Invisible Empire

Invisible Empire: A History of the telecommunications industry in Canada, 1846-1956

Translated by Käthe Roth
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Invisible Empire
    Book Description:

    It is impossible to understand Canada without looking at the history and development of its telecommunications industry. In the nineteenth century Canada was the only country in the world constructed on the basis of technology - first the railway and, in its shadow, telegraphy. In the 1930s this technological nationalism came of age and telecommunications became Canada's "national" technology. The Invisible Empire provides the first overview of Canadian telecommunications, from the laying of the first telegraph line between Toronto and Hamilton in 1846 to the separation between Nortel - then known as Northern Electric - and the American Bell System in 1956.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6844-0
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xx)

    The air we breathe is awash in electromagnetic waves; under the streets we walk flows a torrent of underground copper and fibre-optics cables. The telecommunications network is everywhere, most of it beyond our purview. Yet its technology pervades our workdays, our evening entertainment – in short, our entire lives. It is an invisible empire ruling over our information society.

    This “invisible empire” woven into our environment is not new. It was born in 1844, with the invention of the telegraph. Is there any technology more obsolete than telegraphy? Yet the telegraph marked the arrival of “real time” in the world....

      • 1 The Birth of Telegraphy
        (pp. 5-20)

        The concept of telegraphy, along with the word, was born at the end of the eighteenth century to designate the transmission of text by semaphore. There were no technical innovations involved: towers were constructed within visual range of each other so that the signalmen could read the transmitted messages. From a technological point of view, this was a pre-industrial invention.

        For many years, particularly in the navy, optical signals were used to transmit messages. The novelty of this telegraphy was in its “software”: ideographic symbols (for example, white-and-blue checkerboard flag for distress calls, black flag for shipwrecks) were replaced by...

      • 2 The Telegraph Industry Gets Organized
        (pp. 21-42)

        At this point, the Canadian telegraph industry had reached maturity. The “one company, one line” concept had given way to that of the integrated network, thanks to Montreal Telegraph, which had gained telegraphy the status of public utility in Canada.

        Montreal Telegraph started with the Montreal-Toronto line and grew with the rapid acquisition of a series of north-south links. Under its illustrious president, Hugh Allan, the company laid lines between most population centres, large and small, in Quebec and Ontario, with some bridgeheads in the Maritimes and the northeastern United States. A total of thirty-five new lines for railway usage...

      • 3 Invention of the Telephone
        (pp. 45-55)

        Like telegraphy, telephony resulted from the confluence of many factors. In this case, they all converged on one man, Alexander Graham Bell, Scottish humanist, and on one city, Boston, and the effervescent scientific atmosphere at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The ties the Bell family established with Canada provided this country with a special place in the geography of the new technology.

        As it had been for the telegraph, research on the telephone was linked to advances in research on electricity, which had begun in the early nineteenth century. In 1837 two American physicists, Joseph Henry and Charles Grafton Page,...

      • 4 The Telephone Comes to Canada
        (pp. 56-79)

        The telephone came to Canada thanks to Alexander Graham Bell’s father, Melville. This rather unusual introduction gave the Canadian industry a special connection to the United States, a relationship that persisted in various forms until the gentle separation of Bell Canada from at&t in June 1975.

        On 10 July 1877 Melville Bell received 75 percent of the rights to the Canadian patent on the telephone. As a professor, he was not predisposed to a career as a corporate leader, and he immediately turned to Thomas Henderson, the Baptist minister, now retired, who had advised him to come to Canada a...

      • 5 Bell Comes Out Fighting
        (pp. 80-103)

        In Bell Telephone’s own territory, crisis was looming. With its chronic lack of capital and selective penetration of markets, it had been neglecting the rural regions. There was growing impatience, which manifested itself in challenges to Bell Telephone’s monopoly. Left waiting for telephone service, many villages took matters into their own hands.

        Country doctors often played a key role in this. Usually the only prominent citizens in their community to have benefited from scientific training, they would have lines installed between their office, the pharmacy, and their patients’ homes and sometimes ended up creating companies. Elsewhere, the municipality itself set...

