Atlanta Telephone History



1877 - The First Telephone Line

In 1877, the first telephone line in Atlanta was a private line connecting the Western and Atlantic Freight Depot with Durand's Restaurant in the Union Passenger Station. At each end of the telephone line was a Box Phone.
Box Phone. 1877The box phone was a wooden box with one hole for both talking and listening. To use it, you had to pick it up and yell into it, then move it to your ear to listen. There was no signaling device like a bell or buzzer to get the person's attention at the other end. People would sometimes tap a pencil against the diaphragm or just yell.

The person on the other end had to be nearby to hear it. This was more like a very crude intercom system than a telephone.
The telephone was a new invention. The Bell Telephone Company had not yet formed and A.G. Bell and his associates were installing these point-to-point private lines around the country. For some of these, the customer's privately owned telegraph line was used for the telephone circuit. In other cases, a telegraph line was leased from Western Union.

1879 - The First Telephone Exchange

In 1879, the first telephone exchange in Atlanta was opened. The company at this time was The National Bell Telephone Company.
Kimball House - Circa 1877The exchange was called The Atlanta Telephonic Exchange. It was located in a single room on the top floor of the Kimball House, a hotel on the corner of Wall and Pryor streets.
The first switchboards in most cities around this time were on the top floor of a building so that the wires could easily be strung out of the building to telephone poles.

Early Magneto Switchboard with boy operator - Circa 1880
The Atlanta Telephonic Exchange consisted of a small, single switchboard which handled about 25 lines. Most of the lines were shared party lines with 2 or 3 subscribers. So there were over 60 subscribers. The first telephone operators were teenaged boys.

Reproduction of 1881 Telephone Directory. Click for larger version.
There were no telephone numbers at first. The operator memorized the names of the subscribers and everybody asked for each other by name. This became impractical as the number of subscribers increased, resulting in the use of telephone numbers.
By 1882, the company name had become American Bell Telephone Company. Soon after that, Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company was formed.

Over the next 12 years, the telephone office in the Kimball House expanded several times and experienced tragedy on at least two occasions. On August 12, 1883, the hotel caught fire and was completely destroyed. Following reconstruction, the New Kimball House opened with a new switchboard. Several years later, another fire destroyed the switchboard, but the building was saved.

Early Telephones

Telephones connected to The Atlanta Telephonic Exchange were of the "magneto" type. The first one of these was the Butterstamp phone.
The Butterstamp Phone - c1879Like the Box Phone, this phone had a combination receiver/transmitter. The phone is named after the hand-held piece that looked like a butter stamp that was common at the time. You had to talk into it and then quickly place it to your ear to listen. The white button was used to signal the operator.
The Butterstamp phone transmitted sound very poorly. It was soon replaced by the first magneto crank phones with the newly invented Blake Transmitter.

Three Box Magneto Phone - c1882The "Three Box Phone" consisted of three wooden boxes on the wall with a hand-held receiver, a Blake Transmitter, a magneto crank, and a battery box. To place a call, you turned the crank to ring the operator, then picked up the receiver. The operator would then answer. You gave the operator the name of the party that you wanted and the operator connected you.
At the end of your call you had to signal the operator to disconnect the call. To do this, you had to hang up the receiver and turn the crank to produce a short ring. This was called "Ringing Off".

Dry Cell Battery used in Magneto PhonesIn the magneto phone, two large batteries were used to power the transmitter. A telephone company employee had to visit every telephone to replace the batteries about every six months. The first batteries were wet cells, containing corrosive acid, which would occasionally leak. Later on, dry cells were used.

In 1884 there were about 370 telephone subscribers served by the Atlanta Telephone Exchange and a telephone exchange also existed in Decatur. A call from Atlanta to Decatur was long distance. The charge was 15 cents for 5 minutes.
By this time, the switchboard had probably been expanded considerably. Although the details about Atlanta at this point are unknown, in other cities with a similar evolution, larger switchboards were built. These larger switchboards required a coordinated effort between multiple operators to complete each call. In the New Haven, Connecticut office, for example, there was a system of metal bars running horizontally across the room. One operator would connect the caller to one of these horizontal bars and then shout orders down to another operator, who connected the called subscriber to the same bar. The shouting apparently made it hard to hear customers and resulted in customers having to shout as well.
Around 1887, to solve some of these problems, the "multiple switchboard" was invented. This arrangement repeated each subscriber's line jack multiple times so that it appeared in front of each operator, allowing a single operator to connect a call to any subscriber in the office. Early versions of this system had problems too. For example, it was difficult to tell when a particular line was in use before connecting a call to it.
Hello, Central?

