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INQUIRY IDEA G- FROM CRANK START TO CELL PHONE!

Consult these excerpts linked to the Web activity Inquiry Idea G "From crank start to cell phone!."

  1. What concerns were raised about the telephone at the time of its invention?
  2. To what was telephone research linked?
  3. What was telephone service like in the 1880s?
  4. What was the common battery system?
  5. Was there more than one telephone company at the start of the 20th century?
  6. What was the penetration rate of the telephone in Canada at the start of the 20th century?
  7. Why were most switchboard operators women?
  8. Who was employed as switchboard operators at the start of the 20th century? How were switchboard operators regarded?
  9. How did the telephone industry’s first trade union disputes erupt?
  10. How much were switchboard operators paid at the turn of the 20th century?
  11. In the telephone industry at the start of the 20th century, how did working conditions differ for men and women?

 54) What concerns were raised about the telephone at the time of its invention?

“When the telephone came into being, there where doubts about how long the technology would last. Who would dream of making orders on an instrument that left no written records? Business management and government administration – in short, serious matters – were expressed in writing and, if possible, printed…

“On top of that, aside from scientific curiosity, of what use was the telephone?”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 43.

 55) To what was telephone research linked?

“As it had been for the telegraph, research on the telephone was linked to advances in research on electricity, which had begun in the early nineteenth century.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 45.

 56) What was telephone service like in the 1880s?

“In the 1880s, using the telephone was not simply a matter of picking up a receiver. First, one had to check that the carbon microphone contacts had recently been sanded and adjusted. Then, one had carefully to attach the ammonia battery. Here too it was necessary to check whether the battery had to be renewed, which was a delicate operation since one had to take care that no liquid spilled. Besides, it smelled terrible and could burn holes in the carpet. Then one had to crank the magneto crank to warn the operators at the exchange that one was on the line.

“The weather was also important, since both the single wire that routed the communication and the insulators had to be dry. If there was an active telegraph or electrical wire nearby, all telephone conversations became inaudible. The receiver was the only relatively reliable element of the system. In short, the telephone required constant maintenance, which helped to limit its use to offices, where employees could take care of it, and kept it out of the homes of all but a few innovative – and wealthy – handymen.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 71-72.

 57) What was the common battery system?

“Of the many improvements that trace the history of the switchboard, the introduction of the common battery system at the start of the 1890s was by far the most important. […] In the beginning, each telephone provided its own electric current. Telephone company technicians had to make numerous client calls to service the batteries that fed direct current into the transmitters and generators which, in turn, made the first telephones ring. Moreover, as these batteries were filled with acid, even the slightest damage sometimes resulted in leaks and led to serious problems, including burns. The common battery system eliminated these problems by producing the two types of current required by telephones from a central office.

 […]

“The first-ever common battery switchboard went into service in Lexington, Maine, in 1893. At the time of its Canadian debut in Ottawa in 1900, the new technique represented a big step forward in terms of manageability. Large telephone frames built to hold a battery and generator became obsolete and the first office telephones were introduced. These telephones had a tower-shaped frame with a fixed transmitter and mobile receiver at the end of a cord. In North America, it would be another 20 years before hand-held telephones were available to the general public.” [transl.]

Rens, Jean-Guy. L’empire invisible. Histoire des télécommunications au Canada de 1846 à 1956, Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1993, p. 213, 219, 215.

 58) Was there more than one telephone company at the start of the 20th century?

“Many private and municipal phone companies came into being more or less haphazardly. At first their status was uncertain: should they be considered competition for Bell Telephone or independent companies exercising a monopoly on their territory, as Bell did on its own? Until the great public debate of 1905 on the telephone industry in Canada, Bell Telephone saw independent companies as competition, refused to interconnect their local system to its long-distance network, and attempted to buy them out the moment they ran into financial difficulties.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 88.

 59) What was the penetration rate of the telephone in Canada at the start of the 20th century?

 “Telephone penetration rate in Canada by province

(number of telephones per 100 Canadian residents)

 Province year 1901* 1910** 1915**
Newfoundland - - -
P.E.I - 1.1% 2.5%
Nova Scotia 0.8% 2.6% 4.6%
New Brunswick 0.8% 2.9% 5.1%
QC 1.0% 2.6% 4.7%
Ont. 1.1% 5.4% 9.8%
Man. - 7.4% 10.4%
Sask. - 1.6% 6.5%
Alb. - 2.7% 9.4%
B.C 1.6% 5.0% 11.2%
Canada 1.2% 3.9% 7.6%

*Proceedings of the Select Committee on Telephone Systems, King’s Printer, S.E. Dawson, Ottawa, 1905, 2 volumes (1047 pages et 817 pages). Cf. vol. 1, p. 8.

