In 1876, C. E. McCluer was the manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company's office at Lynchburg, located in south-central Virginia. After Alexander Graham Bell's successful demonstration of a telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, McCluer constructed two telephone sets, based on "an illustrated description of Bell's invention" which had appeared in Scientific American.
A private telegraph wire had earlier been run from McCluer's office to his boarding house, and he was able to connect his phones to this line to talk between the two locations. This experimental telephone line quickly brought local notoriety, plus a few surprises, including one time when McCluer overheard two mysterious concerts, which were being telephoned during off-hours to entertain the telegraph operators along two separate commercial telegraph lines. The source of the concerts turned out to be a male singer in Staunton, Virginia, sent along a Staunton-to-Richmond telegraph line, and a female singer in Charlottesville, Virginia, transmitted along a Washington, D.C.-to-Lynchburg wire. (The telephone transmiters used for the concerts were "make-and-break" designs, which transmitted strong currents, but had lower distinctness than the "undulatory" (amplitude modulation) system used by Bell's design).
To get to McCluer in Lynchburg, the sound of the singing in Staunton appears to have traveled along about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of telegraph lines, while Charlottesville was about 110 kilometers (70 miles) away.
Telephony, January, 1908, pages 42-45:
· Telephonic · Reminiscences ·
By C.E. McCLUER
I attended the Philadelphia exposition in the fall of 1876, but did not chance to hear anything of Professor Bell's interesting invention, although the wonderful possibilities of the device were made public just previous to my visit, when a prominent English savant admitted that "it does talk."
Not long after my return from the Centennial, the Scientific American published an illustrated description of Bell's invention. I at once became deeply interested in the device, and without loss of time set about the construction of a pair of telephones. I turned up the steel magnets and the dogwood cases with my own hands on the power lathes in the shops of the Virginia and Tennessee Railway Company, robbed an old and condemned telegraph relay for the fine insulated wire and wound it on dogwood spools, and made the diaphragm out of ferrotype plate given me by my daguerreotype friend, Van Ness. I magnetized the hardened steel rods by means of a helix I made for the purpose, using as an exciter the current from one of the telegraph main batteries.
When completed, I tested the two instruments on a short telegraph line I had for some time been operating between my office and my boarding house. To my great surprise and gratification I found they worked admirably, and that a perfectly satisfactory conversation could be carried on over the line. As far as I know, they were the very first telephones ever used in the state of Virginia. I made them in the late summer or early fall of 1876, but a short time after the first public announcement of the invention of the telephone. I used the telegraphic main-circuit sounders with which my telegraph wire was originally equipped, for calling, but of course discarded them in favor of the telephones for talking.
It soon became known that I had the telephones in use, and they excited a great deal of interest. My wife was kept busy answering calls from my office and talking through the telephones to our friends and acquaintances, all of whom were greatly astonished at the ease and distinctness with which they could hear and be heard, and the popularity of the telephone in Lynchburg was assured. So that a year or so later I had no difficulty in working up one of the first, if not the very first, regular telephone exchange systems operated in the southern states. But I anticipate.
I wish now to relate several of my earliest experiences with the telephone. The reader must remember that I am writing of the early history of the wonderful "far speaker," when the infantile wonder was but a few days old. I had never seen other telephones than those made by my own hands in conformity with the instructions and description in the Scientific American, nor had anything come under my observation regarding the experiences of the inventor and his early associates. I was, therefore, delving in an entirely new and unexplored field where the nuggets of truth had to be laboriously pried out with the crowbar and pickaxe of careful observation. The enlightened and scientific telephonist of the present must, therefore, make all due allowance for the circumstances under which I was laboring, to enable him to understand and appreciate the experiences I am about to relate. To him they will doubtless appear as childishly simple, as they were vaguely mysterious and interesting to me at the time.
My landlady was a highly educated and intelligent woman, the relict of a prominent preacher in the Presbyterian church, and the principal of a prosperous local female seminary. She was almost as much interested as I was in the telephone, and was exceedingly anxious to see and use the ones I was making. I had tested the recently completed instruments with my wife immediately after dinner, withholding the announcement of their completion until I made sure they would operate. At the supper table I arranged for Mrs. Ramsey to try the telephones with me after my return to the office, taking her to my wife's room, showing her the telephone, and instructing her how to use it. I charged her particularly to transfer the instrument from her ear to her lips immediately, in order to respond to my greetings, and to her ear again instantly, in order to hear my reply. As soon as I reached the office I called, and told my wife to let Mrs. Ramsey have the telephone, first repeating the charge about transferring it to her lips to respond to me. After a suitable interval I inquired "Mrs. Ramsey, do you hear me?" and at once listened for her reply. But none came. I repeated the inquiry, when my wife laughingly responded with the information that Mrs. Ramsey was evidently so overpowered with the strangeness and novelty of the sensation, and the particular, though perfectly familiar, tones of my voice as it reached her ear through the telephone, that instead of carrying the instrument to her lips as instructed, she extended it at arms length, and with distended eyes and awe-struck mien, she uttered a faintly audible "yes," dropped the instrument and rushed out of the room. Mrs. Ramsey afterwards affirmed that it was impossible for her to explain her sensations when she heard my voice with its familiar intonation issue from the telephone. She averred she was almost struck dumb with astonishment and awe, from which she did not recover for hours.
