WAYNE E. REILLY

Telegraph, telephone, wireless revolutionized communications a century ago

Posted Nov. 13, 2011, at 4:32 p.m.

“IN TWO MINUTES: New Record for Communications Between Bangor and N.Y.” A new “direct wire service” had been installed between Bangor and New York City, said the story under the headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 4, 1911, a century ago this month.

“Bangor is a great deal nearer the metropolis than it has ever been before,” the reporter exclaimed.

Greetings sent over this new Western Union wire by the Commercial at 11:20 a.m. had arrived in the offices of the New York Journal just two minutes later. Here was new evidence that the telegraph had a future despite the obvious superiority (to us today) of the telephone and the wireless (radio telegraphy).

The reporter didn’t describe the accomplishment that way, however. He said Western Union’s step forward was only one more sign that the company “has faith in the movement for a bigger and busier Bangor.” A few boosters still claimed Bangor was about to catch up with Portland or even Boston in wealth and population. The sky was the limit now that they had high-speed telegraph wires. Today, high-speed Internet has a similar allure to business boosters.

There were other new developments in the local telegraphy system, which, in 1911, also included the Northern Telegraph Co. and the Postal Telegraph Cable Co. Western Union now had a “quadruplex” line, “enabling the company to work four men at each end of one wire between Bangor and Boston. In other words, two telegraphers in Boston will be sending telegrams to two telegraphers in Bangor at the same time that two telegraphers in Bangor are sending telegrams to two other telegraphers in Boston, and this, too, over the one wire.”

As if all this wasn’t enough, improvements were being made in pickup and delivery service. The company was installing a new “rapid-fire” messenger call box in some of the city’s “business houses.” By turning a small lever, a messenger boy was summoned to a customer “almost instantaneously.”

The telephone was still a primitive device by today’s standards. Operators were required even for local calls. Patching through long-distance calls could become an ordeal.

Costs were high. The New England Telephone & Telegraph Co. charged a quarter to call Dover-Foxcroft and 30 cents to call Camden. That was for three minutes. Multiply those amounts by about 20 to get the real cost in today’s dollars.

One didn’t make long-distance phone calls just to chat anymore than one sent a telegram. The U.S. Mail, of course, was available, and the new post cards made mailing messages easier and cheaper than ever.

Phone line subscriptions had soared from 150 to more than 4,000 in the Bangor area since 1880 when the first telephone switchboard was installed, according to the Commercial on March 4, 1911. Businesses installed phone lines to keep up with the competition. Some private individuals with a little extra money got hooked up and then proudly had their new numbers published in the newspapers.

Operators — nicknamed “hello girls” — quickly assumed an important role in society. “JUST MARRY A TELEPHONE GIRL If You Want a Wife With a Good Disposition,” declared a Commercial headline on June 5, 1908. That was because telephone operators had to take all kinds of verbal abuse politely if they wanted to keep their jobs.

They were also heroines occasionally. When much of downtown Bangor burned in 1911, the operators refused to leave their switchboard until they were escorted out of the burning building by police. (The city’s telegraph offices stayed open, manned by volunteer messenger boys and imported key operators.)

The advantages of the telephone over the telegraph were sometimes measurable in the number of lives saved. When two employees of the Sebasticook Light and Power Co. fell into the swiftly flowing river they were rescued by a phone call to men with a boat a mile downstream, according to the Bangor Daily News on April 9, 1909.

Telephones were hooked up to logging camps and fire towers deep in the woods. A few farmers were installing phones in their barns. Middle-class housewives found them a handy way to order groceries from local merchants. Saloon keepers depended on phone calls to warn them that the police were coming.

Even the great fire of 1911 couldn’t slow down the progress. “Since the time of the big fire the telephone business in this city has been increasing rapidly and it is estimated that over 500 new telephones have been put in since the old exchange was burned out in April. The number of subscribers at the present time is 4,600,” declared the Commercial on Dec. 20, 1911.

Wireless telegraphy — what we later would call the radio — had also entered the mix of communication devices. Recently the government had required offshore passenger ships, including the steamers that traveled between Bangor and Boston, to install wireless apparatus so they could send SOS signals in an emergency. Many people had already been saved from sinking ships thanks to wireless signals.

But despite all the competition, the telegram would survive for years to come. The Yellow Pages indicate today that you can still send a telegram. But as a kid growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, I don’t recall our family ever getting or sending a telegram. The U.S. Mail and our party phone line — complete with nosy neighbors — served our needs just fine as they did everybody else’s in the neighborhood as far as I know.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments may be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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