided-Multiple System split the handling of every call into two parts, requiring two operators, "A" and "B". The "A" operator had a limited number of customers appearing on the switchboard in front of her and was responsible for handling outgoing calls from those customers. The "B" operator handled incoming calls to a group of customers. Trunks within the same building or other buildings in the city, connected "A" operators to "B" operators.

When you picked up your phone to make a call, the "A" operator answered "Number, Please!". You gave the "A" operator the office name and number that you wanted. The "A" operator then pressed a key connecting her to a "Call Circuit", sort of like an intercom, to communicate with a "B" operator who had the called number appearing on her switchboard. The "A" operator repeated the number to the "B" operator, who then told the "A" operator which trunk to use and rang the called line. If the line was busy, the "B" operator notified the "A" operator who then told you that the line was busy. Ringing of the called line required the operator to manually throw a ringing keyswitch for each ring. For a party line, the operator would have to operate the key in the required pattern.

Around 1915, an improved version of this was introduced, called "Straightforward Operation". With this, the Call Circuit was eliminated. The "A" operator had a large number of trunk jacks going to various offices and "B" operators in town. She found an idle trunk to the destination office or switchboard and plugged in. A "B" operator would be automatically connected. The "A" operator could then verbally pass the number to the "B" operator over the actual trunk circuit. The further addition of "Automatic Ringing" meant the the "B" operator did not have to repeatedly operating the ringing key to ring the called subscriber.

It is likely that the Ivy Office would have been built as a Divided Multiple switchboard with Call Circuit operation. By the time Hemlock was built, the improved version would have been used.

1919 - The End of Competition

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In 1919, Southern Bell bought out The Atlanta Telephone Company, bringing an end to competition and creating a single network for the entire city.

Businesses with dual service could now drop the extra expense of two telephones and everyone could now call everyone else. If you had dual service from both companies, you could simply drop your Atlanta Telephone line and save the added cost.

By the end of 1920, Southern Bell had moved any remaining customers of the former Atlanta Telephone Company to its own Main and Ivy central offices and closed the old Atlanta Telephone central office on Edgewood Avenue. It is doubtful that Southern Bell would have provided customers of Atlanta Telephone with service at the same price. So some residential customers may have chosen to disconnect their telephone service.

At some point, a second office name "Huntley" was added to the Ivy office. This might have been part of the same switchboard and added when the number of Ivy subscribers exceeded 10,000. This could have been done to accommodate some of the additional subscribers transferred from Atlanta Telephone Company.

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Note: There was no Walnut office yet. West was probably now called Franklin

In 1921, there were 6 central offices in the Atlanta area.

The "Belmont" Central Office

Around 1922, the new Belmont office was opened on the Northwest side. This office may have originally been the Atlanta Telephone Company's Chattahoochee office. This was the last manual office to be built. The age of dial service was about to begin.


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