My boarding house was less than a half mile from my office, and my house wire was strung on the telegraph poles the entire distance. Of course I continued to utilize the earth as the return for my telephone circuit, as I had done for the telegraph circuit, the wire being grounded on the water pipes at each end. From the night the telephones were installed my attention had been attracted to the mysterious whisperings and strange frying noises which were heard almost constantly through the telephones, particularly during the quiet hours of the night. It became my custom when I went home at night, no matter how late it was, to spend a few minutes listening to the strange and at times almost uncanny noises that the telephone gave forth, and speculating as to their origin. My telegraph instruments had never offered any indications of earth currents, except during the prevalence of an auroral display, and while I had learned that the atmosphere was continually traversed by electric currents in greater or lesser profusion, it had never occurred to me that the bosom of old mother earth was permeated and torn by similar electrical manifestations. Hence the weird noises and faint peculiar cracklings which my telephones for the first time revealed to me were fascinating to me, and I spent much of my leisure time in a study of the interesting phenomena, with the hope of arriving at a satisfactory solution of their origin. The subject of electrical leakage and induction had not then been brought to my attention, and I listened to the faint and mysterious utterances of the telephones as though they were spirit whisperings from another world. Could I have heard and recognized the faint dots and dashes of the Morse telegraph code, I would the sooner have arrived at a solution of the mystery. But owing doubtless to the short length of my house wire, the leakage or induction from the telegraph wires did not seem to affect the telephones audibly.
One Sunday night on returning from church, I placed the telephone to my ear with the intention of spending a few moments in further observation of the phenomenon that was engrossing my attention. The mysterious noises were still there--noises that I cannot adequately describe, but which must be heard to be appreciated--when, just as I was about to remove the telephone from my ear, I heard what at first impressed me as being an angel voice from the spirit land, rendering what to my excited senses seemed to be a most heavenly and ravishing melody. It is needless to assert that I was startled--dumbfounded. Here was another and an entirely different phase of the weird and unearthly utterances of the telephone which I had been pondering over for some days. I am not at all superstitious, but I confess that a strange feeling of awe and solemnity crept over me, and for an instant I was inclined to believe that I had in some mysterious way opened up direct communication with the spirit world. But a moment's sober reflection assured me that I was listening to a human voice, though of a peculiar sweetness and timbre. Further consideration caused me to discard the half-formed suspicion that a lady friend of the operator on duty at the telegraph office was amusing herself and companions by singing into the telephone at that end of the line, for that was most unlikely, and besides, the voice did not sound as it would have done had it come to me through the other telephone. Calling my wife, I put the telephone to her ear, half suspecting that I was dreaming, or was the victim of some strange hallucination. But after her first exclamation of astonishment, she excitedly remarked, "Someone singing 'Jesus Lover of My Soul,'" and a second after, "There is a man singing also." I snatched the telephone from her ear, and sure enough I now heard a male voice in addition to the female voice heard before. But I soon discovered that they were not singing a duet, as my wife had suggested, but the male voice was rendering another Sunday school air, and in an entirely different key. The wonder grew upon me. I became so excited I could not remain still. My wife partook of my excitement. We listened alternately to the mysterious music so strangely wafted to our ears from, as it seemed to us, that "bourne from which no traveler e'er returns!" For a half hour or more the weird music continued almost without intermission. Much of the time we heard both voices simultaneously, but the discords between their tones proved they were not singing in concert. Then the female voice would hush and the male voice would reach our senses alone. Then they would blend again, not in harmony but in discord, till the male voice would be silenced and the female voice would come to us alone, melodious, soft, sweet, peculiar, with a tone quality or timbre suggestive of angelic choirs and heavenly bliss. Finally the mysterious voices died away into silence, after each had rendered a half-dozen or more familiar hymns and Sunday school songs.
