Alexander Graham Bell found only fifteen customers in all of Philadelphia the year after he demonstrated his telephonic invention at the Centennial. The question he transmitted: “To be, or not to be?” was still very much unanswered in 1877.
By 1890, the telephone’s prospects were looking somewhat less dire. More than 3,000 Philadelphians had gotten wired up. It looked as if the telephone might be on its way to becoming useful. Indispensable and omnipresent would have to wait.
When the city threw itself a massive, self-congratulatory celebration in 1908, the telephone industry jumped at the chance to brag about their 102,000 early adopters. In three lavish floats, Bell Telephone pitched their services to the hundreds of thousands of holdouts who lined Broad Street from Diamond to Snyder.
“The Founders Week celebration,” sniffed the New York Times, “is the most pretentious undertaking this city has ever attempted.” The daily parades illustrated “progress of the city from its founding…down to the present day.” Re-enactors created 68 scenes from Penn’s Treaty with the Indians to “The City Beautiful.”
Wednesday October 7th was entirely dedicated industry. Organizers had hoped to limit the number of floats to 100 but they ended up with twice that many. “Every phase of industrial activity, labor, agriculture, science, and all the applied arts, weaving, spinning, soap making, transportation, fortune, cigar making, the manufacture of crude and partly finished materials into the finished product, were shown with wonderful reality in the procession which moved down Broad Street between two walls of closely packed humanity.” The Tacony saw manufacturers Henry Disston & Sons had five floats; the city’s lager brewers had four; Baldwin Locomotive Work had two. Bell Telephone had three.
Twenty red and gold-trimmed horses pulled the first and largest, a 46-foot display divided into eight room-like sections. The first presented “a woman in her boudoir using the telephone.” Next came a manufacturer’s office illustrating “the benefits of telephone service;” then a lawyer and a broker’s office, “each showing the convenience of telephone facilities.” On the opposite side of the float we’re four more scenes, “each fitted up in a similar manner to illustrate the uses of the phone.” Above, on the roof of a house portion of the float, were “two boys, talking over the string and tin can methods of voice transmission,” a reminder of the primal, universal appeal of voice communication. “On the ends of the float there will be three young women switchboard telephone operators, showing the system of today.”
Bringing up the rear of the telephone float trio was a horse-drawn bar graph with giant model telephones representing “the rapid rise of adoption.” Bell Telephone proudly celebrated the numbers with increasingly large model telephones from 1883 when there were 3,674 subscribers to 1908, when there were 102,193.
By 1917, Philadelphia would have 175,000.
Comparing Philadelphia with, say, Paris: Philadelphia had lagged behind through the 1890s. But by 1905, the American city had more than double the telephones per capita of its European counterpart. By 1911, Philadelphia had close to three times the phones of Paris.
The American investment in infrastructure had paid off. From 1901 to 1912, the total telephone wire mileage on earth increased from five to 29 million miles. Half had been unspooled in the United States. In 1908, there were four million American telephones in use. By 1912, there would be eight million. Total American telephone conversations topped 14 billion, more than double what the rest of the world could claim.
The American love affair with the telephone—and with winning—was only getting revved up.
[Sources: “Founders Week Industrial Day,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 24, 1908; “Philadelphia Opens Its’ Founders Week,” The New York Times. October 5, 1908; “Miles of Float Show Industries’ Progress March – Nearly two hundred displays on wheels delight thousands,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1908; Telephone Statistics of the World (American Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1912); David Glassberg, “Public Ritual and Cultural Hierarchy: Philadelphia’s Civic Celebrations at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 107, No. 3 (Jul., 1983); “Telephones,” by Lucy Davis in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.]