Barbed Bells



Alexander Graham Bell received a (controversial) patent for the telephone in 1876. A year later, he’d form the Bell Telephone company (later AT&T), using the power of his patent to build a powerful, lucrative business. Bell Telephone — “Ma Bell,” as it was often called — would later become a government sanctioned, regulated monopoly through the 1940s and was ultimately broken up in the 1980s. But for decades, Bell controlled most of the local telephone service in the United States.

Around 1900, though, some rural Americans — specifically those who, at the time, were typically outside the coverage area of a telephone company — found a way to use the phone without going though Ma Bell. They simply used the wires around them — the barbed wire fences, that is.

As America settlers expanded westward throughout most of the 19th century, many cordoned off their land to keep their cattle in and trespassers out. The tool of choice was barbed wire, and one ranch’s fence would almost certainly meet up with another’s. Telephone service was slow to reach them, but when Alexander Graham Bell’s patent over the phone ran out in 1894, telephones themselves were suddenly available for purchase. A phone without the underlying infrastructure or the switchboard operator isn’t all that useful, though — until someone realized that the barbed wire fences could carry a phone signal just fine.

The system was free — there weren’t even long-distance charges — and made for an easy way to alert others (who were often not very close by) of emergencies or to request help. It also allowed for typically isolated families to be part of a larger community — one account talks about how people would commiserate when bad news came back from the war front during World War II, or how children would celebrate when news came over the wires that snow led to a school cancellation.  And of course, the novelty of the device and its promise of inter-connectivity made the phone the center of many households, just like it did for those on Ma Bell’s system.

There were some drawbacks, though. First, the barbed wire phone network acted as a party line — anyone with a connected phone could simply pick up the receiver and speak with everyone else. To get around this, according to one of the accounts linked-to above, some communities developed a system where each ranch had its own ring — a unique combination of short and long sounds. Due to the nature of the phone system, the ring would sound on every phone in the network, day or night. Also, while it was customary to only pick up if your ring was the one being sounded, anyone else could (and often did) eavesdrop.

Second, the barbed wire fences were only good transmitters if they stayed up. The bulls that the fences held in were not privy to this system and didn’t always cooperate, at times taking down the entire phone network as they made their escape. This had a silver lining, though. As the New York Times noted in a 1901 report on barbed wire phone systems, at least the ranchers now had a way of knowing that the cattle were escaping: the phone suddenly stopped working.

And finally — and, ultimately, this was the fatal problem for the do-it-yourselfers — the barbed wire network didn’t and couldn’t connect to the rest of the world. When “real” phone service reached the areas served by these makeshift solutions, the makeshift one yielded.

Bonus Fact: In 1880, Bell was the sole provider of phone service in Rochester, New York, charging residential customers $24 per year for service (about $600 today, accounting for inflation). But that changed in 1886. Bell, still a monopoly in the area, decided to end the flat-fee service and add a surcharge on all calls after the 500th. In protest, the people of Rochester took their phones off the hooks for the next 18 months. Bell, ultimately, caved.

From the ArchivesPumping the Phone: How the expansion of rural telephone access lead to a silly but lucrative gap in the rules.