During the whole of this mysterious and to us unaccountable Sabbath evening concert my wife and I scarcely spoke above a whisper, lest we should break the spell. We strained our ears to catch the words of the hymns, but ineffectually. While the melodies of the various compositions rendered were strikingly clear and distinct, not a word of the familiar hymns could we recognize. After the apparently celestial voices had hushed in silence, the same weird whisperings, and moanings, and flutterings that had during the concert seemed suspended, resumed their sway over the telephone, and my wife and I gazed at each other in silent awe and amazement. What and who could it have been? Where could it have come from? we asked, after recovering our speech. I called up the telegraph office and asked whether anyone had been using my telephone. But while asking the question I knew the reply would be in the negative. Tones of such heavenly and ravishing sweetness, such peculiar character, did not, I was assured, come through the telephone in my office. Where, then, did they originate? I could not even surmise. No former experience or acquired knowledge threw any light upon the questions or enabled me to answer them intelligently. I, therefore, sought my couch at a late hour with my mind wrought up to such pitch of interest and curiosity that sleep did not visit my eyelids till well on towards morning. But I speculated; theorized; I questioned; I racked my brain for an explanation, but it was not forthcoming.
I had long since learned that there was always a cause for every effect, and as I have before asserted, I was not superstitious. While my experience of the evening savored of the unearthly, I knew the occasion of that experience must have been of earthly origin. I therefore determined to ferret it out on the morrow. Perhaps someone else, like myself, had become interested in the science of telephony, had made a pair of telephones, and was testing or trying them in a way that had never occurred to me. But why should two people be singing into them simultaneously and each apparently entirely oblivious of the efforts of the other? And how could, or why should, their voices encroach on my little telephone circuit? A bewildering multiplicity of such questions recurred to me again and again, until my brain was weary and my understanding benumbed, and I at last fell into a restless slumber which was shortly dispelled by the early dawn. Again I wondered and speculated, and without waiting for my breakfast, I rushed to the telegraph office and called up the various railway offices adjacent to Lynchburg and inquired if anybody in their neighborhood had a pair of telephones, and if they were being experimented with the night before. By persistent effort and inquiry I finally solved the problem and went to my breakfast a wiser and better satisfied man.
I learned that morning for the first time, that the managers of the Western Union offices at Staunton and Charlottesville, like myself, becoming interested in the electrical transmission of sound, had been delving in the field of telephony; but following after the example of Messrs. Siemens and Halske, under the tutelage of a young student of Washington and Lee and the Virginia State Universities, Brown Ayres had been experimenting with the make and break principle, rather than the undulatory theory of Professor Bell; that is, the transmission of rhythmical musical tones, rather than the more complex conversational tones of the human voice. To this end, they had each without the knowledge of the other, I think, certainly without my knowledge, made what they had dubbed break-circuit singers, and had been experimenting with them. These break-circuit transmitters were fashioned, I believe, somewhat after the pattern of the original Siemens transmitter, only they were very crudely made, being nothing more nor less than a wire or wooden hoop covered by a tightly stretched paper diaphragm. To the center of the diaphragm was cemented by sealing wax a small bit of thin sheet platinum, which, with a fine wire-coil connection, formed one electrode. Through a threaded hole in a stout metal standard was screwed a platinum tipped screw which was readily adjustable directly opposite the center of the platinum plate cemented to the paper diaphragm. This platinum tipped screw constituted the other electrode. With a voltaic battery connected to the electrodes, and the screw properly adjusted, the circuit would be opened and closed at every vibration of the diaphragm. A musical tone sounded by an instrument, or emitted from the vocal organs, in front of the diaphragm, would cause the latter to vibrate in exact unison with the aerial vibrations impinging upon it, and by alternately opening the circuit by the wave of rarefaction and closing it by the following wave of condensation, would transmit electrical impulses of equal rapidity along a wire to which the transmitter and battery were connected in series, which would be transformed into aerial vibrations again at the distant end of the line by a suitable translating device.
Not possessing a supply of the superlatively sensitive Bell telephones like mine, these telegraphers were compelled to content themselves with the telegraph relays as receivers. In order to make the comparatively insensitive relays perform satisfactorily the duty of receivers, it was necessary that they should be actuated by a current of considerable tension and volume. Hence these experimenters drew on their main telegraph batteries for current with which to operate their transmitters, and Sunday was the only day in the week when they could do this without detriment to business. Each manager had completed and tested his break-circuit singer on the Sunday morning in question, and finding that they worked satisfactorily, had arranged for a concert that evening, to be given by musical friends whom they invited to their offices for that purpose, with the telegraph operators on the railway wires for their audiences. One of them, the Staunton manager, my life-long friend, J. W. Crews, now the assistant general manager of the Southern Bell Telephone Company, made use of the Virginia Central Railway wires, extending along that highway from Staunton to Richmond, while the Charlottesville manager, my friend Walstrum, arranged for his unique concert to be given on the Virginia Midland Railway wire extending along the railway from Washington to Lynchburg.