When an operator answered a subscriber's call, at first there was no standard phrase in use and answered varied. "Hello!" was commonly used. Later on, "What Number?" became more common and in some places they answered "Central!".


On February 2, 1890, the first long distance line to Chicago was completed. It was now possible to call Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh. At this point, there was no long distance service to the Northeast or the West.


1892 - Pryor Street Central Office

The Pryor Street Central Office Building - Circa 1895

After having outgrown the switchboard at the Kimball house and after enduring 2 fires there, Southern Bell constructed a new central office building at 78 South Pryor Street. The new building, completed in 1892, housed Southern Bell Headquarters, Atlanta's Main central office, and the Atlanta toll switchboard. Operators on the Atlanta toll switchboard handled long distance calls originating in Atlanta and surrounding communities and calls coming in from distant points and terminating in the Atlanta area.
Around this time, as in other cities around the country, it was determined that the boy operators were rude and that young ladies made much better operators. The operators were sometimes called "telephone girls" or "hello girls".
Early Manual Central Office
Around 1895, the Bell System adopted the standard "Number, Please!" as the appropriate way to answer a switchboard as procedures and practices for telephone operators began to be formalized. Training for telephone operators by the Bell System became a very serious matter. Operators were trained on how to sit and how speak correctly. They were taught to look straight ahead, not to look around the room and not to talk to each other. When talking to customers, operators were only allowed to use a limited set of phrases. Please and Thank You were considered very important. Customers could be very abusive at times. But no matter how rude or insulting a customer was to the operator, she was always required to say Thank You.
Number, Pleeyazz!

One of the most interesting things that came out of operator training that lasted in to the 1950s was the exaggerated pronunciation of certain words. Since early telephone lines were noisy, this was considered necessary. The word please was supposed to be pronounced "pleeyazz", the number nine was to be pronounced "niyun", and the word line was "liyun".


Overhead Wires

At first, all telephone lines consisted of individual wires strung down the street on telephone poles. The mass of wires cast a shadow over the streets in many cities during this period. It was several decades before telephone cable was introduced.
The first lines used a single wire for each telephone line. This was known as the grounded system since the earth was used as the return path. These lines were particularly noisy, picking up electrical noise from power lines, adjacent telephone lines, telegraph lines, streetcars, and machinery.

The noises were sometimes unbearable, consisting of hissing, screeching, bubbling, clicking, and many other sounds that made conversation hard to hear.
The grounded system was later replaced with the metallic system, using two wires per telephone line. This eliminated most of the noise.

1899 - A Second Telephone Company

Atlanta Telephone Company Ad from the Atlanta City Directory - 1905

In 1899, a second telephone company began service, competing with Southern Bell. The new company was initially called The Atlanta Standard Telephone Company but later dropped "Standard" to become The Atlanta Telephone Company. The new company promised lower rates and better service than Bell. Advertised rates for unlimited service were $36 per year a business line and $24 for a residential line.

Duplicated Service

The two competing companies did not provide interconnecting service. You could only call other customers served by the same company. This forced most retail businesses to have dual service, listing both telephone numbers on their advertising. Some businesses managed to get the same telephone number on both systems. Others had completely different numbers on the two systems.
Sample Ad from The Atlanta City Directory - 1905
An ad for Loftis Plumbing shows that they could be reached on Atlanta Telephone's exchange by asking for number 1184. On Southern Bell's system, they were on the Main office, number 1846. Some businesses, such as Williams Lumber had the same telephone number on both systems. This type of competition was very common during this period in cities throughout the United States and Canada.
Sample Ad from The Atlanta City Directory - 1905
Atlanta Telephone's first central office was opened at 104 Edgewood Avenue.

The Candlestick Phone

Candlestick Phone used with Manual ServiceThe candlestick phone, also called the "upright" was using during this period. This was before the introduction of the one piece handset. For the candlestick transmitter to work properly, you had to hold the phone in an upright position.
The first candlestick phones were introduced when the magneto system was in use. This meant that the phone was connected to a large wooden box called a "subset" which contained the battery, bell, and magneto crank.