      • 6 Balkanization of the Telephone Industry
        (pp. 104-127)

        While the federal government came up with the solution of government regulation of a private monopoly, the Prairies nationalized the telephone industry. Bell Telephone’s divorce from the West was fraught withsturm und drang.

        In the 1880s and 1890s, Bell had satisfied the demand for telephones in the Prairies without too much difficulty. It had opened an office in Winnipeg in 1881 and was serving a territory stretching from Manitoba to the Northwest Territories to the Rockies. Bell’smodus operandiwas to give priority to cities while letting rural markets languish. On the other hand, long-distance lines were still rare;...

      • 7 The Birth of Northern Electric and Technological Advances
        (pp. 128-146)

        If Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Theodore Vail “invented” the telephone company. The Canadian telephone industry was completely in the American orbit, not only because of the financial and institutional links that united Bell Telephone and at&t but, in a mo re general way, because of easy access to American suppliers: both the newly nationalized companies in the Prairies and the private companies in British Columbia and the Maritimes were also dependent on American manufacturers. The history of Canadian telephone technology thus parallels that in the United States, with one exception: the brief but fiery adventure of the Lorimer...

      • 8 Unbridled Capitalism and Language Clashes
        (pp. 147-167)

        Not only was the business environment changing but within the telephone industry employee conditions and labour relations were also evolving; this is the least-studied facet of the history of telecommunications. The firms themselves were changing in nature, moving from craftsmanship and folklore to big business. In Bell Telephone’s case this problem was compounded by the language issue, since Bell served both of Canada’s linguistic communities.

        Most of the first telephone operators were men. The telegraph companies had launched telephone service in Canada, and the trade of telegraph operator was reserved for men and highly respected because of the technical expertise...

      • 9 The Telephone Industry in Canada and the International Scene
        (pp. 168-180)

        As the telephone industry attained maturity, its development was marked by disparities between Canadian provinces, between Western nations, and between different parts of the world.

        Within Canada, the great debate on nationalization of the telephone industry, already under way at the beginning of the century, had ended with a compromise solution: federal regulation of the main actor, Bell, and provincial regulation of the other enterprises – or their nationalization, in the Prairie provinces. Did the forms of development chosen for the telephone industry have an impact on its performance? The best way of evaluating the success of the telephone industry...

      • 10 Radio: A Spectacular Success
        (pp. 183-192)

        Telegraphy and telephony are both based technologically on electrical waves carried on metallic wires. Throughout the nineteenth century, a series of inventions demonstrated that electricity could also move through the atmosphere in the same way as light. If this was the case, surely it would be possible to transmit Morse code signals, or even voices, without the use of wires?

        Radio is a technology with a direct pedigree in scientific theory. The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated that it was possible to transmit information by electromagnetic waves in 1864. In 1887 the German physician Heinrich Hertz measured electromagnetic waves...

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 193-194)

      After the pioneering era came the search for universal service: a telephone in every home, an objective that seemed to be within grasp. All of the major technological principles were known, and telephone companies had finally acquired the respectability that gave them access to capital. On the other hand, recovery from the First World War turned out to be more difficult than foreseen, and when prosperity finally returned, the 1929 stockmarket crash and then the Second World War delayed realization of universal telephone service.

      Telephony stole the show from telegraphy when its network began to include long-distance and overseas lines....

    • 11 Creation of a National Industry
      (pp. 195-216)

      At the end of the First World War, the new technology of radio took off. When it burst into the self-contained telecommunications sector, it provoked a confrontation between telephone and telegraph companies.

      In December 1919 Marconi launched the first commercial radio station in Canada, and perhaps in the world, with a regular broadcast schedule; it was in Montreal and its call letters were xwa (later cfcf). It took another three years for commercial radio really to light a spark with the public, and then its popularity exploded. Everyone, it seemed, was buying a radio set – or making one, as...

