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Valley’s Infant Phone Systems

Looking Back with Mathews, originally printed May 31, 1978

 

Alexander Graham Bell was about ready to try to communicate with his assistant, when he suddenly upset a battery, spilling the acid on his clothing. Impulsively he called out, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!” Those words have gone down in history as being the first telephone message, because Mr. Watson, who was in the next room, had heard the command through the receiver, and not through the wall. This happened in 1876, and so many people were working on similar projects at the time that even though Bell was granted a patent on the telephone, it was only after defending more than 600 separate law suits.

In a little while the marvelous gadget had caught on with the people, and every city and many a rural neighborhood had its own private telephone system. In a way this was good. In another, it was bad. Good, because everything has to start somewhere, and bad because with all of the private systems, it was sometimes difficult to affect mergers. This caused overlaps of systems, and made long distance calling slow in coming about. By 1880 there were 148 telephone companies operating in the country. Some even carried the names of individuals, such as one in Wythe County called the “Bob Pierce Line.”

In 1902 a schoolmasters’ debate was held at a law office in Bland. The subject of debate was: “The World Has Passed its Zenith.” George Penley, a scholar in his day, argued the negative side, and in the course of the debate he made this statement, “I have been told that there is a contraption hanging in there on the wall that you can talk all the way to Wytheville on. I predict that someday men will be talking all the way around the world without the use of connecting wires.” He lost the debate, pointing out once more the fact that a prophet has no honor in his own little town of Bland. In one of the larger mutual companies in the Bland area there were 150 subscribers. Each paid 18 dollars for a telephone and $1.50 to the operator (who incidentally ended up knowing everybody’s business, because each call had to go through the operator).

There were specific instructions on the use of the new-fangled instrument that read something like this: “To call give the crank of the bell a quick steady turn. Place the receiving end tightly against your ear. The exchange will answer you by saying ‘Number?’ Give the exchange the number of the subscriber you want, and he will answer, ‘Hello, Who wants John Doe.’”

One of the pioneers in the development of America’s telephone industry was a Pulaski man by the name of Beauregard Laughon. The first name he evidently did not care for, because his name always appeared in written documents as B. Laughon. After initiating the first system in Pulaski, and serving as president, he remained as an officer after several mergers, becoming General Manager of The Virginia and Tennessee Telephone Company. When its offices were moved from Pulaski to a fine modern building in Roanoke, Mr. Laughon chose to keep his residence in Pulaski, continuing on as treasurer of the company.

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