Side Trips: Preserving the History of the Telephone

Aug 7, 2014

In the second half of 2013, two of every five U.S. households had given up land lines in favor of wireless telephones. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, this move away from land lines is happening much more slowly in the rural Northeast, in states like Maine. So it seems appropriate, in a way, that Maine is home to a unique, out-of-the-way museum that tracks the evolution of landline telephone communication in America. 

The New England Museum of Telephony is on an easy-to-miss side street off Route 1A in Ellsworth. There, inside an old barn, are period photos, and more than a century of painstakingly cared for, antique equipment - interactive exhibits documenting the technological advances that transformed the life of a nation.

"First, we would start with Alexander Graham Bell. Essentially you have what's a receiver, a telephone receiver," says Stan St. Onge, a longtime board member of the museum.

St. Onge pulls out two, small cone-shaped receivers. It's a model of the device that made history on March 10, 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell said, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you" to his assistant, who heard the words clearly through his receiver in a nearby room.

"The signaling became a problem because the only way that you could signal somebody at the time, using a couple of these receivers, was to yell into it, 'Ahoy!'" he says.

The next big technological advance took care of that problem. St. Onge reaches for an antique, hand crank generator, mounted on the wall beneath an early Stomberg Carlson model telephone.

"This is a standard, 110-volt light bulb. When you crank it, you can light the light bulb." And send a magnetic signal to the first operator switchboards to come online.

"There are no lights on it. There is no other way for the operator to know, other than these little flaps, called drops, which fall down when someone cranks their telephone," St. Onge says.

St. Onge, playing the role of the 1800's operator, pushes a plug into Line 48, asks for a number and then connects the cable to Line 11 to complete the call. The Telephone Museum was founded by Charles Galley in 1984 in Andover, Massachusetts. Shortly after, Galley offered to locate the museum at the place he was storing his own, personal telephone collection - the big barn he owns, to this day, in Ellsworth.

"We get phone calls probably every week: 'My grandfather passed away recently. He collected a lot of old telephone stuff. Are you interested?'" says Martin Harris, the museum's president. "We don't always know, of course, when the phone call comes, what we're getting. So the excitement comes when you open the ratty cardboard box that's been in somebody's attic for however many years."

(Sound of phone ringing) "That's the Western Electric Model 302 telephone," Harris says. "That was designed somewhere in the mid-'30s. Some people call it the Lucy Phone because the 'I Love Lucy Show' had a phone like that, though I think theirs a had a dial on it, probably."

More than 100 years of landline phones fill the museum, along with massive switching systems, donated when phone companies abandoned their analog technology.

The nonprofit museum relies on donations and revenue from public tours during the summer and fall to keep operating. It's open for visits on Saturday afternoons and by appointment during the week.