They were among the first to reach out and touch someone: A look at one of the first telephone networks in Canada

An overall view of one of the first telephone networks in Canada, Montréal, Québec, 1878. Anon., “Le premier téléphone qui ait jamais été installé à Montréal.” La Presse, 27 January 1912, 5.

Greetings, my eager beaver reading friend, a welcome caused by the fact that I see a hand poking out of the ether. You have a question? Wunderbar! Is there a typo in the photographic reference that will kick off this issue of our wonderful blog / bulletin / thingee, you ask? The year 1878 was a little too early, you say. It was certainly early, but not too early. The truth was / is that one of the first telephone networks in Canada was established in Montréal, Québec, in 1878, I think. I kid you not.

Our story began at an undetermined date. Indeed, yours truly does not know when the creators of said network heard of the telephone developed by Alexander Graham Bell with the help of Thomas Augustus Watson, and… Uh, yes, my reading friend, you are quite right. Bell has been mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2018. Watson was in a November 2021 issue. And no, Bell was never a Canadian. He was a Scot, in other words a British subject, who became a naturalised United States citizen in 1882. But back to our topic.

And no again, Bell was not the one and only inventor of the telephone. Conspiracy theorists back then and today go so far as to claim that his patent attorneys obtained on the sly certain information from a document concerning an upcoming patent application and this before it was entered in the United States Patent Office register, on 14 February 1876, by the American electrical engineer Elisha Gray or his patent attorney. Bell’s patent application was then hastily amended and entered in the register of said patent office on 14 February 1876, approximately 2 hours before Gray’s document was entered in said register. These conspiracy theorists were / are obviously wrong, are they not? Please, say (type?) they are wrong. But back to our story.

The first articles in Québec newspapers concerning the telephone found by yours truly appeared in February 1877, in the dailies La Minerve of Montréal and Le Journal de Québec, as well as in the semi-daily La Gazette de Sorel and the semi-weeklies Courrier de Saint -Hyacinthe and Le Journal des Trois-Rivières. A first article in English appeared no later than January 1877, in The Gazette of Montréal. The first Québec periodical devoted to education, the monthly Journal de l’Instruction publique, also devoted an article to that question in its January 1877 issue – a Québec first from the looks of it.

These sometimes almost identical texts described the telephone as being a talking telegraph.

Would you believe that this invention was one of the wonders presented at the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from May to November 1876?

It should be noted that Bell was in Montréal towards the end of July 1877. That visit went almost unnoticed, which is not a little curious given the interest of a certain public in the telephone. Come to think of it, it might not be that curious. You see, Bell had married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard about 2 weeks before their visit to Montréal. The new couple was probably on its honeymoon when it arrived in the Canadian metropolis, but I digress.

The first demonstration of telephony on Québec soil took place in Montréal a little before mid-August 1877, between the offices of Bell’s representative in Québec, City and District Telegraph Company of Montréal, and a station of the Département du feu of the metropolis of Canada. An operator at that station read extracts from a newspaper. People at the telegraph firm’s office claimed to understand everything he said. The demonstration lasted approximately 15 minutes.

And yes, yours truly realises that using terms like first or last is perilous to say the least. A little joker may indeed come and correct the pontification of the expert who imagines he knows everything. I therefore hold my breath, hoping that the sky will not fall on my head, by Toutatis, by Belenos or by chance. Sorry. Back to our story. That, by the way, was an Asterixian gag and if you do not know Asterix, you do not know what you are missing.

By the way, in 1877, the rights to use Bell’s patents for Canada belonged to the inventor’s father, researcher, lecturer and professor Alexander Melville Bell, and to Charles Williams, Junior, the owner of the American workshop which manufactured the very first Bell telephones.

Two other telephony demonstrations took place in Montréal in August 1877, in the offices of the Montréal firm Montreal Telegraph Company and in a room of the Saint Lawrence Hall Hotel. Bell’s daddy, who was staying at the latter establishment, may, I repeat may, have participated in these demonstrations.

