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Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

TELEGRAPHY AND TELEPHONES

TELEGRAPHY AND TELEPHONES

TELEGRAPHY AND TELEPHONES. Cleveland's connection to the rest of the U.S. by telegraph line was a communications breakthrough essential to the city's commercial and industrial development. During critical years in the formation of the U.S. telegraph industry, pivotal officials resided in Cleveland. Arriving in Cleveland 3 decades after the telegraph, the telephone further altered the way Clevelanders conducted business and social intercourse. Cleveland's first telegraph line began operation between Cleveland and Pittsburgh in Aug. 1847, 3 years after Samuel F. B. Morse completed the first American line, connecting Baltimore with Washington. The Lake Erie Line, a T-shaped circuit extending from Buffalo via Cleveland to Detroit and from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, was in full operation by spring 1848. It was built by the Lake Erie Telegraph Co. as part of Henry O'Rielly's Atlantic, Lake & Mississippi Telegraph system. By summer 1848, the Lake Erie Line faced competition from the Erie & Michigan Telegraph Line extending from Buffalo to Milwaukee through Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. John J. Speed and Ezra Cornell built the line under contract to F. O. J. Smith. Speed, in turn, subcontracted parts of the line to JEPTHA H. WADE. The telegraph, called the magnetic telegraph or lightning line, was hailed as a communications breakthrough. Its most important service was to convey news, especially business news such as stock market quotations, and political news such as election returns. But in the beginning, expectations were disappointed by poor service. Like most early telegraph lines, the Lake Erie and Erie & Michigan lines were built hastily, using cheap materials and poor insulators. The telegraph columns of the newspapers frequently contained apologies instead of the latest news.

Soon after completing his section of the Erie & Michigan telegraph, Jeptha Wade organized a connecting line between Cleveland and Cincinnati, in operation by 1 Jan. 1850. Telegraph lines proliferated in Ohio as in the rest of the U.S.; by 1852 14 companies operated 3,210 mi. of telegraph wire in Ohio. There was too little business, however, to support all the rival companies. Speed, Wade, and Cornell were among the first to see the need for consolidation. The western section of the system they created appeared in the 1853 Cleveland city directory as the Speed & Wade Telegraph Lines, consisting of the Erie & Michigan, along with 4 other telegraph companies. Lake Erie Telegraph was by then part of the Natl. Telegraph Co. system. House's Printing Telegraph, a third party, arrived in Cleveland in 1851 under the auspices of the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Co., operating a line from New York to St. Louis. In Mar. 1854 the New York & Mississippi Valley Co. gained control of Lake Erie Telegraph. A month later they bought out Speed and Wade's interests in the Cornell-Speed-Wade system. Ezra Cornell held out until Nov. 1855, when the Erie & Michigan merged with the New York & Mississippi Valley. In spring 1856, the company was reincorporated as the Western Union Telegraph Co. Although Western Union headquarters were in Rochester, ANSON STAGER, general superintendent for the company, and Jeptha Wade, general agent or negotiator, relocated to Cleveland. Western Union dominated telegraphy in the West and until 1864 was the only telegraph company serving Cleveland.

During the 1850s and 1860s, Stager and Wade negotiated contracts between Western Union and the railroads. Telegraphic train dispatching, attempted first in 1851, gradually came into general use during the next 10 years. The railroads came to rely on the telegraph for speed and safety. The telegraph companies, in turn, gained rights-of-way and other benefits through contracts with the railroads. During the Civil War, Anson Stager was appointed military superintendent of all telegraph lines and offices in the North. He continued to serve simultaneously as general superintendent of Western Union, and before the war's end he left Washington for Cleveland, where he performed both duties. As president of Western Union in 1866 and 1867, Wade negotiated its merger with its 2 main rivals, the U.S. Telegraph Co. and the American Telegraph Co. Both Wade and Stager encouraged inventor Elisha Gray's experiments in telegraphy, giving him work space in Western Union's Cleveland repair shop. In 1869 Stager loaned Gray money to establish the telegraphic instrument-manufacturing firm of Gray & Barton, forerunner of WESTERN ELECTRIC. Gray & Barton moved to Chicago in 1870; Gray later became Alexander Graham Bell's chief rival claimant as inventor of the telephone.

