The following is a reprint of a column passed through the old one Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who died on February 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original post and all images used may not be the same as those accompanying the original post.
Most people assume that Bell entered Wellington County by buying small rural networks one by one. This was not the case.
Bell announced its plans for the area north of Guelph in the summer of 1885. The company had its eye on long distance service. She built a main line from Guelph to Fergus, Arthur, Harriston, Clifford and to Walkerton. There were branches of Fergus in Elora and Arthur in Mount Forest.
Bell was moving at an astonishing speed. The main line was finished and the exchanges were handling calls to the outside world from Fergus, Elora, Mount Forest and Harriston in June 1886. But such speed had characterized everything on the telephone since its invention by Alexander Graham Bell, in the form theoretical, at Brantford in the summer of 1874, less than 12 years earlier.
Bell made the first practical demonstrations of his invention in 1875 and filed for patents at the beginning of 1876. The following year, he undertook the first remote test, between Brantford and Paris. After that, things moved at an incredible speed. Commercial telephone systems were in use in many cities by 1880.
In Canada, Hugh Baker, a Hamilton broker and businessman, established the first stock exchange in 1878 and, a year later, installed the first long distance line to Dundas. Baker helped organize the Bell Telephone Company in 1880. Operating under a federal charter, Bell was well capitalized, initially with US money. With additional share capital, the company became Canadian property within a few years.
Bell management immediately adopted an aggressive strategy, aiming to dominate new technology across Canada. Administrators feared that others would find ways to circumvent Bell’s patents and that telegraph companies would use their vast networks to handle voice as well as Morse-coded messages. Some were already experimenting with voice transmission.
Bell directors saw particular urgency after the two major Canadian telegraph companies, Dominion and Montreal, merged to form the Great North West Telegraph Company in 1880. Their enormous rival had the potential to dominate the telephone industry as well as the telephone industry. telegraph.
In its first few months, Bell Telephone purchased telephone systems from a dozen centers, many of which were so new they barely functioned. One of them was in Guelph. By the end of 1880, Bell had 2,100 subscribers, spread between Windsor and Halifax.
The goal was to chain all these systems together with wire. Technical developments, including the use of drawn copper wire, made it possible to send voice messages clearly a few hundred miles away in the early 1880s.
In larger centers, Bell found that there was only limited interest in telephone service, mostly business-to-business. Few people wanted residential lines: there was no point in having telephone service when there were few numbers to call. Initially, lawyers, railway agents, bank offices, and grain and cattle dealers formed the core of the telephone business.
These were customers who relied heavily on the telegraph and, therefore, were the likely customers of long distance service.
This is the reason why Bell developed long distance lines so aggressively in its first half-dozen years. The company wanted to get its foot in the door before everyone else.
The Guelph district had 53 customers at the end of 1884. A year later, with the interurban lines to Hamilton and Toronto, there were 98.
The line north of Guelph extended service to major markets and manufacturing towns in Wellington County and, more importantly, to Walkerton, the Town of Bruce County and a major grain market. Surprisingly, virtually no record of the details of its construction has survived other than brief summaries.
Evidence suggests that Bell began installing poles in the fall of 1885, both on the main line and in the towns to be served. Elora and Fergus customers connected to their local exchanges in the early months of 1886.
Mount Forest’s first subscribers had their phones at the end of 1885, but could only call each other until the exchange was connected to the long distance line in the second week of May 1886. Local service from Harriston started around the same time as Mount Forest. The entire line from Guelph to Walkerton was in service at the end of June 1886.
Once this line was completed, crews got to work on another line from Harriston to Palmerston and Listowel, connecting to the Bell system in Stratford and providing a second main line to the north.
Some towns in Wellington County had already seen the telephone in one form or another in 1886. This may explain, at least in part, the lack of notice received of the start of Bell service. WHL LaPenotiere, Elora’s postmaster, stretched a line between his home and his office in November 1879.
There are reports of the first four telephone installations in Fergus, but some should be reduced. One seems to have been an example of the old schoolboy trick of using two cans and a learned string between them. Another report by Fergus claims that a line connected a home and an office in 1873, a year before the telephone was invented.
Much more plausible is John Black’s line connection between his grain elevator at the station and his office on Main Street Fergus.
From the evidence available, Bell Telephone took a lip service when it entered central and northern Wellington. There were no lavish opening ceremonies, and no newspaper advertisements. It seems very likely that sellers have approached potential subscribers directly. The company did not intend to make a general call to subscribers, nor to connect to farmers, even those adjacent to its main lines.
The company established its exchanges in shops on the main street, often pharmacies or express offices, with the owner as local manager, and the switchboard open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. These included John O’Brien, the Dominion Express agent in Mount Forest, the Watson bookstore in Harriston, and the Marshall jewelry store in Fergus. In Palmerston, the exchange was at the post office and managed by Postmaster Johnston.
Guelph, with a full-time Bell agent in the Douglas Street office, switched to 24-hour service at the end of 1886. Small towns retained day-only service for years.
There does not appear to be any information on monthly local phone service rates, but the long distance was expensive. The company based its rates on five-minute calls, with distance being a factor. It costs between 25 cents and $ 1 per call, which is 40 or 50 times that amount today. Obviously, the phone at this point was not a workman’s toy.
To secure additional revenue, Bell offered the public the option of making calls from local offices. In addition, Bell took on the telegraph companies by accepting dictated messages, which were transcribed by the operator at the reception desk and hand delivered. This service cost 25 cents for 20 words within a 150 mile radius, a rate that was lower than the telegraph companies until they lowered their rates.
Bell was correct in assuming that Walkerton would provide a lot of business. There were 47 subscribers when the system opened. By the end of 1886 there were 30 in Mount Forest, 17 in Harriston, 11 in Palmerston, 10 in Fergus, and three in Elora.
Three years later, the Elora list had grown to 10 and Fergus to 15, but Harriston had fallen to seven, suggesting the Bell salesperson may have initially convinced customers to sign up who couldn’t justify the cost.
Interestingly, Arthur and Clifford didn’t have offices until several years later, even though the main lines were moving up their main streets. Obviously, Bell did not consider the potential business there to justify the cost of an agent and switchboard.
Bell’s construction of the main main line through Wellington in 1886 was part of a larger construction program that year. The company has built a number of lines in the area between London and Windsor, and has rebuilt and modernized its line from Toronto to Barrie and Owen Sound. By the end of 1887, Bell was serving the majority of towns and villages in southern Ontario.
Over the next 15 years there was not much expansion, neither in new lines nor in subscribers. The system had only 66,000 subscribers in total in Ontario in 1904, including 13,000 in Toronto.
Bell Telephone, after its huge initial capital expenditure, has grown into a very profitable business. There were, however, numerous complaints about the limited hours on switchboards and Bell’s refusal to provide service to small villages and farms, where it could not see immediate profit. For example, Bell opened a Drayton Stock Exchange in 1894, but closed it a year later when results fell short of expectations.
The result was the flourishing of small independent telephone companies in rural areas.
Government regulations of 1902 forced Bell to provide service to customers wherever it had lines. At first, Bell resisted and even sold some of its existing rural lines to independent companies. After 1910, however, the situation became much more competitive. But that’s a story for another time.
The first telephone lines in Wellington, in 1886, may not have had much of an impact on most residents, but they tied local businesses more closely to the provincial and national economy, making it easier to buy and sales and facilitating commercial activity in general.
* This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser January 12, 2001.