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Antique Telephone Counted Among Office Fixtures

By Neal McChristy

Potbelly telephoneOn every desktop since about the turn of the century, a telephone provides easy access to the world.

Antique telephone collecting is a mainstream business, according to Russ Pate, Melbourne, Fla., chairman of the board of the Antique Telephone Collector's Association, an organization of almost 2,000 members.

"We have doctors, attorneys, engineers and hourly people," Pate said. Many of the members are former telephone employees.

The office of ATCA is located in the Museum of Independent Telephony located in Abilene, Kan., sharing a building with the Dickinson County Historical Society and Museum. Here is a little about that museum from the Telephone History Web site, reprinted with permission.:

It was in Abilene that Cleyson L. Brown, a local youth, built and operated a telephone exchange in 1898, later expanding into other communities. He called his system the United Telephone Company.

Although the original telephone properties eventually were sold, United continued to maintain executive offices in Abilene until 1966 when the headquarters were moved to Shawnee Mission, Kansas.

Brown pioneered many other businesses in Abilene. At one time the Brown enterprises employed about 25% of the wage earners of Abilene, including David Eisenhower and his son, Milton, the father and brother of the 34th President of the United States.

The late Carl A. "Skip" Scupin, former president of United, helped to establish the Dickinson County Historical Society and Museum.

Today, nearly a century after the first United exchange was established, the United Telephone companies form the local division of Sprint Corporation, an international leader in the telecommunications industry.

Fiddleback telephoneThe annual ATCA Spring Show is held each April in Abilene, combining fun, fellowship and phones, with an auction of antique telephones and related items. A fall show has been held each year since 1971 at different locations throughout the United States, and draws collectors from all over the United States and Canada.

Maybe every schoolchild knows the words "Watson, come here, I want you," as the first words into the experimental device, but here's some more information about Alexander Graham Bell's invention from the Telephone History Web site.

Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds, daughter of a surgeon in the Royal Navy. His mother, who was a portrait painter and accomplished musician, began to lose her hearing when Graham (a name that was used by his family and close friends) was twelve. His father had a world wide reputation as a teacher and author of textbooks on correct speech, and as the inventor of "visible speech," a code of symbols which indicated the position and action of the throat, tongue and lips in uttering various sounds. Melville’s Visible Speech helped to guide the deaf in learning to speak and Graham became an expert in its use for that purpose.

Graham and his two brothers assisted Melville in public demonstrations in Visible Speech, beginning in 1862. At the same time he enrolled as a student-teacher at Weston House, a boys’ school near Edinburgh where he taught music and speech in exchange for being a student of other subjects. A year later he became a full-time teacher at the University of Edinburgh while studying at the University of London.

In 1866 Bell carried out a series of experiments to determine how vowel sounds are produced. He combined the notes of electrically driven tuning forks to make vowel sounds which gave him the idea of "telegraphing" speech. In 1870 his brothers died of tuberculosis and his family moved to Brantford, Ontario, Canada to a healthier climate. A year later Graham moved to Boston where he opened a school for teachers of the deaf and in 1872 became a professor at Boston University.

Three Box telephone Bell’s interest in electricity continued and he attempted to send several telegraph messages over a single wire at one time. Lacking the time and skill to make the equipment for these experiments he enlisted the help of Thomas A. Watson from a nearby electrical shop.

The two became fast friends and worked together on the tedious experimentation to produce sounds over the "harmonic telegraph." It was on June 2, 1875, while Bell was at one end of the line and Watson worked on the reeds of the telegraph in another room that he heard the sound of a plucked reed coming to him over the wire.

The next day, after much tinkering, the instrument transmitted the sound of Bell’s voice to Watson. The instrument transmitted recognizable voice sound, not words. Bell and Watson experimented all summer and in September, 1875, Bell began to write the specifications for his first telephone patent.

The patent was issued on March 7, 1876. The telephone carried its first intelligible sentence three days later in the rented top floor of a Boston boarding house at 109 Court Street, Boston.

Pate became interested in telephones after getting his ham radio license, he said. "It was always just an interest to me."

Editor's Note: If people are interested in selling antique phones, contact Russ Tate at
The Museum of Independent Telephony is at 412 South Campbell, Abilene, KS 67410 and the phone number is 785/263-2681.

Web sites:
Antique Telephone Collector's Association

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