The People's Telephone: The Politics of Telephony in the United States and Canada, 1876-1926
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Enterprise & Society 6.4 (2005) 581-587



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The People's Telephone:

The Politics of Telephony in the United States and Canada, 1876–1926

My dissertation is a history of the telephone industry in North America, from the invention of the telephone in 1876 to the completion in the 1920s of a continental telephone network. The story takes place in both the United States and Canada, the first two nations to embrace the telephone; the approach is comparative and transnational. The dissertation is anchored by a close comparison of the telephone's development in Central Canada and the American Midwest, but it steps back from these regional case studies to tell a story that spans the continent.

In 1929 the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published Middletown, their classic study of life in one ordinary American city. The Lynds began their book with a catalog of the many technological changes that had arrived in the lifetime of one elderly "Middletown" resident: the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, electricity, radio, airplanes, and automobiles. "Middletown" was in fact Muncie, Indiana, and the unnamed resident was William Harrison Kemper. An amateur scholar of Muncie himself, Kemper had written his own history of the town twenty years before, at the very start of the twentieth century. In it, he linked the inventions listed by the Lynds to broader [End Page 581] transformations in the political economy, economic geography, and social structure of his country. Kemper wrote, "The history of a county like Delaware abounds with proofs that individualism is yielding to social interdependence; that the world, whether our scope of view be a county, state or nation, is coming to be all of a piece. Once every little community could live by itself, make its own clothes, wagons, tools, and all the articles necessary for its existence. But with the coming of the railroad, telegraph, telephone, etc., closer relations were established and communities and states became dependent upon each other. There is no isolation now."1

The trajectory described by Kemper from "isolation" and "individualism" to "social interdependence" is today one of our central paradigms for understanding the history of the United States in the half century following the Civil War. It lies at the heart of the "modernization" or "organizational thesis," which holds that the great transformation in this era, and the key to the emergence of the modern United States, was the general eclipse of small, informal, local groups by large, bureaucratic, national organizations. Technological advances in transportation and communication were used to build an integrated transcontinental society and economy in these years. Isolated "island communities," in Robert Wiebe's famous phrase, were absorbed, or feared absorption, into national and international networks.2 The local seemed threatened by the national, the small by the big, in nearly every area of public life. Historians explaining this transformation have made reference to urbanization and industrialization, the visible hand of managerial capitalism, and the rise of a new middle class. But when Kemper reached for an explanation of the changes through which he and his generation had lived, he found it in the technological triumvirate of railroad, telegraph, and telephone. To him and many like him, the new networks of wire and rail were physical representations of their era's greatest change.

Because of the historical moment at which the telephone appeared, debates about the telephone and its future could hardly escape becoming arguments about the larger transformation of North America's economic geography and political economy. The telephone seemed to bring into every home and every life the changes the railroad and telegraph had begun. Copper wires strung from roof to roof and town to town offered an unmistakable illustration of the [End Page 582] new interconnection and interdependence. Ultimately, I argue, the physical networks of poles and wires that were constructed in this era embodied prescriptive arguments about the organization of economies and societies and the scale of social and economic life. Great struggles—national markets versus local markets, large corporations versus small ones, and even...