Saturday, May 17, 2014

Getting Wired In The West...!

One thing about rural folks, they are an ingenious bunch! Making do with what you have is and was the order of the day!

It should come as no surprise then that to overcome the reluctance of the first telephone people to run phone lines to sparsely occupied rural areas, the farmers and ranchers got busy and created a network on their own! Besides being less expensive and more timely than the big companies, it demonstrated the mindset of most of rural residents. After all, working with your neighbors to solve a shared problem was a way of life that is still continued today. Too bad that attitude isn't shared by everyone!

Barbed Wire Fences Were The First Rural Telephone System
By Robert Anderson on Friday, May 16, 2014

In the late 19th century, the open range of the American West was carved up by barbed wire. During the same period, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone networks were being installed in large American cities. The early telephone companies ignored low-profit rural areas, so independent ranchers bootstrapped their own system out of their existing barbed wire fences.

In 1874, Joseph Farwell Glidden obtained the patent for an “Improvement in Wire Fences.” Before barbed wire, ranchers had to busy themselves with stopping cattle from crossing ranch boundaries and sorting out who owned what cattle at market time. Tough cattle plowed right through smooth wire fencing, and the arid West was no place to grow a hedge.

Barbed wire changed all that. New manufacturing techniques made barbed wire cheap, and enclosing one’s land became affordable for the first time. The “twisted pair” of wire with a transverse barb deterred cattle from roaming where they pleased. By 1880, about one million miles of barbed wire fencing per year was being produced and installed in the Old West.

Alexander Graham Bell was granted the telephone patent in 1876. The new device revolutionized communication because anyone could pick up a telephone and speak to anyone else with a telephone set. The only other instant communication option was the telegraph, which required a skilled operator. Instead, the telephone provided the near-miraculous ability to speak directly with another human being, in normal conversation, miles and miles away.

The early phone companies installed their systems in urban areas. Infrastructure is the main cost of any utility, and early phone company investors saw no profits in stringing hundreds of miles of expensive wire and poles to connect sparsely populated areas of the American West.

Enter the already-existing barbed wire fences. American farmers and ranchers already had a tradition of co-operatives or “co-ops.” These collectives allowed ranchers to deal with fickle commodity markets, fight wildfires, share tools and experience, and deal with water and other resources. It was only natural that they would use their newest resource, the barbed wire fence, to communicate with each other.

A typical installation would cost $25 and include a standard telephone set chosen by the co-op, two dry-cell batteries to power that portion of the system, and other hardware which acted as a primitive form of switchboard. Barbed wire was fastened to posts by metal staples, grounding the wire and making it useless as a conductor. So the farmers and ranchers would choose one wire of the fence to insulate and use as the telephone cable. Wire fences were a haphazard affair, using whatever post material was handy. Any reasonably straight stick or branch would do. And so with the insulators; leather scraps, corncobs, snuff boxes, or scraps of rubber inner tube were used to separate the wire from the post. One of the more common items were glass bottlenecks, and glass insulators remain a very popular insulating device for power and communication cables to this day.

Property lines, and therefore the fencing, were a chaotic patchwork. Not every fence line connected to another property, and some properties were very distant. Farmers bridged these gaps with specially offered insulated cables buried underground or strung on special tall poles. This grassroots, networked communication system had Meshnet beat by a solid 130 years.

The telephone co-op would publish a directory, perhaps not even in alphabetical order. Each family would be assigned a certain number of rings for their phone. If the phone rang two times and two rings was your signal, you would pick up the phone and talk to the caller. Of course, every phone was connected to the wire at the same time, so anyone could pick up their telephone set and listen to your conversation. This early “party line” was a problem; if too many people were listening to your conversation, the signal would degrade and you’d have to shout at them to hang up their phones so that you could speak your piece.

Using this network, farmers could relay news of wildfires, stock prices, sporting events, or most commonly, neighborly greetings and gossip.

By the 1920s, the telephone revolution had stabilized into the “Ma Bell” monopoly, and many rural areas were offered formal telephone service, although the old barbed-wire co-op networks persisted into the 1940s in some areas. This original network technology hack was relegated to the history books, and not even the early Phreakers of the 1970s can claim to have circumvented the big phone companies quite as effectively as tobacco-spitting, over-alled farmers in the 1880s.

Looks to me as though some of our forefathers were some of the first "hackers", even before hacking was a cool thing! Thanks to the folks over at KnowledgeNuts for filling us in on the rest of the story!

Coffee out on the patio this morning. Anyone in the mood for some donut holes?


Judy said...

South of town you can still see some of those taller fence posts with the insulators still on them.

Sixbears said...

Love it! Pretty darn clever.

Chickenmom said...

Ah, American ingenuity. I remember the party lines - we were the third ring! Save me some of those donut holes!

Mamahen said...

Two longs and two shorts was our ring on our first phone....I'll be right me a seat :))

Rob said...

If you ask me the big guys still don't want to deal with small markets...
In rural Minnesota we had the Paul Bunyan Telephone Coop for service, every season they were out burying lines up all the roads. We had not only phone service (regular, not a party line) but fiber optic cable on our road.
We moved back to Washington state the best we could get was phone service. Just not enough profit to run anything better to the several hundred houses in our loop off the main road.

In Minnesota on a gravel road, 2 miles from a tar road, 13 miles from a gallon of milk with fiber optic at my driveway.
In Washington state, in the very shadow of Microsoft dial up is the best I can do...

JO said...

Now this was very interesting. Never new this went on. And they buried some of the lines. Yes some folks had enough free thinking and smarts to come up with a better way.

I'll sit with you all I finally planted my bougainvillea at 6 am this morning. Even before I had coffee.

Lady Locust said...

We've always lived 'out of town,' and when I was a kid, we still had party lines and special rings though they weren't connected with barbed wire:)
Great post - I love learning things like that.

HermitJim said...

Hey Judy...
How ya doing, my friend!

Your area should have a lot of things that date back to the old west days. Those glass insulators are worth some money to a lot of collectors!

Thanks for dropping by today!

Hey Sixbears...
They were thinking outside the box, that's for sure!

Thanks for coming by today!

Hey Phyllis...
Sometimes you just do what has to be done!

Thanks for the visit this morning!

Hey Mamahen...
Funny how things like that stick in our mind!

Thanks for coming over!

Hey Rob...
I reckon some areas are more customer aware than others! Way too many are purely profit driven!

Thanks for coming over!

Hey Jo...
I'm glad you finally got it planted! Now maybe you will have some hummingbirds come and check it out!

Thanks, sweetie, for dropping by today!

Hey Lady Locust...
Almost had to use a code when talking on a party line! Not much was secret on the party line!

Thanks so much for coming over today!

Bob Mc said...

Our first telephone when I was a young sprout was on the party line system. I still remember the prefix was LYtel followed by the number. I don't remember how many people were on our line, but we were assigned 2 rings for incoming calls. You could listen in on anyone else's conversation but it was frowned on.

Dizzy-Dick said...

Leave it to the farmers and ranchers to solve their own problems, like a communicating system. We should all be a little bit more independent but it is hard to do in this day and age.