Talk to Me!

The Telephone Story in Wellington County

The telephone, for better or worse, is one of the most defining inventions over the last 140 years.” – Paul Axman, Telephone Collector from Guelph-Eramosa Township

Early History of the Telephone

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell spoke into the first telephone, the now-famous instruction to his assistant, Thomas Watson – “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you!”. A year later, Bell Telephone Company (known as Bell Canada today) was established and the first commercial box telephones were available in urban communities. 

The success of Bell Canada rests largely in the careful management of Charles Fleeford Sise Sr. (1834-1918). He is considered to be the founder of the company. He obtained a federal charter on April 29, 1880 giving Bell Canada exclusive rights to manufacture and sell telephone equipment and services across Canada and put Bell Canada on solid footing against its rivals. Subsequently, Sise bought all existing operating companies including Hamilton Telephone Company and patent rights to other telephone equipment such as the Blake transmitter in the 1880s.

It was not until 1886 that telephone services spread to rural communities such as Wellington County. It was at this time that the Bell Canada installed its first long distance lines running north from Guelph to Walkerton, servicing Fergus, Elora and Clifford.

sepia photograph, front facing, men in work outfits in a wagon, seated in front of a stone building

Caption: Bell Telephone crew in front of Jacob Weber Hotel in Clifford. Poles can be seen out of the rear of the wagon. The men were seated on coils of wire, c. 1895. Credit: WCMA, ph 10264.

Blake Transmitter

Single toll Blake transmitter magneto telephones were the first type of telephones installed in Wellington County. These telephones were located in the businesses and homes of local Bell agents, who collected charges when people made calls. As the local Bell agent, Mr. Walton, from K.M. Walton Stationary Store and Post Office in Clifford, had telephone messages delivered by a hired messenger boy (for 5 cents) throughout the village.

colour photograph, wall cabinet telephone hanging  on wall

Caption: Blake transmitter telephone, 1891. The Blake Transmitter (the square box in the centre where you talk) was invented by Francis Blake, who received the patent on November 29, 1881. The double red band on the receiver (where you listen) meant this telephone was licensed for use in Canada only. Credit: Paul Axman’s Collection, 2020. On display in Talk to Me! Exhibit at WCMA

 Independent Telephone Companies

Few independent telephone systems were established in Ontario before 1900. Many rural companies were started by doctors and farmers, who wanted a telephone system for their own convenience. As friends and neighbours asked to be provided with the telephone, independent telephone exchange systems expanded.

Many Bell agents, like Robert Wightman (founder of the Robert Wightman Telephone System in 1908 and later called Wightman), built and operated a local system in conjunction with their job as a Bell agent, providing long distance service through Bell and local calls through their independent system.

In the early 1900s, there were twelve different independent telephone companies operating in Wellington County:

  • North Wellington Telephone Company Ltd. (1905)
  • The Robert Henry Edgar Telephone Co. Ltd. (1906)
  • MacDonald Telephone System (1907)
  • Rockwood and Oustic Telephone Company Ltd. (1907)
  • Consolidated Telephone Company (1908)
  • Hawthorne Hill Rural Telephone Co. Ltd. (1908)
  • Maryborough Telephone Company Limited (1908)
  • Minto Rural Telephone Company Limited (1908)
  • Mount Forest, Wellington and Grey Telephone Company Ltd. (1908)
  • Nichols Telephone System (1908)
  • Robert Wightman Telephone System (1908) 
  • Union Telephone Company Ltd. (1909)

By 1921, there were 689 independent telephone systems operating in Ontario. Today there are ONLY 21 in all of Canada and Wightman, based out of Clifford, is one of them.

Early Telephones

By the 1890s, Bell Canada started using better magneto sets with evolved designs. Connections were moved inside the receiver, and the wooden boxes were added to improve aesthetics.

To make a call on these early telephones, you first had to turn the side crank, which was attached to a magneto (an electrical generator that produces an alternating current or A.C. voltage). This would signal the bells of other telephones on the same line (called a party line) to ring, or alerted the switchboard operator to connect you to an outside line.

These telephones were powered by a wet cell battery (before 1898) or two dry battery cells (after 1898) that provided the necessary electricity to send the sound waves, from your voice, down the telephone line.

Photo Gallery: WCMA_Artifact Story_Early Telephones will appear here on the public site.

By the 1950s many magneto telephones were being replaced by the common battery systems, where a large bank of batteries from your local telephone office supplied the power to make a call. Bell Canada (in Fergus) installed common battery on November 14, and Wightman installed it in 1952. The elimination of the batteries and the magneto, reduced the size and weight of the telephone unit and paved the way for lighter desktop telephones.

Dial Switching

Toronto (in 1924), and Montreal (in 1925) were the first Bell Canada telephone exchanges that used dial switching (also known as rotary switching) and no longer used a switchboard operator to make local telephone calls. This was known as an automatic exchange system.

To make a call, you would dial a number (using the finger wheel and turning clockwise) to send out an electronic pulse along the telephone line to the local telephone office. At the office, the pulse would be deciphered by equipment such as SXS (also called step by step) and the action is repeated until the entire telephone number is dialed for the call. Dial service was not widely used in Wellington County until the 1950s with the advent of the common battery system.

In Wellington County, Wightman was one of the first independent companies to start using dial switching in Ontario, installing dial switching in their Neustadt exchange in 1954 and finishing with their Clifford exchange in 1971.

By 1956, Guelph was the first Canadian centre to have Direct Distance Dialing (DDD) (known as long distance dialing and is part of the automatic exchange system) installed by Bell Canada. Wightman shortly followed in 1964 converting their Neustadt exchange.

Photo Gallery: WCMA_Artifact Story_Dial Telephones will appear here on the public site.


Touchtone Service

Touchtone service was a regular service Bell Canada provided in Ontario by 1964. However, many independent exchange systems didn’t see touchtone until the late 1980s. For example, Wightman installed touchtone in 1987 as well as computer-driven digital switching by 1990.

Dual Tone Multi Frequency (DTMF) is used to describe push button dialing. When dialing, each button on the telephone produces two tones (a dual tone). The telephone switch, that the line connects to, recognizes these combinations and routes the call to the desired number and or action. Touchtone made it possible to access voice mail and is considered the precursor to mobile telephone technology we see today.

colour photograph, pink plastic desk telephone, cradle holding handset, handset has pink plastic cord attached, grey touchtone buttons on front printed with white letters and numbers

Caption: This telephone was used by Lloyd Bartley in his home in Fergus from 1978 until 2017. Credit: WCMA, 2017.76.1.

The telephone is one of the most important communication devices ever invented.
It expanded how people communicated and saw the world, providing instantaneous real-time interactions between people anywhere. 

Download ArtiFACT Story.pdf

For more information on our Telephone Collection at WCMA please visit our online collections catalogue link below.

WCMA Telephone Collection

© 2023 County of Wellington, 74 Woolwich St. Guelph, Ontario N1H 3T9, T 519.837.2600, TF 1.800.663.0750, F 519.837.1909