By the way, again, the first practical application of the telephone in Canada may, I repeat may, have been a private line installed in Ottawa, Ontario, between the office of the Prime Minister and Minister of Public Works, then Alexander Mackenzie, and Government House, the residence of the Governor General, then the Earl of Dufferin, born Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood. Said line was put to the test in late August or early September 1877, by Mackenzie and his secretary, William Buckingham.

Bell senior and son did not sell these 2 telephones. Nay. They leased them out for about $ 20 each a year, or about $ 670 in 2022 currency. How much do you pay for your telephone service, my reading friend?

In September 1877, Robert Watson and a certain Mr. Badger took part in the first long distance telephone conversation on Québec soil. The former was then in Québec, Québec, and the latter in Montréal. The wires of the Dominion Telegraph Company, a firm in Toronto, Ontario, used for that experiment might have been as long as 325 kilometres (200 miles), perhaps. The voices of the 2 men were clearly heard.

One of the first, if not the first experience of telephony on Québec soil involving the transmission of music took place in Québec, the city of course, in the same month of September. A small orchestra with 2 singers could be found in the famous music store of Jean Moïse Arthur Lavigne, born Tessier. Their performance was transmitted to the City and District Telegraph offices using a line installed for the occasion. Some electricians and important denizens of Québec, including a few ladies, were in said offices. They could hear the music and songs, apparently half a dozen in all, very well. In return, some of these people performed a few songs which were clearly audible in Lavigne’s store. The 2 groups said they were very impressed by the quality of the sound transmitted by the telephone line.

As you can imagine, demonstrations would continue through the fall of 1877 and the winter of 1877-78.

Let us mention, for example, the one that took place in Montréal in October, between the home of a certain Professor Johnston, possibly James A. Johnston, a doctor, where several members of the Athenaeum Club of Montreal could be found, and the offices of City and District Telegraph, where a few other members of the same club could be found. Conversations went off without a hitch and some people put forward a few songs.

As the participants fell silent, an unknown voice was heard. Everyone was astonished. That gentleman performed a song before introducing himself and explaining that, having seen the telephone line, which by chance was near his home, he simply hung a wire between his house and the line installed by City and District Telegraph. That unknown gentleman may well have performed the first illegal telephone wiretap in North America. The first, but certainly not the last. (Hello, Mr. Big Brother!)

Speaking (typing?) of wires and lines, the fact was that City and District Telegraph may, I repeat may, have installed lines between a few residences and businesses in Montréal even before the end of 1877, and…

What do you say, my reading friend? You wish to read within these four walls information concerning 1 or 2 other examples of demonstrations carried out at the turn of the years 1877 and 1878? Your words are a balm to my heart. Yes, yes, they are.

In March 1878, a small concert presented in Buffalo, New York, was broadcasted via the telegraph lines of Montreal Telegraph. The people who listened to that performance were mainly in Toronto and Montréal, but also in St. Catherines, Ontario, very close to Buffalo. About 640 kilometres (nearly 400 miles) separate Montréal from Buffalo. Not bad for 1878, was it not?

The interest in the telephone was such that the head of the Department of Physics at Tufts University, the American physicist and inventor Amos Emerson Dolbear, published a book entitled The Telephone: An Account of the Phenomena of Electricity, Magnetism, and Sound, as Involved in its Action – With Directions For Making A Speaking Telephone even before the end of 1877. One may wonder how many handypersons assembled their own doohickey using that book, the very first to be dedicated to the telephone. And yes, Dolbear was one of the people who had helped shape the telephone before Bell hit the jackpot.

One of the handypersons who did not seem to make use of Dolbear’s work was a brilliant watchmaker, jeweler and inventor from Québec. Cyrille Duquet designed a telephone which was superior to that of Bell, he said, because of the power of the sound which came out of it. Indeed, he installed examples of it in his jewelry store and in a store he owned with a certain Louis Dallaire, around November 1877.