While these two railways pursue a general course almost at right angles to each other, they at the time I speak of used jointly the Virginia Central tracks between Gordonsville and Charlottesville, a distance of twenty-one miles. The railway wires were strung on the Western Union poles the entire distance between the four places mentioned, and the entire number of wires traversing the right of way of the two roads, were massed upon the single line of poles for the twenty-one mile stretch between Gordonsville and Charlottesville.
These being the conditions, the effects observed in my telephones will be perfectly patent to the experienced telephonists of the present day. But to me, at that time, as well as to all experienced telegraphists without telephonic knowledge or experience, the incident was little less than marvelous. When I told the Staunton and Charlottesville managers that I had heard their concerts of the night before through the telephone on my little line in Lynchburg, they were skeptical, and would not believe me until I told them what hymns were sung and had convinced them that I was not trying to guy them.
It was finally explained to me that a lady friend of the Staunton manager had kindly consented to sing to his sound transmitter for the benefit of the telegraph operators on the Staunton and Richmond wire, while a male vocalist did the same for the Charlottesville manager and his telegraphic confreres on the Washington and Lynchburg line; the telegraphers at the distant stations being able to hear the musical tones as translated by their relays, by placing their ears close to the cores of the electro magnets. These facts readily account for the two voices that I heard, both separately and simultaneously, through the medium of my telephone, while it was impossible for the listeners on either one of the two wires to hear a single tone from the other. Not because there was no leakage between the wires, but because their insensitive relays were not able to translate the feeble leakage currents into aerial vibrations, as did my much more sensitive telephone.
It was plain enough after I had learned the conditions, why I should have heard the Charlottesville singer so distinctly, because the railway line he was utilizing came direct to Lynchburg and entered the telegraph office parallel with my residence wire from the office pole to the switchboard in the rear of the long office room. The effects of induction I had experienced but faintly in connection with the telegraph lines, but I reasoned that the telephone being a much more sensitive instrument than a telegraph relay, the effects of induction might be displayed by it even when the parallelism of the two wires extended for such a short distance. But what puzzled me most was the fact that I had heard the voice of the Staunton singer if anything more loudly and distinctly than I did that of the Charlottesville vocalist when the Staunton and Richmond line approached no nearer Lynchburg than the twenty-one mile stretch between Gordonsville and Charlottesville, over fifty miles away. Surely, I reasoned, induction could not produce such a pronounced effect at that distance, and I pondered over the problem until I arrived at the conclusion that induction could not be held responsible for the effect I had observed. What then was responsible? I asked. After much cogitation I settled down to the conviction that it must have been leakage! Leakage, pure and simple, and as I now know, in strict conformity with Ohm's law. Or if there was any effect from double induction, induction from the Staunton and Richmond wires to the Washington and Lynchburg wires where they paralleled a distance of over twenty miles, and then induction again from the Washington and Lynchburg wires to my house wire where they paralleled inside the office only, it must have been infinitesimal in degree. And yet I heard the Staunton singer if anything more loudly than I did the Charlottesville singer. The superior electrical carrying power of the female voice perhaps might account in part for that fact, but subsequent experience only confirmed me in my belief that leakage, leakage from wire to wire, and from wire to earth, and again from earth to my wire, must have been the principal agency in bringing the voices of the vocalists to my ear.
This incident, coupled with the recollections of my experience with the auroral current on the telegraph wires several years previous, led me to question the correctness of the then generally received opinion or theory that the earth was a vast reservoir of electricity which offered no appreciable resistance to the passage through or into it of an electric current, and paved the way for the invention of my common return device several years later. If, I reasoned, the earth was an inexhaustible reservoir of electricity of infinite capacity, and if all electrical currents naturally sought its bosom, why did the leakage from the Staunton and Charlottesville telegraph batteries want to pirouette along my inoffensive little telephone wire? I may add in closing this incident, that I still possess the two home made receivers used on my pioneer telephone line at Lynchburg, and they are yet serviceable instruments.
Mr. McCluer's Reminiscences will be continued in our February number.
Sixty thousand messages are said to be spoken over the telephone every day in London. The number of words per message cannot be estimated. It varies with the language used while the subscriber is waiting.--London Globe.