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As It Was: Southern Oregon Towns Experiment with Acoustic Telephones

When major U.S. cities were connected to telephone service in the late 1800s, small towns in Southern Oregon were left on the sidelines.  They didn’t have electric power plants or sewer lines, and couldn’t afford to build phone networks and pay royalties to Alexander Graham Bell.

While telephones made sense for business or calling distant relatives, most people considered the telephone a novelty and saw no need to phone neighbors across town.  A Jacksonville, Ore., reporter once wrote: “…there seems a kind of absurdity in addressing a piece of iron.”

Some small-town entrepreneurs saw the need for telephone service and began building primitive acoustic systems by stringing lines attached to vibrating diaphragms between a few houses.  Acoustic telephones didn’t use electricity, so they weren’t bound by Bell’s patents.

A Jacksonville dentist, Will Jackson, constructed the town’s earliest acoustic system in 1879 by connecting lines from his house to that of Judge Legrand Duncan and newspaper editor William Turner.  It was far from universal service, and it would take another 20 years for the Rogue Valley to have its first telephone switchboard and operator, located in a Medford drugstore. 

Sources:  Miller, Bill. "Southern Oregon "Hellos" the World." Southern Oregon Heritage Today, vol. 4, no. 11, Nov. 2002, pp. 8-13.  

Sharon Bywater of Ashland, Oregon grew up in Southern California. She taught English literature and writing at Syracuse University in New York, where she also wrote and edited adult literacy books and published freelance articles in local media. Later, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she worked as an international telecommunications policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Commerce. She has Master’s degrees in English and Communications Management.