“According to historian Rob MacDougall, “Talk was free, and so people soon began to ‘hang out’ on the phone, just as they do today in online social networks. People would read the newspaper over the telephone, or have musical nights where someone would play their banjo, someone else would sing along, and others would listen. The shared line could even serve as a rudimentary broadcasting system. On many fence-phone networks, a single, very long ring would signal a ‘line call,’ an announcement of interest to everyone on the system. This might be a weather report, weekly livestock prices, word that the train would arrive late, or news of an emergency such as a prairie fire.”
DIY TELEPHONE COOPERATIVES
Barbed Wire Fences Were An Early DIY Telephone Network
by Sarah Zhang / January 2, 2014
“Before Ma Bell came to town, and long before DSL, it was barbed wire, of all things, that brought rural communities together. A Sears telephone hooked up to barbed wire—miles of which were already conveniently strung along fences—connected far-flung ranches in the recently settled American west. Thus an ingenious and unregulated telephone system sprung up a hundred years ago. More than just physical wire differentiated these rural telephone systems and their more formal urban counterparts. Without switchboards, without individual lines, and without telephone fees, the barbed wire telephone system became its own social network. Today, we might see elements of “personalised ringtones, chat rooms and online music” in this telephone network, as Bob Holmes writes in a feature at New Scientist.
Since the system had no switchboard, every telephone along the fences would ring at the same time. Each house had its own distinctive ring—two short one long, for example—and it was considered impolite to listen in on another’s call. Of course, when things got lonely out there on the ranch, there was no guarantee of privacy. But to expect a network of private, secure connections was all wrong, even in those pre-NSA days. The communal line became a thing unto itself, according to historian Rob MacDougall: “Talk was free, and so people soon began to “hang out” on the phone, just as they do today in online social networks. “People would read the newspaper over the telephone,” says MacDougall. “They’d have musical nights where someone would play their banjo, someone else would sing along, and others would listen.” The shared line could even serve as a rudimentary broadcasting system. On many fence-phone networks, a single, very long ring would signal a “line call,” an announcement of interest to everyone on the system. This might be a weather report, weekly livestock prices, word that the train would arrive late, or news of an emergency such as a prairie fire.”
In its heyday, these independent telephone networks supposedly included 3 million people, more than the official Bell system. Sometimes the rural systems became more sophisticated—a switchboard, for example, might operate out of someone’s kitchen—but it worked remarkably well in its simplicity. Insulators to improve the phone connection, especially during rain, were made of whatever cowboys could find, including leather straps, corn cobs, straps of tire. Glass is a particular good insulator, as you might expect: “Before Prohibition came in 1919 every town had at least one saloon and most had several. Saloons discarded bottles—beer bottles, whiskey bottles, wine bottles. You name it, if it came in a bottle and could be consumed for pleasure, saloons stocked it and, when the bottles were empty, discarded them. Glass is one of the best electrical insulators there is. Bottles were collected from behind the saloons, the necks were broken off, wooden pegs were whittled to fit into the broken bottlenecks, holes were drilled in the pegs, and the “glass insulators” were nailed to fence posts.” By the 1920s, most of these fence line phones were replaced by formal company systems. Barbed wire fences still abound today at borders keeping people either in or out. For few decades there, though, barbed wired brought people not apart but together.”
“personalised ringtones, chat rooms, online music
19th-century ranchers pioneered social networking”
Wired Wild West: Cowpokes chatted on fence-wire phones
by Bob Holmes / 17 December 2013
“Long before Facebook or Twitter, there was a different kind of social network. Born in the Old West, it allowed communities to share updates and music, and to spread news and gossip. For a brief period at the start of the 20th century this network, owned by no one, was a model of democracy, openness and free speech – something that today’s internet activists can only dream about. Eventually, though, it faded, overwhelmed by commercially minded competitors. This is the story of a long-forgotten social revolution and the extremely unlikely technology it was built on: barbed wire. Getting connected could be a big problem in North America in the 1890s, especially in the vast open spaces of the rural west. You could buy a telephone set from a mail-order catalogue, but what about the phone line itself? The Bell Telephone system was putting all its effort into connecting urban areas and had little interest in stringing wires to remote communities.