Local telegraph systems began to appear in Cleveland during the late 1860s. By 1869 Cleveland's first fire-alarm telegraph system was in operation. District telegraph companies were organized during the 1870s to send messages within the Cleveland metropolitan area. Subscribers to the American District Telegraph Co. (ADT), organized in Cleveland in 1876, could signal the central station for police, fire, a messenger, a physician, or even a carriage. In June 1877, just 1 year after Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Cleveland's first telephone was installed between the yard and office of Rhodes & Co. coal dealers on Water (W. 9th) St. More private lines followed, but telephone service in Cleveland properly begins with the first telephone exchange, opened 15 Sept. 1879 by the Western Union Telegraph Co. In Nov. 1879 Western Union, in an agreement with Bell Telephone, withdrew from the telephone business, and the Cleveland exchange was sold to a local group with a Bell license. The Cleveland Telephone Co., incorporated in Jan. 1880, was the only successful local telephone company in Cleveland until the 1890s.

The introduction of the telephone posed little threat to the telegraph, generating far less excitement than the introduction of the telegraph 30 years earlier. Well into the 20th century, the telegraph remained more popular than the telephone for long-distance use and continued to dominate the news business. Cleveland was served by Western Union and a variety of competitors. Meanwhile, the telephone gradually gained popularity for local communication. The 76 local subscribers of Sept. 1879 grew by 1890 to 2,979 telephone subscribers in Cleveland, a city with a population over 261,000. The great majority of subscribers during this period were businesses, as telephone service was expensive: $72 per year for a business, $60 for a residence in 1885. At pay stations (there were 5 in 1881), the cost was 10 cents for a call of 5 minutes or less, except at the Newburgh station, where the cost was 20 cents. Technical problems encountered by the first subscribers included irregular ringing of the phone when the subscriber was not wanted, failure to get a response from the central office or from a subscriber, interruption of a conversation, and difficulty in hearing. The Midland Telephone Co., a Chicago-based Bell organization, brought Cleveland its first long-distance telephone line in 1883, connecting the city with Youngstown. That same year Midland was taken over by the Central Union Telephone Co., also based in Chicago and organized to develop Bell telephone service in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Central Union operated long-distance lines in cooperation with Cleveland Telephone's local lines. By 1893 the long-distance lines of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. reached Ohio, and Clevelanders, in theory, could telephone cities on the East Coast. Actually, long-distance service remained unreliable until the late 1890s, when metallic 2-wire circuits were introduced in Cleveland. Even after that, the vast majority of telephone calls were local (approx. 98% in 1905), with the telegraph still used for long distances.

When the Bell patents expired in 1893 and 1894, competing telephone companies appeared throughout the U.S. The Home Telephone Co. was organized in Cleveland in 1895, then reorganized as the Cuyahoga Telephone Co. in 1898. By the end of 1904, Cuyahoga Telephone was serving 12,194 subscribers with 13,711 phones, while Cleveland Telephone was serving 14,442 subscribers with 18,688 phones. Cuyahoga Telephone's low rates encouraged more people to lease telephones and forced Cleveland Telephone to lower its rates as well. As a result, by 1905 approx. 1 in 14 Clevelanders had a telephone, and the number was growing rapidly. Through Cuyahoga Telephone, in cooperation with the independent U.S. Telephone Co., Clevelanders could telephone many cities and towns in Ohio that were neglected by the Bell companies. The existence of 2 separate phone companies, however, meant that subscribers to Cleveland Telephone could not telephone Cuyahoga Telephone subscribers. Businesses had to subscribe to both companies until 1910, when the two began to exchange services.

In 1914 Cuyahoga Telephone and U.S. Telephone became part of the Columbus-based Ohio State Telephone Co., the largest independent telephone company in the U.S. In 1920 Cleveland Telephone became the Ohio Bell Telephone Co. and purchased the Ohio property of the Central Union Telephone Co. In 1921 Ohio State Telephone merged with Ohio Bell. Over the next 4 years, Ohio Bell, based in Cleveland, unified telephone service throughout the state. In 1927 Ohio Bell began introducing dial telephones in Cleveland. Although telephone use declined early in the Depression, recovery during the late 1930s brought the total for Greater Cleveland up to 199,400 subscribers with 296,400 phones by 1940. By 1942 all of Greater Cleveland was converted to dial telephone service, entailing the elimination of 4-party lines. In 1954 direct long-distance dialing was introduced to the Cleveland area in Willoughby. All-number identification (ANI) was completed in the 1960s, consigning such long-familiar local exchange names as ACademy, BRoadway, MOntrose, and SWeetbriar to the annals of nostalgia. Post-World War II growth in telephone use can be seen in the increase in the number of telephones in Ohio Bell's Cleveland service area, from 590,629 in 1950 to 1,478,418 in 1980. Following divestiture of AT&T on 1 Jan. 1984, Ohio Bell became part of the Chicago-based AMERITECH CORP. After restructuring based on marketplace definitions rather than geographical boundaries, it began servicing customers under the Ameritech name in Sept. 1993.

Jane Busch