**Estimated from Bell Canada data (BCA 34 564) and Statistics Canada.

***Telephone Stations, Dominion of Canada, Dec 31, 1915, L.B. McFarlane, BCA 34564.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 169.

 60) Why were most switchboard operators women?

“Unlike telegraphy, telephony required no technical skill on the part of the operators, so the companies fired the technician-operators and hired new apprentices. But because of rising unionism, this solution did not hold. A strike organized by the Knights of Labor in 1883 in the neighbouring telegraph industry seems, while unmentioned, to have been the main impetus behind feminization of the job of telephone operator. In fact, until the 1920s when the first automatic exchanges were introduced, operators held the entire network in their hands. A work stoppage by operators would instantly paralyse the system, while the impact of a strike by technicians would take longer to make itself felt.

“After the telegraph strike, the telephone companies rationalized the telephone operator job: the function of maintaining installations was separated from the operator function. To be a telephone operator was simply to operate the switchboard, which allowed apprentices to be replaced with non-unionized women. The unions accused the women of “stealing jobs” from men and refused to organize them. Very quickly, the telephone companies abandoned male labour, both teenage and adult, and opted for women’s work.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 150.

 61) Who was employed as switchboard operators at the start of the 20th century? How were switchboard operators regarded?

“At the turn of the century, most telephone operators were young women aged seventeen to twenty-five who were working until they got married. Their temporary status explained the low regard in which they were held by their employers – and by the unions. The salary was clearly insufficient for the almost half of all operators who had to pay their own way. For them, the only way to survive was to work overtime, take on a second job, or find a “sugar daddy”…

“In spite of all of this, the job of operator was very much sought after since, for young working-class women, it offered a rare opportunity to elevate their social status. The first operators benefited from their association with the prestige of a still slightly mysterious  telephone technology, and the public treated them with as much deference as it did teachers…

“The telephone companies thus had no problem finding and replacing operators.

“Under such conditions, it is not surprising that labour demand in the telephone industry came from linemen and not operators, even though the former were earning twice as much as the latter.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 152.

 62) How did the telephone industry’s first trade union disputes erupt?

“Social issues exploded in the telephone industry at the very moment when populist agitation was at its greatest. The first organized strike in the Canadian telephone industry took place in Vancouver, when the New Westminster and Burrard Inlet Telephone Company required linemen to purchase their own work tools. In September 1902 the linemen walked out. Against all expectations, management gave in to their demands, agreeing to pay for their work tools and recognizing the union.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 153.

 63) How much were switchboard operators paid at the turn of the 20th century?

“At the turn of the century, the work day at Bell Telephone was ten hours long for technicians and eight hours long for operators, and the work week was six days long…

“Bell Telephone tried an experiment in Toronto in 1903, when repairs reduced the work land and led to a temporary surplus of labour at the main exchange. The work day for operators was decreased to five hours, with no pay cut, but the fifteen-minute breaks every two hours were eliminated. The idea, according to the company, was to make the operators work more intensely over a short period of time.

“In fact, things turned out differently. Although the operators’ salaries weren’t lowered, they were frozen at twenty-five dollars a month, while salaries everywhere else in the company were rising. Since it was impossible to live on twenty-five dollars a month, operators did two successive five-hour shifts.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 157.

 64) In the telephone industry at the start of the 20th century, how did working conditions differ for men and women?

“On the eve of the First World War, both standardization and feminization of labour forces marked the Canadian telephone industry.

[…]

“Because it either could not or did not want to automate its exchanges, Bell was forced to hire more and more operators. The operator position was, in the service sector, the equivalent of the assembly line in the manufacturing sector: detailed and repetitive movements led to complete dehumanization of the job. Thus, it is not surprising that the most significant strikes were held by the operators, or that their success was always uncertain because of the precarious position of women in the job market and the refusal of unions to organize them.

“The technicians, for their part, retained certain of the advantages of the pre-industrial craftsman, and retain them to this day. Always on the road to build new lines or install telephones for new subscribers, they were far from the administrative hierarchy and bureaucratic ambience. What’s more, their trade required very specific technical knowledge, which meant that they could not be replaced on a moment’s notice by strikebreakers.

“When the telephone companies, under the combined pressure of unions and government, agreed to improve working conditions, restore salary levels, and introduce social benefits, the technicians were the first beneficiaries.”

Rens, Jean-Guy. The Invisible Empire. A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956, translated by Käthe Roth, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p. 162-163.