Fence Phone

[Image: Barbed wire, via Wikipedia].

One more radio-related link comes via @doingitwrong, who mentions the use of barbed-wire fences as a kind of primitive telephone network.

"Across much of the west," C.F. Eckhardt explains, "...there was already a network of wire covering most of the country, in the form of barbed-wire fences. Some unknown genius discovered that if you hooked two Sears or Monkey Ward telephone sets to the top wire on a barbed-wire fence, you could talk between the telephones as easily as between two 'town' telephones connected by slick wire through an operator's switchboard. A rural telephone system that had no operators, no bills—and no long-distance charges—was born."

The system relied upon the creative use of everyday materials as insulators; in fact, according to Delbert Trew, "the most clever, most innovative cowboys used every conceivable type of device as insulators to suspend the wire. I have found leather straps folded around wire and nailed to the posts, whiskey bottle necks installed over big nails, snuff bottles, corn cobs, pieces of inner-tube wrapped around the wire and short straps of tire holding telephone wires to the post."

[Image: From a June 1902 issue of The New York Times].

This ranchpunk system of interlinked fences led to the "big ranches" being "among the first to install barbed wire telephones in an effort to be alerted when prairie fires started"—an early-warning device for previously disconnected ranch owners, not a divisive symbol of modern property but a network, a transmitter, an oral internet of fences.

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4 Comments:

Blogger AbbotOfUnreason said...

Really interesting. Even these hackers started with telephones.

I wonder what patent attorneys would do about this kind of thing today.

January 02, 2013 1:14 PM  
Blogger Brian Davis said...

a fascinating post script to frontier historian Walter Prescott Webb's story of the barbed wire.

January 09, 2013 5:44 PM  
Blogger erica said...

This is exactly the kind of post that makes this blog so interesting!

January 14, 2013 4:05 AM  
Blogger Raymond said...

This is also mentioned in The Master Switch by Tim Wu when he discusses AT&Ts monopolistic tendencies over the phone system.

If anyone is interested in hearing more about this, it's a pretty good read.

February 22, 2013 12:12 PM  

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