    • 12 Bell’s Long March to Independence
      (pp. 217-233)

      After the First World War, Charles Sise was gone, but his replacement was no less than his alter ego, Lewis McFarlane; in the shadows of the vice-presidency, Charles Sise, Jr, the founder’s oldest son, waited his turn. It may have seemed that nothing had changed, but a decision that seemed to involve labour relations began the movement that, in the end, led to the separation of Bell and at&t: the sale of shares to employees.

      Bell Telephone had been a subsidiary of at&t’s, but it had never been part of the Bell System. Some old at&t texts cite Bell Telephone...

    • 13 The Other Telephone Companies
      (pp. 234-258)

      For the three Maritime provinces and Newfoundland, still a British colony, the First World War was a period of rapid expansion, as this region was the springboard for the Canadian war effort.

      For Maritime Telegraph and Telephone, the First World War was not a distant abstraction. On 6 December 1917, death struck at the heart of Halifax when a Norwegian freighter rammed into a French warship loaded with dynamite in the middle of the port: “At 9:06, theMont-Blancblew up. The harbour churned. Piers, ships, buildings vanished. The blast uprooted trees, swept away bridges, tossed railway tracks and freight...

    • 14 Social Benefits and Labour Peace in the Telephone Industry
      (pp. 259-275)

      The dedication of telephone company employees is the theme of stories that are told and retold in each company. The following exemple is typical:

      On July 11, 1911, fire raged into the mining community of South Porcupine in northern Ontario. Telephone operator Marie Gibbons stayed at her switchboard, calling the warning, until flames licked at her doorstep. A neighbour burst in shouting, “What the hell are you doing here?” As she seized her shoes and the company cash box and followed him out the door, the blazing stairway collapsed.²

      It is with exploits of this kind that the legend of...

    • 15 The Canadian Regulatory Model
      (pp. 276-293)

      After the First World War, no one in Canada doubted that the telephone industry was a natural monopoly. The Board of Railway Commissioners’ historic 1911 decision in the Ingersoll case (see chapter 5) had locked up the market for good. This exceptional situation made the creation of a neutral and specific mechanism for setting “just and reasonable” rates even more urgent, so that telephone companies could raise the capital they needed to operate, and so that subscribers would be protected against the arbitrariness of a monopoly. To that end a new mechanism based on control of the rate of return...

    • 16 Electromechanical Technology Hits Its Peak
      (pp. 294-322)

      After the First World War, there was no telephone network, in the true sense, in Canada. There were manual telephone exchanges linked to each other in an unsystematic way, while long-distance lines were still the exception and long-distance communications were expensive and of poor quality. The telephone was perceived as a technology with a local community-based vocation.

      However, all the technologies that were to bring telephony out of this restrictive framework had already been invented: the vacuum-lamp repeater could allow the voice to be carried over theoretically unlimited distances, radio could take voice communications across oceans, and switches could automate...

    • 17 The International Scene
      (pp. 323-334)

      What were Canadian telecommunications worth up to 1956? It is impossible to answer this question without looking at what was going on elsewhere in the world. I therefore compared the penetration rates in different countries, then on different continents. The result showed a resemblance (predictable) between Canada and the United States, but also a commonality (unexpected) between Canada, Scandinavia, and Switzerland. Telegraphy occupied a place on its own as a stagnating technology.

      If any foreign country influenced the development of the Canadian telephone industry, it was obviously the United States. The rest of the world followed a different path, characterized...

  8. Conclusion: How Telephony Changed the World
    (pp. 335-342)

    After this long voyage through the history of Canadian telecommunications, we have seen telecommunications change in nature several times. Telegraphy formed its central infrastructure in the early years, while telephony was already a fascinating prospect, though as yet a marginal tool. The telegraph cable under the Atlantic became the symbol for the reorganization of geographic and political space by a technology.

    Then the telephone, in its turn, conquered distance and achieved universal service. It also became an infrastructure but without occupying a dominant position. It was an aid or complement to face-to-face conversations or to transportation. The importance of the...

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 343-364)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 365-378)
  12. Index
    (pp. 379-384)