In January 1878, Duquet demonstrated a long-distance link between Québec and Montréal. At the turn of January and February 1878, he demonstrated a long-distance link between Montréal and Ottawa. The Montreal Telegraph district superintendents for Montréal and Ottawa oversaw the conduct of that demonstration. They were delighted with the results. Would you believe that Duquet obtained a Canadian patent in February 1878 for improvements to the telephone?

Duquet subsequently (in 1879?) set up a few telephone lines in Québec, to the Spencer Wood estate, the residence of the lieutenant-governor of Québec, then Luc Letellier de Saint-Just or Théodore Robitaille, for example, as well as to the Couvent Jésus-Marie in Sillery, Québec, where one of his daughters was studying. The Québec inventor also supervised the installation of a line between Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montréal and the Séminaire de Montréal. And no, I do not see why such a telephone line would be useful either.

The telephones used by Duquet customers may well have been the first in the world to combine the transmitter and receiver in a single box, in this case made of wood. And yes, a Quebecer may have invented the telephone handset.

Duquet and a few associates founded the Compagnie de téléphone de Québec et Lévis in 1881. The provincial law formalising that foundation was sanctioned in June. Duquet’s firm was not promised a bright future, however.

Would you believe that Canadian Telephone Company of Montréal, the brand-new Canadian subsidiary of the American firm National Bell Telephone Company / American Bell Telephone Company which held the Bell patents in Canada and leased the equipment to a second subsidiary also founded in 1880, Bell Telephone Company of Canada Limited of Montréal, sued Duquet in 1880 for patent infringement? The latter lost his case in 1882 but ultimately only paid $ 10 in damages. You see, Canadian Telephone fervently wished to get hold of the very interesting Duquet patents. The Québec inventor received no less than $ 2 100 for the whole – slightly more than $ 72 000 in 2022 currency, which was not all that much when you get down to it.

Before I forget, National Bell Telephone was the firm which owned Bell’s precious patents in the United States.

By the way, Dolbear published an article titled "The Cricket as a Thermometer" in the November 1897 issue of The American Naturalist magazine which noted the correlation between the temperature on a beautiful summer day and the speed at which male crickets chirped. The mathematical formula presented in that article became known as Dolbear’s law. I kid you not. Used with the cooperation of an amorous male cricket, this formula calculated the temperature of our beautiful summer day to the nearest degree Fahrenheit. No, no, I am still not kidding.

The temperature is calculated as follows. Count the number of chirps per minute. Subtract 40 from that number and divide the result of that calculation by 4. Once that is done, add 50 to the result of that calculation. If your gryllid looking for female companionship chirps 148 times per minute, for example, you subtract 40 from 148, which gives you 108. That 108 divided by 4 gives you 27. Add 50 to that 27 and you get 77. The temperature of your summer day is therefore 77 degrees Fahrenheit, or 25 degrees Celsius. Tadaa.

And yes, there is a slightly less accurate metric version of Dolbear’s law able to calculate the temperature of our beautiful summer day to the nearest degree Celsius. Said temperature is then calculated as follows. Count the number of chirps per minute. Subtract 40 from that number and divide the result of that calculation by 7.2. Once that is done, add 10 to the result of that calculation. If your gryllid looking for female companionship chirps again 148 times per minute, you subtract 40 from 148, which gives you 108. That 108 divided by 7.2 gives you 15. Add 10 to that 15 and you get 25. The temperature of your summer day is therefore 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit). Re-tadaa.

What can tell I you? I like crickets.

Dare I say that your diet might include crickets, or cricket flour, before too, too long? Let us not forget, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tells us that crickets need much less food than cattle (12 times less), sheep (4 times less) and pigs and broilers (2 times less) to produce the same amount of protein? Disgusting, you say? I will never eat that, you say? What about shrimps? Do you like them shrimps, or lobster, or crab? What do you think a crab, lobster or shrimp is, if not a distant relative of the cricket you find disgusting?

But what about the telephone network at the heart of this article, you say? Patience, yours truly is getting there. And I understand very well that you are trying to change the subject, little nature that you are, my reading friend.

