Technology that Changed Chicago: Telephones 1877-1892

Among the many disruptive technologies of the late 19th century was the telephone.  Like mobile phones, it is difficult to point to any particular way in which life was improved, but telephones did have an immense impact. The number of phones grew every year until mobile phones and computers began displacing them in the late 20th century.

Telephone service displaced a number of earlier technologies: the custom of calling—wandering around town visiting all of your acquaintances, ultimately the telegraph and many types of messenger services.

Some key dates:

1876: Alexander Graham Bell demonstrates first working telephone.

1877: First telephone is demonstrated in Chicago.

1878: Telephone service begins. 455 Subscribers. Illinois Bell, then known as the Chicago Telephone Company, soon dominates.

1880: 2,971 telephones.

1881: City enacts an ordinance requiring all wires to be buried underground. Ultimately wires were only buried in the central area.

1883: First telephone directory.  It includes telephone numbers.  An earlier subscriber list included “wire numbers,” but according to the calling  instructions you asked the operator for parties by name.

1890: 7,766 telephones By now, “girls” had replaced “pugnacious” teenage boys as operators. Illinois Bell's history, A Golden Anniversary, 1878-1928 reported this reduced shouting matches.

1892: First long-distance line to New York. Long-distance would remain expensive and inconvenient until well after World War II.  Telephone numbers became an exchange name followed by a three digit number. For example "Central 578."  Some variation of this system would remain until the 1970s.

Next:  1893 to date.

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Chicago Public Library