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By Susanna McLeod
Special to Ontario Construction News
Brrring! Beep! Bzzzzt! The demands of telephones and technology are common sounds. Long before the contemporary telecommunications structure, telegraph lines carried messages tapped in Morse Code. The telephone was the subsequent technological advancement, patented by Alexander Bell. In 1878, the city of Hamilton was the home of the first telephone exchange, not only in Ontario but in the British Empire.
A year earlier, businessman Hugh Cossart Baker Jr. and friends founded the West Side Domestic Telegraphy Company with an amusing purpose in mind. To start, “telegraph linemen string the single line from house to house across the roofs, attached to trees and a few handily located telegraph poles,” reminisced The Hamilton Spectator, September 23, 2016.
Leasing four phones from Melville Bell, Alexander Bell’s father, Baker requested installation of one phone per house of each friend. They weren’t for business. The phone lines were installed “so they can discuss chess moves.”
The communication system set the record as “the first telephone transmission between more than two telephones on one circuit in Canada,” The Hamilton Spectator noted, Feb. 13, 2021. Several weeks later, the public was invited to a demonstration of the phones in action.
Baker’s four telephones soon turned into 40 lines; in 1879, Baker established the Hamilton Telephone Company and received the federal charter the next year. The firm was later part of the Bell Telephone Company of Canada.
In 1878, a telephone exchange opened to serve commercial and private customers on the top floor of the Hamilton Provident & Loan Society building at the corner of King and Hughson Streets. Designed by architect David Brash Dick of Toronto, the stately façade was constructed of the finest-quality Ohio stone and the interior was richly appointed with fine wood and tile. It also included the most modern safety measures: the building featured Canada’s first fireproof elevator shaft.
Operated by hydraulics, the shaft “was all brick, with openings at each floor with door sills of iron,” described Downtown Hamilton in “Memory Lane.” Also having a role in the communications technology of the day, the large clock at the top of the structure “was connected by telegraph to Toronto.”
Working in four rooms, young men were employed as telephone operators on the multiple-magneto switchboard. It wasn’t long until the soothing voices of women took over the switchboard desks. The men “were found to be too quick-tempered and rude to customers,” stated Workers’ City.
To make a call, the person turned the crank on the phone to signal the operator. When the line opened, the caller would state the destination and the operator would plug in the line to make the connection. The skillful female operators were later identified by the pleasant title of “Hello Girls.” Automated equipment was introduced in 1908, and dial service launched in 1924.
Early telephone equipment was rudimentary. Clarity was problemic, and there was the alarming potential of shocks while using the telephone and switchboard during a thunderstorm. However, progress continued with the expansion of long distance trunk lines and telephone exchanges across the province.
Granted exclusive rights by the federal government, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada was established in April 1880. By the end of the year, the firm added to its national holdings and “had bought out the telephone interests of four Canadian telegraph companies and three city telephone companies (Hamilton, London and Windsor),” wrote Darrell A. Norris in Urban History Review, February 1982. Bell’s business plan included building a network from Windsor to Quebec “and to accommodate the traffic demands of two key metropolitan nodes, Toronto and Montreal.”
Building links required heavy investment by the company. Over decade starting in 1880, Bell invested more than $2 million to grow the Canadian telephone service. The Hamilton-Toronto line in 1881 alone cost $8,000 to string just over 236 kms of iron wire. Iron wire was used “until 1885 when hard-drawn copper wire, which furnished better transmission, was first installed on the Hamilton-St. Catherines line,” said Norris.
Overhead in cities, a dark web of electrical wires accumulated for lighting and streetcars, the telegraph, and the telephone. The public complained about the sheer ugliness hovering above their heads. In populated areas in the 1890s, Bell began to lay telephone cables underground in protective conduits.
As subscribers increased, the Hamilton telephone office moved to the Regent Exchange on Hughson Street in 1913, close to the first location. Constructed in 1890, the Renaissance Revival style building was designed by architect James Balfour.
The expensive telephone service was used by banks, newspapers, businesses, and the wealthy. The annual phone rental alone ranged from $30 to $35, unaffordable for average wage earners.
Compared with early telecommunications, today’s systems support clear, reliable calls. Service may be available in most urban regions, but an cable infrastructure is still required to ensure the connections are made.
© 2021 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.