Friday, June 9, 2023

Early telephone service dazzles Raymond residents

By Ernest H. Knight

Communication by wire has come a long way since the invention of the telegraph by Samuel F.B. Morse and the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, even though some time after those and other inventions had changed society the then-head of the Bureau of Patents in Washington recommended that the agency be abolished as everything that could be invented had already been accomplished. But even now more than a century and a half later, our telephone system is still offering new gimmicks of expanded equipment and wireless service.

The Raymond & Webb's Mills Telephone Company
was created in the late 19th century and each customer
was issued a wall phone like this one with their
own number, usually a combination of one number
for the line they were on. COURTESY PHOTO
More than a century ago in the late 19th century, the telephone came to Raymond and Casco even though there was no electricity for lights and motors for another decade or more.

The Raymond & Webb’s Mills Telephone Company, soon to become the Webb’s Mills Exchange of the Poland Telephone Company, improved somewhat on the communications at Squawk Hill, a suburb of Webb’s Mills, where a few residents started the day with a shouted message which resounded in the hills and valleys to be answered in kind by neighbors.

But the reassuring sound of another voice in the clear morning air was superior to the scratchy sound coming from a receiver clapped against the ear, mingled with the sounds of babies crying and doors slamming.

The first telephone lines were run along roads and across fields by those who wanted the newfangled gadget to connect into the exchange at Webb’s Mills where they could be connected to whomever they desired.

Every customer had their own number, a combination of one number for the line they were on, followed by a dash if written or a pause of being rung and then the particular number on that line for the individual. A single long ring would get the exchange.

As each ring was by a crank that turned a magneto to send the signal over the wire to all receivers on the line, the lower digits were used first up to five or six at the most to minimize the ringing, and then double digits using the 1s, 2s and 3s.

This meant a lot of jangling of bells along the line which only the number was supposed to answer. In practice almost every receiver was lifted to listen anyway but a hand, held discreetly over the mouthpiece, might fool the talkers into thinking they had secrecy.

But when waiting for the recipient to answer, a series of random clicks indicated others were preparing to listen. Too many open receivers diminished the loudness, but an angry complaint could persuade some to hang up.

To call someone on another line the extension was relayed at the exchange.

Every line had its own pair of wires, strung on insulators attached to poles or trees. As customers increased and the lines were taken over by companies seeing business opportunities, wires were combined on company poles resulting in eventually seeing some roads being festooned with wires, each pole having multiple cross arms, each arm with multiple pairs of wires attached to glass insulators.

Eventually for the Patent Office, not having gone out of business for lack of work, developments permitted single wires to carry multiple conversations, wires were combined into cables and on and on through the amazing services we enjoy today.

But there is one nostalgic thing from that era, along with a lot of useful improvements, that came to be known as the music from the singing wires.

A small or large number of telephone wires gave a steady humming sound, varying only in intensity, somewhat like that of a distant horde of locusts though of a higher pitch, most pronounced when heard close to the pole, which acted as a sounding board. As in a well-known painting of the Frederick Remington type showing a vast expanse of western prairie with a line of poles stretching off into infinity, a trio of blanketed Indians standing by the pole with their ears close to it, probably wondering at the significance of the “Singing Wires,” the title of the painting. <

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646.

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