Abstract: The People's Telephone: The Politics of Telephony in the United States and Canada, 1876-1926

Robert MacDougall


The People's Telephone is a comparative history of the telephone in the Midwestern United States and Central Canada, from its invention in 1876 to the completion of a nearly ubiquitous continental network by the 1920s. At each step of the telephone's construction, business, politics, and technology were intertwined. Struggles between small firms and large corporations, between regional and national networks of commerce and information, and between autonomous entrepreneurs and salaried managers were all projected onto seemingly prosaic disputes about the telephone and its wires. The competing networks built in this era embodied prescriptive arguments about the ideal organization of the economy and society, and in particular the organization of business firms. A nationalist mission for the telephone helped preserve the Bell monopoly in Central Canada, while localism and hostility to national integration fuelled early opposition to Bell in the Midwestern United States. But outcomes were ironic. Despite Ottawa's desire to enlist the telephone as an agent of national unity, a quilt of distinct provincial systems emerged in Canada, while the telephone fight in the United States produced integration and consolidation.