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Down to the Wire

January 28, 1878 stands out in Yale history as the birthday of the nation’s oldest college daily. That inaugural Yale Daily News—“justified by the dullness of the times and by the demand for news among us”—told Elis of local happenings—incoming Evangelicals, colleagues taking leave, tales of the female rowers from Wellesley College. (There were advertisements, too—“Merle, fashionable barber, the most liked of all by the students” was closed on Sundays, and 296 Chapel Street now sold Delmonico’s Cocoanut Cream.) That same day, city residents rang in another era in communication, its impact not yet discernible to college reporters: the District Telephone Company of New Haven launched the world’s first commercial telephone exchange.

In 1877, a telegraph company manager named George W. Coy sat in on a lecture by Alexander Graham Bell at Skiff’s Opera House in New Haven. Bell’s discussion of the implications of the telephone for business and trade—accompanied by music transmitted over a three-way New Haven-Middletown-Hartford connection—spurred Coy into action. A pair of investors and a smattering of metal pieces borrowed from ladies’ bustles, carriage bolts, and teapot lids allowed Coy to whip up a telephone switchboard in the Boardman Building, at the corner of Chapel and State Streets. $1.50—in those days, the price of a roundtrip to New York on the overnight steamer “Elm City”—bought New Haven residents a month’s subscription to the exchange; iron wire strung between housetops, trees, and the occasional small pole connected the new Boston-made Bell devices. “The Greatest Thing Out! Telephone!” ran an advertisement in the week-old News. “Can make connections with anyone else having instrument in the city.” For the first time in history, the human voice transcended distance.

In just a few years, the use of telephone networks blossomed. A Yalie with a Cooperative Society card in 1886 could call from a central campus phone, which could, according to the News, “furnish us with the desired information or impart our commands without delay.” In 1888, the New Haven Daily Palladium, a local paper, lauded the telephone as a “blessed institution” for keeping the city connected through a traffic-and-train-stopping blizzard. After New Haven, exchanges popped up in Meridian, CT, San Francisco, CA, Lowell, MA, and Albany, NY. By the 1900s, there were over 15,000 telephones in the country.

During the twentieth century, the progress of technology led to sturdier telephone poles and lines underground; now-insulated cables connected disparate voices. By 1925, telephone lines stretched for 67.9 million miles across the country. First, copper wire and then fiber optics replaced iron lines; public phone boxes led to rotary dials, touch-tones, and cordless handsets. Area codes usurped exchange names; satellites replaced switchboards. The District Telephone Company became the Connecticut Telephone Company in 1890, Connecticut Telephone became Southern New England Telephone two years later; telecommunications giant AT&T came to town in 1998. Four-party lines were made available to Yalies in 1948; in 1970, 2,800 undergraduates ordered phones for their dorm rooms.

Today, 133 years after Coy set up his exchange, the dial tone in New Haven is fading. AT&T, which employs 5,500 workers in Connecticut, has lost more than 150,000 lines in the state in the past two years. And after laying off 152 state landline repair workers last October, it announced plans in late January to lay off 41 additional employees and is currently facing a $1.1 million fine for breaching state service standards for landline repairs.

Soon, the number of mobile telephones is expected to exceed the number of landlines in the nation. AT&T spokesman Chuck Corsey acknowledged that while the company has reduced jobs in their shrinking wired business, it continues to hire in growing areas—“particularly wireless and video.” These days, radio waves have replaced wires as our choice connectivity medium, as cell phones project our voices across and over, rather than through, the landscape.

While landlines continue to link the offices and departments of Yale, the ringing that once resounded in residences has been replaced with techno jingles and indiscreet vibrations, with tweets and texts tumbling across campus and classrooms. In fall 2010, students made 17 percent fewer calls off-campus from in-room lines than they did in 2009, and 30 percent fewer calls than in 2007. Students’ numbers might begin with a 917, 617, 404, or 415, rather than a 203. While there are no immediate plans to phase out the 3,040 landlines associated with undergraduate residences, the proliferation of cell phones is causing Information Technology Services to evaluate future options, according to David Galassi, Yale’s director of network services.

Few Yalies know someone with a dorm phone installed, but you’ll still have to dial through to one to reach Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins ‘12. The self-described “resolutely parsimonious” student from Alaska owns no mobile device, and depends on a friend’s room phone to stay in touch. “People joke that I’m the only one,” he laughed. “In some cases it’s inconvenient for others, and I feel bad about that,” he said. But Kreiss-Tomkins’ resulting need to make plans in advance, to “be a little more organized and on top of it,” suggests that our increasing interconnectivity has its casualties.

By pinning an individual to place, the landline phone demands dependability. (It should be noted, however, that Kreiss-Tomkins routes his landline number through Google Voice, allowing him to receive calls wherever he brings his laptop.)

According to Paul Needham ’11, when News staff members reviewed the landlines assigned to 202 York Street last summer, they found dozens of numbers—some assigned to dark rooms, to pasting rooms, and even a “lettering room”—that had fallen out of use. When Needham was editor-in-chief, reporters and editors across town or across the building would email or text message him to communicate, while adults continued to dial his office line. Needham professed to like the “clear connection” provided by his desk phone, but the landline is more than just static-free. The wires woven in the walls of the News, active and inactive, serve as lines between generations of students’ professional and personal lives, grounded in purpose.

In Bell’s original telephone transmitter, sound waves produced the electrical energy to work the device. Now, though, hastily composed messages displace voices from the communication process, sacrificing sound for convenience. Perhaps in New Haven, the birthplace of the commercial telephone exchange, the loss of the dial tone resonates more strongly—or perhaps it is just that a beloved hometown tradition is coming to an end.

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