By Brian Roulston

The Centennial Exposition of 1876, officially known as the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, held at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, was the first World’s Fair held in the United States. It was ten years in the making and a grand event to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. During its six-month run, it attracted almost 10 million visitors. The exposition introduced the world to the typewriter, Heinz ketchup, and popcorn. It also introduced us to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, the telephone.

Gardiner Green Hubbard, Bell’s future father-in-law and financial investor, arranged the telephone exhibit at the exposition. He insisted that Bell be present, as he was the only one truly capable of demonstrating his invention to the judges, who would award monetary prizes and honours for the top exhibits during the weekend of June 25.  Professor Bell was busy with year-end exams for his students at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Boston and felt he couldn’t leave at such a crucial time. Bell suggested he send Willy Hubbard, his fiancée’s cousin, in his place. Gardiner wouldn’t take no for an answer and pressured Bell into going. At the same time Bell’s fiancée, Mabel Hubbard, threatened to call off their wedding if he didn’t go. Bell went grudgingly to Philadelphia.

For the record, Hubbard felt that Bell’s invention, which he dubbed “talking wires,” would amount to nothing more than an impractical toy. 

The London Times called it “the latest American humbug.”

Sir William Thomson, later known as Lord Kelvin, was a famous scientist who invented the international system of absolute temperature bearing his name. He participated in Bell’s demonstration and remarked afterwards, “It was the greatest invention of the ages.”

A young Hugh Cossart Baker Jr., born in Hamilton on December 9, 1847, educated at Dr. Tassie’s School in Galt, attended the World’s Fair and came across Alexander Bell demonstrating his telephone. Immediately, Baker saw its potential. Two things came to his mind: this would be great for his chess game since he and his friends could call each other their chess moves, and they wouldn’t have to trudge through the snow to each other’s homes play their matches. Baker also had the foresight to see it as a viable business. He immediately leased four of Bell’s telephones at $45 per year.  The story of Hugh Baker Jr. and Hamilton’s early adoption of the telephone exchange is well documented online. I would like to go beyond the commonly known facts and uncover some lesser-known yet essential moments in Hamilton’s telephone industry history.

Hamilton missed out on being the world’s first telephone exchange when George W. Coy’s telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut, opened in a storefront on January 28, 1878, with 21 telephone subscribers. His subscribers included the local police, post office, and drug store, who paid $1.50 monthly. Today, Coy is often cited as the world’s first telephone operator. Coy also invented the first telephone switchboard and used the wires from women’s bras as the first plug-ins.

On January 1, 1878, Hugh Baker Jr. formed the Hamilton District Telegraph Company, went to the Bell homestead in Brantford and negotiated an exclusive licence to install phones in Wentworth, Halton, and Haldimand Counties. The Hamilton District Telegraph Company name would be changed to the Hamilton Telephone Company in September. 

Boys were initially hired as phone operators but were too quick-tempered, rude, and prone to goofing around. Alexander Graham Bell wanted to improve Bell Telephone’s image, so he hired females to operate the switchboards. They became known as “Hello Girls.” The first female operators in Hamilton were Minnie and her sister Beulah Howell; hired in 1880.

The first long-distance line in Canada was installed between Hamilton and Dundas in 1880. 

The first broadcast of a choir anywhere on the planet occurred on Saturday evening, October 17, 1877. As an experiment, the choir of the Central Presbyterian Church on Maiden Lane, now Jackson St. W in Hamilton, performed several pieces of music, including Swanee River, over a telegraph line to Toronto for a small audience. 

Long before the first radio station in Canada went on the air in Halifax in May 1919 and the first in Hamilton, CHML on September 28, 1927, musical, vocals and other radio-type programming were broadcast over telegraph or telephone lines. August 10, 1877, the first musical vocals were sent over the Hamilton, Toronto and Brantford telegraph lines in another experiment. An audience was gathered at the Montreal Telegraph Company office in Hamilton, under Dr. A. M. Rosebrugh, and in Brantford under Alexander Bell, with an unnamed supervisor in Toronto. The program featured over two hours of commentary and vocal and instrumental music, including “The Death of Nelson” from Hamilton, “Ye Banks and Braes” sung by Alexander Bell from Brantford, and a quartet of voices from Toronto singing “It’s a Beautiful Shore.” 

William R. Evans, a retired telegraph operator living in Hamilton, made history when he broadcast the world’s first explicitly produced music for broadcast live from New York City to Hamilton. The sound quality was exceptional. Since it was impossible to conduct two-way conversations over long distances at the time, Hamilton had to send a telegraph acknowledgment of each song’s reception.

Dr. James White, M.D., and his brother, Dr. Thomas White, M.D (and a coroner), were the first medical doctors in Canada to have a telephone in 1878. Their office was located at 8 Cannon St. West in Hamilton.

On February 8, 1878, Hugh Baker’s Hamilton District Telegraph Company erected the first telephone poles in Canada. They applied to the city of Hamilton to erect 40 poles, which were installed by the end of the year.

On Saturday, December 14, 1880, the Hamilton Telephone Company became the Bell Telephone Company of Canada.

The first Bell Canada long-distance line for commercial purposes was completed between Hamilton and Dundas. It consisted of two single lines with five subscribers on each line. The poles were erected along the Hamilton & Dundas Street Railway route to one of Canada’s most celebrated lawyers of the time, B.B. Osler.

By 1889, there were a thousand phones between the two, and Dundas enjoyed free long-distance calls unknowingly to the Bell Telephone Company for 40 years. It wasn’t until Bell Telephone was troubleshooting a problem on the line that they discovered this. The company moved to charge subscribers in Dundas 10¢ a month; subscribers in Dundas balked and offered to pay 5¢. Unfortunately, in the end, Bell won.

Bell Telephone operators would broadcast to phone subscribers the correct time with 12 rings each day starting at 11:55 am.

Since almost everyone has a phone in their pocket these days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pay phone in the city. The GO Center, hospitals, and airports are the most likely places where you can still find them. Alexander Bell came up with the idea of a “Public Phone.” His father, Melville Bell, installed the first one in Canada on February 1, 1881, inside Lancefield Bros stationary store located at 59 James St. North.

1900 – 1300 telephones were installed in Hamilton.

1911 – The city’s 5,000th telephone was installed.

1917- The 10,000th phone was connected in the Ambitious City.

By January 1921, there were nearly 22 million phones worldwide.

The first Trans-Canada Telephone system from coast to coast became operational on January 25, 1932.

As a courtesy by Bell, early operators were required to take orders from telephone subscribers for groceries, fuel, prescription drugs, confections, and almost anything. Orders were then forwarded to local businesses of the subscriber’s choice.

Finally, have you ever wondered where the term “wake-up call” came from? Well, at one time, subscribers would ask telephone operators to wake them in the morning at a specified time.