It didn’t take long for a few enterprising ranchers to notice, though, that the west was already covered with wire – the barbed-wire fences that divided the range to keep each rancher’s stock separate. At its peak, more than a million kilometres of the stuff was being laid each year. Why not just let it do double duty as a phone line? After all, they figured, wire is wire, and the ranchers were eager to communicate with their cowpokes working at outlying camps. The systems were not hard to set up: you just hooked some phones up to the fence. Although modern handsets draw their power down the phone wire from the central exchange, the phones at the time had their own battery which provided the DC current that carried the voice signal. Turning a crank on the phone spun a magneto that generated an AC current to drive the ringer. These self-contained phones needed nothing but a wire to be complete. “Any time you had something resembling metal to hook them to, you could set up a connection,” says Stu Lipoff, a communications engineer based near Boston.
Unlike conventional phone systems, the barbed-wire networks had no central exchange, no operators – and no monthly bill. Instead of ringing through the exchange to a single address, every call made every phone on the system ring. Soon each household had its own personal ringtone – two short rings then a long one, for example – but anyone could pick up. And they usually did. “When the phone rang, everybody on the line listened in,” says Delbert Trew, who runs the Devil’s Rope Museum – which is dedicated to barbed wire – in McLean, Texas. “People didn’t see anyone for two, three weeks at a time. They were just so lonesome that any kind of contact was really something.” The upshot was that rural phone systems – both the barbed-wire ones and those run by local cooperatives using conventional wire – developed a very different culture from city phones, says Rob MacDougall, a historian at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, and author of The People’s Network, a new book on rural communications. Bell followed the money, targeting business users in the cities and charging based on usage. This led to a culture of brief, no-nonsense calls.
In contrast, rural phone networks generally charged a flat fee or, for the barbed-wire networks, no fee at all. Talk was free, and so people soon began to “hang out” on the phone, just as they do today in online social networks. “People would read the newspaper over the telephone,” says MacDougall. “They’d have musical nights where someone would play their banjo, someone else would sing along, and others would listen.” The shared line could even serve as a rudimentary broadcasting system. On many fence-phone networks, a single, very long ring would signal a “line call”, an announcement of interest to everyone on the system. This might be a weather report, weekly livestock prices, word that the train would arrive late, or news of an emergency such as a prairie fire. “Talk was free, so people began to hang out on the phone, just as they do today in online networks.”
By the start of the 20th century, barbed-wire telephone networks were popping up all over. In 1902, ranchers in Montana had grand plans to connect much of the state into a massive barbed-wire network stretching from the Missouri River north to the Canadian border. Similar systems came online in Texas, New Mexico, Canada, and even rural New York state, though most served just a few families. By 1907, independent phone systems claimed 3 million users in the US, about half a million more than the Bell system. The independents’ lead was clearest out west, where barbed wire was ubiquitous. In fact, rural users in the west and Midwest were more likely to have a phone than their Eastern urban counterparts, says MacDougall, and they made more calls per phone.
For such a cobbled-together system, the barbed-wire nets functioned surprisingly well. “These telephones generated a very strong electrical signal,” says Lipoff. Their carbon microphones put out several volts, thousands of times the size of signals from microphones in modern cellphones. And the heavy strands of wire carried that signal with less attenuation than modern twisted-pair phone cables. But listeners on the line weakened the signal, making nosy neighbours a technical problem as well as a social one. The other challenge was rain, which caused short-circuits through the fence posts. Cowboys reduced the problem by supporting the wire on insulators, but store-bought ones were expensive. Leather straps, corn cobs and even cow horns were pressed into service. Best, though, was the neck from a glass bottle. “They had a good excuse to go buy a bottle of whisky,” Trew says, “because your line needed an insulator, see?”