Yours truly does not know when that project was born in the mind of a young Montréal electrician. We can assume that Mathias F. Jannard submitted his idea to a quartet of friends in 1877 or 1878. Georges Bélanger, Louis Dansereau, Henri Arthur Dauphin and Dr. Sydney Craig deemed the idea excellent. Jannard was elected chief engineer of the group. The latter soon set up its telephone exchange in Bélanger’s home. The network may, I repeat may, have come into operation in 1878.

Installing the telephone lines was no small feat. As the 1870s came to an end, the streets where the team members lived were relatively sparsely populated. There was a large number of vacant lots, especially in the corner of the world occupied by orchards apparently owned by ex-lawyer, businessman and politician Côme Séraphin Cherrier. Faced with a lack of usable poles, Jannard and his friends tied their telephone lines to chimneys as best they could and insulated them with bits of rubber tube which may, I repeat may, have come from a type of bicycle known as a penny-farthing / ordinary / high wheeler / high wheel – in French, a grand-bi. The wire which completed the circuit communicated with Montréal’s water network.

The telephone itself consisted of a small mahogany box. The opening therein was used for both transmission and reception. In other words, anyone who wanted to speak had to place said box near their mouth and anyone who wanted to hear had to place it against an ear. According to the people concerned, that very simple, if not primitive, equipment worked very well.

The group’s telephones were an endless subject of fun for their friends, neighbours and relatives. In the days and weeks following the entry into service of the network, many people came in to enjoy the pleasure of a conversation. One person even had the smart idea of ​​placing a telephone near a piano so that everyone on the team could listen to a trendy piece of music from the comfort of their own home. That type of transmission may, I repeat may, have taken place more than once.

That network represented only a small fraction of the hundreds of telephones installed on Canadian soil, in more than 40 municipalities, especially in Ontario and Québec, and this even before the end of 1879. The aforementioned Bell senior and Williams were then experiencing more and more difficulties in keeping their accounts up to date and keeping the telephones in working order, the genuine Bell telephones only of course and not the illegal copies. They therefore decided to sell Bell’s patents to a Canadian firm. The aforementioned Dominion Telegraph politely gave them short shrift. Would you believe that the equally aforementioned Duquet tried to raise the necessary funds, without success actually, the banks and the business world of Québec and Montréal not believing that there was money to be made with the telephone?

Unable to find any acceptable Canadian interlocutor with whom to negotiate, Bell and Williams contacted the aforementioned National Bell Telephone which gladly agreed to pay the large sum requested, as stated (typed?) above. Said sum was apparently $ 100 000, or slightly more than 3 400 000 $ in 2022 currency, which is not a huge sum of money if you get down to it, but I digress

At that time, however, National Bell Telephone was not the only player on the Canadian telephone scene. Nay. Montreal Telegraph, a firm controlled by a very powerful and influential capitalist, financier and shipping magnate, Sir Hugh Allan, entered the race in 1879. The rights to the telephone it intended to sell belonged to an American giant which was far more powerful than National Bell Telephone, Western Union Telegraph Company. Said telephone had just been developed by the aforementioned Gray, who did not intend to be ousted by Bell, and by a fearless and merciless American giant, the formidable Thomas Alva Edison. Was the success of National Bell Telephone in Canada, and even in the United States, in jeopardy? (Dramatic music.)

Well, no. Bell sued Western Union Telegraph for patent infringement and won his case in 1879.

The aforementioned Bell Telephone Company of Canada acquired Dominion Telegraph in July 1880. It also acquired Montreal Telegraph in the fall of that year. Even before the end of 1881, Bell Telephone Company of Canada had for all intents and purposes taken over all the firms operating the 3 100 or so telephones on Canadian soil.

The telephone network set up by Jannard, Dauphin, Dansereau, Craig and Bélanger very likely disappeared long before the end of 1881. None of them wanted to be sued for patent infringement. Canadian telephony would remain the lucrative preserve / monopoly of Bell Canada Limited, a corporate name adopted in 1968, until 1992. Is unrestrained capitalism not just beautiful, provided you are the one whose finger is at the switch, of course?


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Rénald Fortier