I was surprised to find reference to string telephones in Johnson’s 1876 "Universal Cyclopedia: A Treasury of Useful Knowledge," The writer said, "The string telephone was mentioned as early as 1667 by a German named Robert Hooke," who assured us that "the theory of the telephone is simple."
The string telephone transmitted sound waves mechanically, and it was 200 years later that a German, Johann Phillip Reis, transmitted sound waves electrically. His device had both transmitter and receiver; he named it the "telephone."
When I was young, Mother sometimes visited a friend who was "Central" in a mutual phone exchange serving patrons in and around Hinton, north of Columbia. The switchboard was in one corner of her bedroom, and she sat where she could see it as they talked. When someone rang for the operator, she’d go to the bedroom and put on an ear piece with a band across her head and speak into a transmitter. She’d pull up a finger-size thing attached to a flexible wire and plug it in a hole near a tiny light.
"Number, please," she’d say. Then she’d pull up a second plug and stick it into a hole on a different part of the switchboard. The board was crisscrossed by lots of wires, but they didn’t get tangled. When a light went off, she’d pull the plug and it plopped back quickly into its special place because of a weight underneath. She’d wait to disconnect calls until her next trip to the switchboard.
Callers kept ringing while she served refreshments, and lines were tied up with calls that needed to be disconnected. How I wished to help her or to be Central! So I created my own switchboard using a board and an orange crate. I whittled 10 or 12 plugs, bored lots of holes in the board and some in the orange crate. I made little sand bags for weights to pull the plugs back into their proper places at the end of my imaginary calls.
Before we moved to our farm in 1953, we asked a neighbor about service on his Millersburg mutual exchange. We had seen the phone wire draped from fence posts and trees. "It’s better than none during the day," he said, "but the switchboard closes at 5 o’clock."
"What about night fires and sudden illness?" I asked.
"The operator lives across the road from the exchange, and if you ring hard enough and long enough she might hear it and go across to plug you in. Sometimes someone just walking by will do it."
That was not for us! We cleared our fence rows for poles and lines and were able to get Columbia service after four years of waiting. Then we were on a rural line with nine other families. Believe it or not, the phone line along Rangeline Road was looped from fence post to fence post in the 1950s. Finally a neighbor, Turner Vemer, publicized that fact at a farm organization’s meeting, and a Tribune reporter jogged the phone company into putting the lines on poles.