Skip to Search
Skip to Navigation
Skip to Content

University of Connecticut University Libraries Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center

SNET logo, 1906

The First Century of the Telephone in Connecticut

by Reuel A. Benson, Jr., Formerly General Information Manager of Southern New England Telephone. Written in 1978.


Table of Contents

The Exchange Idea

Bell's New Haven Lecture

Coy Gets Bell Franchise

First Exchange Opens

Growth & Growing Pains

New Company Emerges

SNET's Early Problems

Disasters -- Natural and Otherwise

Modernizing Central Offices

Improved Outside Plant

Changes in Employee Force

Competition & Regulation

Corporate Citizenship


The Exchange Idea

January 28, 1878 was a mild winter day in New Haven, with temperatures well above freezing. The brig "Morning Light" had arrived in the harbor with a cargo of sugar from Demerara (now Guyana). Butter retailed for 22 cents a pound; a round trip to New York on the overnight steamer "Elm City" was $1.50 including berth; and because of rising costs, the West Haven Horse Railroad proposed selling just 45 tickets, instead of the current 52, for $3.

On that day 100 years ago, 21 venturous citizens of New Haven became the world's first subscribers to telephone exchange service. For $1.50 a month they could talk with each other, provided two other conversations weren't already using the switchboard to its full capacity. The single handpiece was alternated between mouth and ear, and clear conversation was not the rule.

In the intervening century the cost of living increased five times. And for about the same monthly rate, in today's dollars, New Haven telephone subscribers can call any of a quarter million telephones-with near-instant connection and uniform clarity.

As in the case of many other great inventions, the telephone had been slow to incubate. Alexander Graham Bell, who was only 29 when he invented it in 1876, had little interest in exploiting the telephone and was active in the new Bell company for only a few years. He was primarily a teacher of the deaf, with many diverse interests: man-carrying kites, a device to locate metal objects in people, hydrofoil boats and breeding sheep that would bear twins, among others. But his backers, two astute Boston businessmen, one the father of Bell's deaf bride, joined with Bell to make the telephone a financial success. Their first, and probably most important, decision was to control quality by making all telephones and leasing them to local and regional franchisers.

To promote franchises and rent more phones, the partners persuaded Bell, an able public speaker, to go on a road show. His lecture-demonstration was popular, filling halls in many eastern cities. But his only Connecticut appearance was of unusual importance--to the industry that would become one of the nation's largest, and one critical to the development of today's mobility, city and suburban life styles.

This page is maintained by L. K. Smith.