Party Lines

Many telephones were on party lines. A party line was an arrangement where you shared the same telephone line with other subscribers. In cities, typically 2 or 4 residences or businesses shared a line. In rural areas, anywhere from 2 to 20 parties sometimes shared the same line, although 10 was the usual limit. All customers on the same line would have the same telephone number plus a letter to identify the individual customer. A person's number might be 357-J.
In most cases, Southern Bell used the letters J and L for two-party lines and J, M, W, and R for four-party lines. Sometimes "-2" was used to identify a party line subscriber. Atlanta Telephone used letters A, B, M, and F. It is unknown today what the significance of these letters were and why they were chosen.
There were a few rural lines connected to the Atlanta exchange. These were lines strung out into remote areas and probably had more parties on them than normal city lines. Southern Bell designated rural lines with a telephone number followed by "R" and the party number.
There were several systems invented for ringing an individual on a party line. The earliest and simplest system was called "coded ringing". Each party had a distinct ringing pattern. For example, one party might be instructed to listen for "two short rings". Everyone on the party line heard the ringing and had to listen for his or her assigned ringing pattern, while ignoring everyone else's. At first, the operator was responsible for generating the ringing codes by flipping the ringing key in the required pattern.
On the first telephone lines, using the single wire, grounded system, coded ringing was the only system available for signaling parties on a party line. When the two-wire metallic system later took over, a refinement was possible. By connecting half of the subscriber's ringers between one of the two wires and a ground wire and connecting the other half of the subscriber's ringers between the other wire and a ground wire, it was possible to selectively ring one half or the other by applying ringing voltage to the correct wire. This was known as "divided ringing" and was controlled by the use of keys on the operator switchboard.
With divided ringing on a two-party line, each party heard only his own rings. On a four-party line, each party heard his own ring plus the rings belonging to one other party. This was called "semi-selective ringing".
Other more elaborate ringing systems were also used. One system, known as "polarized" or "superimposed" ringing, used the divided ringing technique plus positive and negative DC voltages to select between four parties. This provided for fully selective ringing on four-party lines or semi-selective ringing on eight-party lines.

The "North" Office

In 1900 Southern Bell opened the North office on North Avenue in what is known as Midtown today. Customers on the north side of town were given "North" numbers.
Using Telephone Company terminology, the term "Exchange" means an entire city or local calling area. Using this definition, the entire metro Atlanta area is one exchange. The individual switching centers inside the city such as the Pryor Street office are called "Central Offices" or "Offices".

Common Battery Service

Around the turn of the century, the magneto system with its cranks and batteries was being phased out. By this time, The Bell System had introduced the Common Battery Switchboard. The new system placed the power supply in the central office and eliminated the need for batteries in the subscriber's telephone. The crank was also eliminated. When you wanted to place a call, you would simply pick up the receiver and wait for the operator. When you finished your call, you could just hang up. You no longer had to crank again to signal the operator to drop the connection.
The standard telephone instrument was still the candlestick phone, which still required a subset. The subset contained the ringer and an induction coil. But the crank and batteries were no longer required and the subset could be mounted on the wall and out of the way.
After the invention of the common battery system, magnetos were phased out in most cities but continued to be used for many decades in rural areas.

1905 - Growth and Competition Continues

As the city grew and new central offices were opened, each office was referred to by its location. When calling from one office to another, it was necessary to give the operator the name of the office plus the number. For example, you might have asked for Main 134 or Decatur 3357-L. Southern Bell offices at this time were Main, North, West, Decatur, and East Point. The East Point office was opened sometime between 1902 and 1905. The West Office was opened on Ashby Street in 1905. Also around 1905, Decatur was no longer considered a long distance call and had become part of the Atlanta Exchange.

Southern Bell Telephone Company Central Office Locations - 1905
The map shows the location of Southern Bell central offices in 1905. Atlanta Telephone Company's central offices were located in mostly the same places as Southern Bell's and served the same general areas.

Atlanta Telephone Company overtakes Southern Bell

In 1905, Atlanta Telephone's main central office was moved to a bigger building at 75 Edgewood and the company's name was changed from The Atlanta Standard Telephone Company to Atlanta Telephone and Telegraph Company.
By 1915, Atlanta Telephone provided long distance service to Forest Park, Hapeville, and Mountainview. The toll charge was 15 cents for each 5-minute interval. Due to a lack of interconnection between independent companies like Atlanta Telephone and AT&T;, you would not have been able to call beyond this area on their system.
By 1909, Southern Bell and Atlanta Telephone had several thousand customers each with Atlanta Telephone serving the larger number. There is very little known about Atlanta Telephone today. It is not known what type of telephones and switchboards they used and whether or not customers were generally happy with the service or not.
In most cities where an independent telephone company like Atlanta Telephone provided competing local telephone service, the split was generally along social class lines. The less affluent people tended to have the less expensive service, provided by the independent company. The social elite tended to have Southern Bell service. This was probably due partly to Southern Bell's ability to provide long distance service over AT&T;'s long distance lines and the greater use of long distance by more wealthy people.