Cheap and simple as they were, these networks gave ranchers exactly what they needed – a connection to neighbours in their immediate vicinity. “They were building, with wires, their already-existing social networks,” MacDougall says. That remains one of the functions of modern social networks, too: just think how many families keep track of one another on Facebook. But today’s networks also allow users to reach out and make new connections, which the barbed-wire networks could not – and that lack of broader connectivity eventually doomed them. The formal phone system’s ubiquity, and especially its coveted “long lines” to distant cities, gradually won the day. By the 1920s, the barbed-wire telephones and the networks they helped spawn had receded into memory. Not until the rise of the internet would technology again support such rich social interactions along a strand of wire.”
Rural Telephone Systems in the West
by C. F. Eckhardt
“Alexander Graham Bell’s patent expired in the 1890s, and as soon as it did anyone could legally manufacture and sell a telephone. Almost instantly both Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward began offering telephone sets in their catalogs. Just because you bought a telephone from Sears ‘n’ Roebuck or Monkey Ward didn’t mean you could use the thing. It had to be hooked up, some way, to other telephones. That meant wire had to be strung between houses that had telephones. Across much of the west, to the west of old US 81 (present I-35) in Texas–and not a small part of it east of that demarcation–there was already a network of wire covering most of the country, in the form of barbed-wire fences.
Some unknown genius discovered that if you hooked two Sears or Monkey Ward telephone sets to the top wire on a barbed-wire fence, you could talk between the telephones as easily as between two “town” telephones connected by slick wire through an operator’s switchboard. A rural telephone system that had no operators, no bills–and no long-distance charges–was born. Most ranch perimeter fences joined at corners, and in most cases the top wires touched each other or were even interwoven for strength. Where it became necessary for a telephone system to cross a road, all that was required was two posts about 15 feet long, buried about 3 feet into the ground for stability, and enough wire to go from one top fence wire up to the top of the post, across the road, and down the other post to the top fence wire on the other side. It doesn’t rain very often in the country west of I-35 and east of the Sierras in California, but when it rains, it RAINS! There’s an old story about a Texas Panhandle county judge who called the Governor’s drought-relief office in Austin to see when his county could expect drought-relief money, since it hadn’t rained a drop in 8 months. “Your county’s not eligible for drought relief,” the Austin bureaucrat said. “You’ve had 14 inches of rain so far this year.” “Yep,” the judge agreed. “Sure did. I was here the night it fell.” Rain–and large bulls with raging hormones–were the nemeses of fence line telephone systems.
A break in a fence caused by a bull with a high threshold of pain and an intense desire to make the acquaintance of heifers in the next pasture could be quickly repaired when discovered. When a gullywasher thunderstorm soaked both the ground and the fence posts, it grounded the entire system and rendered it unusable until the posts dried out. That problem, though, was–as it turned out–easily solved. Before Prohibition came in 1919 every town had at least one saloon and most had several. Saloons discarded bottles–beer bottles, whiskey bottles, wine bottles. You name it, if it came in a bottle and could be consumed for pleasure, saloons stocked it and, when the bottles were empty, discarded them. Glass is one of the best electrical insulators there is. Bottles were collected from behind the saloons, the necks were broken off, wooden pegs were whittled to fit into the broken bottlenecks, holes were drilled in the pegs, and the “glass insulators” were nailed to fence posts. Wire could then be strung along the insulators–either double-strand barbed wire, of which ranches had plenty, or single-strand “slick” wire like “town” telephones used. The wire was either wrapped around the insulator or tied to it with that old ranch-country standby, baling wire.
