Apparently, back in the days of the Homestead Act (1862) people used barbed wire fences to protect their land. Someone figured out that if you connected two telephones to said wires you could talk with one another.
But, let me back up a bit… Bell invented the telephone in 1876 and held the patent rights for 17 years. As the Bell Telephone System evolved, they focused mainly on serving the urban areas because that was where it made the most business sense. Once his patents expired, thousands of Independent Telephone Companies started up to serve the rural areas of the country. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward even got in on the act by selling telephone sets. Although the Independents filled the rural gap that the Bell System hadn’t served, the farmers – particularly those living in the vast expanse of the Midwest – were still without telephone service. Enter the barbed wire solution. Telephone sets were connected to the top wire of the barbed wire fence enabling people to talk to one another.
According to Verhelst’s article, the system was not without its downfalls:
- One of the bulls or cows could get through the fence, cut the wire and so the phone connection got broken.
- A thunderstorm could generate glitches on the line, which led to unwanted tinkling of the phone bells.
- A big enemy was a heavy rain that soaked both the ground and the fence posts; it grounded the entire system and rendered it unusable until the posts dried out.
The latter issue was what prompted the use of insulators. All sorts of items were used as insulators, from leather straps to snuff bottles, corncobs to discarded beer, whiskey and wine bottles. Holes were drilled into the pegs and the “glass insulators” were nailed to the fence posts and then the telephone wires were strung. The insulators were used to suspend the wire which improved the telephone transmissions.
Another story that Verhelst shared, and one that I had heard Dick tell in the past, was about how the barbed wire party lines became the main communication source for the isolated farmers:
A witness told about Sunday evenings after supper when families gathered around the telephone for their once-a-week entertainment. People sang, read poetry, told tall tales, and shared the news. Picnics, hayrides and dances were planned and arrangements were made. At the end of the social hour, a favorite song was sung by all: Good Night Ladies, Good Night Gentlemen.
Through the years, these systems grew larger, taking in farms in a wider radius. Eventually thousands of rural telephone cooperatives were created, some of which are still in existence today – with more up-to-date technology, of course!
I always find it fascinating to learn how we have gotten to where we are today – whether it’s communications-related or otherwise. Every invention was born out of necessity. Thankfully, there are people in this world who, when confronted with a problem or challenge, take the initiative and come up with a workable solution.
The article referenced here is quite lengthy, but if you are interested in reading it in its entirety, let me know and I would be glad to send you a copy!
Laura French, Executive Director, The New Hampshire Telephone Museum