The Divided-Multiple Switchboard

In the first few years of manual telephone service, a single operator could answer all of the calls in the central office and make the necessary connections. Then, in the late 1880s, the "Multiple Switchboard" was invented which allowed multiple operators to answer customer lines and complete calls. Then in the early 1900s, the "Divided-Multiple Switchboard" was placed into service.
The Divided-Multiple System split the handling of every call into two parts, requiring two operators, "A" and "B". When you picked up your phone to make a call, the "A" operator answered "NUMBER, PLEEYAZZ!". You gave the "A" operator the office name and number that you wanted. The "A" operator then pressed a key connecting her to a "Call Circuit" associated with a "B" operator who had access to the called line. She repeated the number to the "B" operator, who then rang the line. If the line was busy, the "B" operator notified the "A" operator who then notified the caller.

The "Ivy" Office

In 1908, Southern Bell opened a second new building downtown at 56 Marietta Street. This building housed a second central office called "Ivy" and became the new location of Southern Bell Headquarters.
The new Ivy central office served new customers in the downtown area. It appears that Ivy did not have its own territory but covered the same area as Main. Since there were now two offices in the Atlanta exchange, customers were required to state the name of the office being called, Main or Ivy. Prior to this, only a number was required unless you were calling Decatur, East Point, or West.
The relocation of Southern Bell Headquarters from 78 South Pryor to the new building meant that the Main office and the Atlanta Toll Board had room for growth.
Also in 1908, the North office was closed. Customers served out of that office were probably switched to the new Ivy office.

The "Hemlock" Office

In 1917, Southern Bell opened the new Hemlock Office on Crescent Avenue at Tenth Street just north of downtown. When it was finally removed from service in 1951, the Hemlock office ended up being Atlanta's longest-lasting manual office.
The Hemlock office would have had the latest technology available in 1917. At this point this would have been the Divided Multiple Switchboard using "Straightforward Operation" instead of Call Circuit Operation as before. Using this system, you gave the "A" operator the name of the office and the number you wanted. The "A" operator the plugged in to a trunk to the office desired and passed the number to the "B" operator over the trunk itself.
The new switchboard equipment also had automatic listening and automating ringing. This allowed "B" operators to handle calls faster. The equipment connected the "B" operator to the calling "A" operator automatically (automatic listening). When the "B" Operator plugged in to a customer line to ring it, the equipment rang the line automatically, returning an audible sound to the calling party. If the called line was busy, the "B" operator plugged the cord into a special jack that returned a busy signal to the caller.
It is not known exactly what the early ringing and busy signals sounded like. Early busy signal did, however, have a loud clicking component, "flash supervision", that was very irritating to callers. This was later removed.

1919 - The End of Competition

In 1919, Southern Bell bought out The Atlanta Telephone Company, bringing an end to competition and creating a single network for the entire city.
Businesses with dual service could now drop the extra expense of two telephones and everyone could now call everyone else. If you had dual service from both companies, you could simply drop your Atlanta Telephone line and save the added cost. If you were an Atlanta Telephone Company customer, you would be assigned a new telephone number on one of the Southern Bell offices. It is doubtful that Southern Bell would have provided customers of Atlanta Telephone with service at the same price. So some residential customers may have chosen to disconnect their telephone service.

The "Ivy-Walnut Building"

In 1920, Southern Bell opened a new building at 25 Auburn Avenue. The building was initially referred to as the Ivy-Walnut Building. The building was constructed to house two central offices. The first office was the new Ivy office, replacing the original Ivy office in the 56 Marietta Street Building. The second was a new office called Walnut, which provided service for additional new customers in the downtown area.
The Main office continued to operate out of the South Pryor Street building and Southern Bell Headquarters remained at the 56 Marietta Street location.
Walnut served the same downtown area as Main and Ivy. So there were now three offices serving the same area. A business or residential customers in the Downtown area might have a telephone number on any of these offices.
By the end of 1920, Southern Bell had moved any remaining customers of the former Atlanta Telephone Company to its own central offices and closed the old Atlanta Telephone central office on Edgewood Avenue.

In 1921, there were 7 central offices in the Atlanta area.

The "Belmont" Office

Around 1922, the new Belmont office was opened on the Northwest side. This office may have originally been the Atlanta Telephone Company's Chattahoochee office. This was the last manual office to be built. The age of dial service was about to begin.


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