How the West Was Wired

Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone in 1876, and before you know it, cities were being wired for communication. That infrastructure was pretty much limited to cities, though, and later to small towns that weren't too far apart. Out in the western US, farmers and homesteaders were ignored by Ma Bell because of the expense of running phone lines to isolated farms and towns spread out over many miles. However, two years before Bell's invention, barbed wire was patented, and it had already transformed the West by making miles of fencing affordable.

Then came a rural revolution. American farmers already had a long tradition of cooperative association. There were thousands of farmers' cooperative insurance groups, grain elevators, and irrigation systems. By the turn of the century, farmers had come to see many uses for the telephone: dealing with emergencies, getting weather reports, pricing crops, recruiting labor, and even overcoming rural isolation. Not surprisingly, they started rural telephone cooperatives by the thousands. Their telephone "mutuals" were crude affairs. Each linked together a few, or a few dozen, farm households. Some used a switchboard, located in a store or more often in someone's kitchen, while others operated as a community party line.

It was in building the network connecting homestead to homestead that the farmers' ingenuity came to the fore. Instead of erecting new poles and wires, many either ran phone wires along the top of wooden fence posts or used the barbed wire itself to carry signals. The latter hardly worked as well as insulated copper wire, but with the lines already in place, installation and operating costs could be kept to a minimum. By one estimate, service ran a mere $3 to $18 a year, far less than the regional phone companies charged, and labor for maintaining the network was supplied by volunteers.

Read about how barbwire phone networks worked at Inc. There's more on how these networks were used by the people who needed them most at Atlas Obscura. -via Metafilter

(Image source: Library of Congress)


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At one point in the late 70's, there were still over 100 telephone companies operating in California. Most served only a small local area, taking the name of the town they were in, and offered messenger service to folks not on the wire, for a fee. That's when you called your local operator and asked for messenger service for (insert name of town here), Your local operator then connected to the distant operator and passed the info of who called and who they wanted to speak with. Then some poor soul at the distant end would travel to that person's house to tell them they had a call. That person would then travel to the switchboard location and their operator would do the final connection.
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My grandparents had a barbed wire phone to their neighbours in the 1950s just north of Montana in Saskatchewan. I don't know when they got an actual phone line to the closest town.
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