John W. Cowart

Jacksonville’s first telephone line stretched for a single city block. That line ran from the office of A.N. Beck at Main and Bay streets to the Inland Navigation Company at Bay and Laura streets.

Today, Jacksonville contains 424,000 miles of aerial wire and cable stretched along 31,818 telephone poles; and four million miles of underground line, as well as 18 million duct feet of conduit, said Dick Brown, Southern Bell community relations director.

“That’s enough wire and cable to wrap around the world 180 times,” he said.

That first phone line here was installed in 1878 – only two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

Jacksonville businessman John G. Christopher of the firm of Wightman & Christopher quickly saw the advantages of the new invention. He contracted with B.D. DeForrest, assistant superintendent of the Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co., and in 1880 Jacksonville’s first exchange was formed with 34 subscribers.

Today, over 275,000 customer lines are served in the Jacksonville area, Brown said.

During the early days of phone service in Jacksonville, some people viewed the instrument with reservations. For instance, in 1883, small pox broke out in the city and the question arose: Could infection travel through the phone lines?

A quarantine hospital was set up and, a June 3, 1883 newspaper reported, “The hospital has been connected with the telephone exchange and yesterday a Times-Union man mustered up courage enough to engage in a conversation with Dr. Babcock, of course at the safe distance of one and one-half miles and that after the Doctor had promised not to breath very hard while talking in the instrument”.

Apparently the doctor did not breath hard enough to spread the germs because both the reporter and the infant phone company survived that ordeal.

But the yellow fever epidemic of 1888 proved more serious.

Yellow fever depopulated Jacksonville; everyone who could fled, but of the people remaining in the city over 5,000 caught the disease and nearly 500 died. Telephone employees were no exception; all of them came down with the fever and several succumbed.

An October 17, 1888, letter from chief operator, Mrs. W.B. Owen, who was recovering form her own bout with yellow fever, captures the anguish of the day:

“Mamie Davis has been sick today and has not been to the office… I do not think that Mamie has any symptoms of the fever, but it is dangerous to get sick now…

“There is no doubt that if it had not been for her the exchange would have been closed, as at one time we were all down… She ran everything by herself. For sometime she had been alone… working form six in the morning to night and eating her dinner at the switchboard,,, It was very sad and lonely, her only company being the calls and most of them for doctors, undertakers and ambulances… I sincerely hope she is not going to have the fever”.

By 1890, the number of subscribers grew to 288. Business rates “within one-half mile radius of the exchange” cost $16 per quarter, while the residential  rate was $12.50. On July 26, 1897, long distance service was established between Jacksonville and Savannah, Ga.

The telephone exchange caught fire on August 18, 1891. A new exchange was built at 212 West Forsyth Street. The great Jacksonville fire of 1901 leveled the city but missed the new exchange – although most telephone company records were destroyed.

Many surviving documents as well as displays of early equipment and historic photographs are exhibited at a company museum in the Southern Bell Tower. Tours can be arranged.

The same year as the Great Fire, another communications business, the Jacksonville Telephone Co., was established to compete with Southern Bell. Due to financial troubles it folded in three years.

By 1910, Southern Bell had 6,367 Jacksonville customers and people were constantly discovering new uses for their telephones:

“If anyone desires to select the right kind of wife,” said the February 12, 1912 issue of Life magazine, “One should never see the lady, but should first talk with applicants over the telephone.

 “A woman’s voice is a certain indication of her character. Selfishness, sympathy, shallowness, cultivation, reserve strength, control and the capacity to bore – all these things and much more are revealed in a woman’s voice; therefore, make a list of girls… call them up on the telephone and select the voice you want. Never mind how she looks, she will always look well to you if you can listen to her with constantly increasing enjoyment”.

People are still discovering new uses for their telephones. The recently established Open Talk Service – with which people can join a round-table discussion on topics of current interest with up to a dozen other callers – draws 3,000 area callers each day.

An enhanced 911 service to enable callers to reach police, fire and emergency personnel is scheduled to be introduced in Duval, St. Johns and Clay counties next February. This service will not only simplify  emergency calls for the caller, but also will immediately display the location of the calling phone and the location of the closest source of help to the dispatcher.

Brown foresees the day when customers will be able to bank or shop by telephone as well as have wide spread access to electronic mail and news services.

“The technology is available but at what point it will be ready for home use, who knows? It looks like we’re expecting to add 13,700 new lines – new businesses, new residences, new offices – during 1986. And we’re spending 63 and a half million dollars to expand and modernize telephone facilities to meet Jacksonville’s new growth,” Brown said.

“There is almost no limit to what technology can achieve through fiber optics and computer switching systems; there’s an exciting future ahead,” he said.

This article was published in the April 14, 1986, issue of the Jacksonville Business Journal.


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