Anybody could hook into the system. All it required was the purchase of a telephone set from a mail-order house and stringing a strand of wire from the house to the nearest fence connected to a property-line fence. However, the system had some drawbacks. Since there was no central operator, there was no way to direct calls. With twenty or more ranches hooked into what was essentially a party line, a system of “rings”–distinctive ringing patterns made by turning the crank on the side of the telephone set–had to be agreed on. Most systems agreed on “one long”–a single long ring made by turning the crank rapidly five or six times–as a “line call.” A “line call” denoted an emergency. Everyone picked up the telephone to hear what was wrong. Otherwise, each ranch had a distinctive signal, a combination of long and short rings, to indicate an incoming call. Since all telephones rang when a call was made, it was considered impolite to answer another’s ring unless one happened to know that the party being called wasn’t available. However, “listening in” became a prime rural pastime, and it was unwise to discuss anything intimate on the telephone.
The system was completely independent. While you could call a ranch twenty miles north of town from a ranch twenty miles south of town, you couldn’t call “town.” The town’s telephone system didn’t hook into the fence line system. If, for example, you needed the sheriff, you had to call the ranch closest to town that also hooked into the town’s system, and have your message relayed. As telephone systems in small towns expanded they took in the ranches nearest the towns. However, if you lived forty miles from town you could have a very long wait before the “telephone company” built a line to your front gate. Even after it did, if your house was several miles from the front gate–not an uncommon situation in much of the West–you had to build, or pay the “telephone company” to build, a line from their roadside wire to your house. As a result, a number of “fence-line systems” became, in effect, telephone cooperatives. They put in a switchboard at a location close to town and paid the ranch wife who operated it a small monthly cash salary to run the thing.
That switchboard would be able, through the “town” telephone in the house, to hook the fence-line system into the town system. It still had a disadvantage, though. Most ranch families went to bed early, so the switchboard usually shut down about 9 PM and didn’t reopen until about half past 5 the next morning. It was nearly always shut down until 2 or 3 PM on Sunday so the family could go to church. Quite often it also shut down on Saturday night if there was a dance in town. Some of those systems were still in operation in rural Texas in the 1970s. When I lived in the Dallas area and my parents lived in Liberty Hill, north and west of Austin, trying to call my folks was an adventure. Their telephone number was 37 outside the system, “three longs and a short” inside the system. Operators in Dallas, accustomed to putting through international calls on a daily basis, were completely baffled by a 2-digit telephone number, and telling them “three longs and a short” confused them even more. I would call a Dallas operator and tell her I was calling Liberty Hill, Texas.”Where is Liberty Hill, sir?” she’d ask. “In Williamson County, about 35 miles north and a little west of Austin.”
“That’s in area code 512, sir. You can dial that number direct.”
“No, I can’t,” I’d have to say. “Believe me, I can’t. I go through this regularly.”
“Very well, sir. What is the number?”
“The number is 37.”
“Sir, that’s not a telephone number.”
“It is in Liberty Hill. You’ll have to contact an operator in Austin. She’ll help you get the call through.”
Eventually the Dallas operator would contact an Austin operator, who would tell her how to put the call through and I’d get to talk to my parents–with half the town listening in. That was not half the fun, though, that putting in a call to my father’s cousins in Briggs from Austin was. Briggs, a tiny, unincorporated community in Lampasas County, still had the remnants of what had been a fence line telephone system. Briggs’ main street was just long enough that you couldn’t quite throw a rock from one end of town to the other, though you could come close. On the west side of the main–and only paved- -street there was a small, white frame house with a huge number of telephone lines entering through a south-facing window in the front room. This was the telephone office, where Sarah, the telephone operator, both lived and worked. (It’s gone now, incidentally–along with most of Brigg’ downtown.) All calls to Brigg went through Sarah. I can still remember Sarah’s distinctive, somewhat nasal voice: “That you, Fred? Thought ’twas. You’re might near the only one ever calls Sherman from Austin. They ain’t home right now, but–no, wait a minute. That’s Sherman’s pickup, just pulled up in front of the domino hall. I’ll ring him down there for you.” And all the while the Austin operator would be tearing her hair out trying to decide if the call should be billed station-to-station as originally placed, or person-to-person since Sarah was ringing down to the domino hall to contact Sherman.”