All but forgotten today, the first “portable” phones were used by train crews to talk to the nearest station in case of breakdown or emergency. William B. Glardon apparently invented, but did not patent, the idea that you could lean a pole against the telegraph lines to make a quick call from a stopped train. By WWI, the “telegraphone” — not to be confused with the earlier magnetic wire recorder, also called a telegraphone — was in wide use. Telephones were also permanently mounted on some telegraph poles (and probably carried the first prank phone calls). The “Telegraph Lore” web site has more pictures and details on this simple but effective technology.

Telegraph Wires Along Road Also Used For Phone Service — No Further Delays in Notifying Cases of Emergency

The Southern Pacific Railroad installed an emergency telephone in the Santa Rosa depot yesterday. This is a new feature to western railroading, but has come to be a regular feature of most of the eastern lines. The first trial of the system on the roads in this state was made in Southern California within the last three months and has proved a great success.

The idea is to use the telegraph wires of the road for telephoning in case of emergencies. The telephone compay uses its wires for telegraphing in addition to telephoning, and there is no interference in the use of the line for either purpose. The only other phone put in on this branch is at Napa Junction, which can be reached by the Calistoga branch and mainline at Suisun.

The passenger and freight trains are provided with portable telephones having extension rods. In case of unexpected delay, break down, or wreck on the road anywhere the conductor takes his phone, goes out and with the aid of the extension rod attaches his wire to the nearest telegraph wire. He is then able to ring up the nearest emergency office and tell them what has occurred and in turn may receive instructions as to what course to pursue.

The new system provides for instant communication from a disabeled train to the dispatcher’s office, and in case of need will often reduce the time of securing assistance by several hours. Under the old regime a man had to be sent afoot to the nearest telegraph office which in many case would be miles away.

– Press Democrat, August 25, 1905

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