Alexander Graham Bell obtained his original telephone patent today in 1876. The first telephone in the area was installed in early 1877 in the house Charles Sewall (manager of the local Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Co.) in Bath-on Hudson (about North Greenbush today) with a line strung from his office on Broadway in Albany. In June, 1877 Sewall invited Gardiner Hubbard, a principal in the Bell Telephone Co., to demonstrate the telephone in Albany (a month later, Alexander would marry Gardiner’s daughter). During the demonstration, a 2 mile wire was run between a business office on Broadway and a telegraph office in the Lumber District in North Albany.
The results of the demonstration were so impressive that by late 1877 there were 63 hand telephones and 21 box telephones in Albany (about 10% of all the phones in the country at that time). But none were interconnected through an exchange; they could only be used “point to point”. The first private phones in Albany were installed for Clarence Rathbone in the office of the Rathbone Stove Works on Broadway, the stove factory in North Albany and his home on Elk St. According to Thomas Watson (yup, that Watson) Albany had the first police telephone system in the world. In October, 1877 telephones were installed in the office of Chief of Police and his home and linked to the 5 police precincts and the Mayor’s Office. The cost was about $800, with an annual cost of about $30.
In May 1878 the American District Telephone Co. installed the first telephone exchange in Albany (and the 4th in the nation – the first three were in New Haven, Meriden, Ct., and Lowell Mass.). It was located on the 2nd floor of the Van Huesen & Charles Building at 468 Broadway (demolished in the 1970s) just up from State St. The exchange opened with about 75 subscribers; mostly doctors, manufacturers and merchants. By later that year, there were 358 subscribers in Albany, Troy, Watervliet and Cohoes. (Oh, those early adopters!)
The first telephone connections were primitive and the first operators were young teenage boys. When a caller reached the exchange, a young man would answer and yell the name of the person being called to another boy to make the connection. If lines weren’t open and/or the boys weren’t paying attention it could take up 10 minutes to link up the call. And because the first Albany telephone company was operated by a telegraph messenger service, many of the phone calls were requests for assistance – ranging from a bottle of whiskey to a barber for a sick man. (Some form of the messenger service continued until the beginning of the World War I). In 1880, over 1,000 calls per day were handled through the Albany exchanges.
By 1882, the American District Telephone had been acquired twice over and was owned by the Hudson River Telephone Co., a Bell Telephone subsidiary. In addition to the Broadway exchange there were exchanges on So. Pearl at the corner of Hamilton and 68 Washington Ave (now Lafayette Park). In 1883 Hudson River expanded into western part of Albany; it built a new exchange on the corner of Quail St. and Hudson Ave. That building remains today and is the home the Hudson River Coffee House. This new exchange was more efficient and could handle a larger number of calls.
The Hudson River building contained the first telephone switchboard as we know it. It was soon staffed by young women operators who were courteous, attentive, didn’t swear and didn’t play pranks. The female operators worked 10 hours/day, 7 day per week. After a year, they earned $25.month – real money in those days. The work was demanding, but not nearly as tough as other work available to unskilled single women – in factories or as store clerks. And it was respectable. The Troy-Telegram of 1883 instructed its reporters to remove their hats when talking to a female telephone operator. They were called “Hello Girls”, the “Voices with a Smile” and even “Call Girls”.*
In 1891 the Hudson River Co. constructed a larger main exchange building at the corner of Maiden Lane (now Corning Place) and Chapel St.; the exchange on Broadway was decommissioned and as the Quail St. exchange. By the early 1900s it was enlarged; the number of phone subscribers had grown to about 5,000. That building was demolished in the early 1970s for a hotel/parking garage combo.
At the same time the Hudson River Telephone Co, was developing, there were a couple of other phone companies in Albany operating at the same time, but they disappeared through mergers and acquisitions. The Home Standard Telephone Co. came on the scene in the 1880s; it was acquired by the Albany Home Telephone Co. Over the long haul, American Home couldn’t compete with Hudson River and its Bell/NY Telephone affiliation, but it did construct an iconic building in 1901 that survives today, home of the City Beer Hall, at the corner of Howard and Lodge.
By 1912 it too was acquired by Bell/NY Telephone. (The aggressive acquisition and market denomination strategy was crafted by Theodore Vail, first cousin of Alfred Vail, a key figure in the invention of the telegraph.)
In 1914 a new Bell/NY Telephone building was constructed on State St. above Eagle. At 11 stories, it was the tallest building in the city, and dominated Capitol Hill and downtown. The new building allowed consolidation of all telephone exchange services for Albany and administrative services for surrounding counties. (By 1915 there were about 18,000 subscribers in Albany and adjacent counties.) It’s now known as the Verizon Building, the company most recently formed as a result of the breakup of the Bell telephone monopoly in the early 1980s.
The Albany Connection.. literally
Bell’s telephone built upon the work of Albany’s Joseph Henry “Father of Modern Electricity” who became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian. Henry was also instrumental in encouraging Bell to perfect the telephone and to experiment with electricity as a means facilitating the transmission of the human voice.
Bell never forgot Henry’s contribution; he installed a telephone in Henry’s house in 1878 shortly before Henry’s death. Bell then arranged free telephone service for Henry’s widow, Harriet, and her daughters. Several years later, he intervened when the phone was removed from service. Writing the president of American Bell Telephone Company, as it was now named, Bell explained why he strongly urged restoration of service: “This telephone was placed in position there and no charge was made therefore in recognition of the efforts and services of Professor Henry in the early history of the instrument and who did a great deal to encourage the invention.”
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor