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Home | Seminars and Symposia | Past seminars/symposia: Friday, March 12, 2004

DTC Seminar Series

Nickel-in-the-Slot: The 'Consumption Junction' in Urban Telephony, 1894–1907


Richard John
University of Illinois

Friday, March 12, 2004
1:00 pm

402 Walter Library

Richard John

Within the past few years, historians studying the popularization of new inventions have begun to pay attention not only to the producers who marketed them but also to the consumers who used them. We have long known that invention is not the same thing as innovation. Yet it is only in the relatively recent past that historians have begun to focus less on supply than on demand. This sea-change in historical sensibility is evident in recent work on early industrialization, which is being recast as the adjunct to an eighteenth-century consumer revolution. For the more recent period, this reorientation is evident in books as otherwise diverse as Harold Platt's Electric City (electric power); Ruth Schwartz Cowan's More Work for Mother (household appliances); and Claude Fischer's America Calling (telephony). Each of these books, in different ways, turns our attention to the significance of the "consumption junction" — a phrase Cowan coined. Prof. John's is a case study of the popularization of a little known, often-overlooked, and seemingly prosaic invention: the public (or pay) telephone. It contends that this innovation was the outcome of a long and frequently contentious negotiation between its marketers (telephone companies, in conjunction with telephone manufacturers) and its users (including, in particular, the patrons of drug stores and other retail outlets). His case study focuses on Chicago, where, in 1907, public telephones (known popularly as nickel-in-the-slots) made up approximately half of all the telephones in the city. It is Prof. John's contention that the popularization of the nickel-in-the-slots was hastened by the political setting in which they were introduced. Though the Chicago Telephone Company (a Bell affiliate) confronted no serious competitor, it found itself obliged to respond to a variety of interested parties, including telephone users, telephone manufacturers, and the Chicago City Council. He further contends that the nickel-in-the-slots popularized the idea of measured service, a major innovation in telephone pricing that helped Bell-affiliated companies in many cities triumph over their competitors (who favored flat rates). To highlight the distinctiveness of the Bell affiliates' business strategy, he compares it with the very different business strategy of telegraph giant Western Union. Western Union's managers lacked a comparable commitment to expanding popular access. As a consequence, they never confronted a comparable need to expand. The popularization of the nickel-in-the-slots has three larger implications for the history of telecommunications. First, it demonstrates how a complex regulatory environment can sometimes foster innovation. Second, it documents the innovativeness of a major telecommunications provider even in the absence of a major competitor. And, third, it underscores a major difference in the business strategy of Western Union and the many Bell-affiliated operating companies — such as the Chicago Telephone Company — that would soon become the core of the Bell System. This final point is worth underscoring, since the history of telecommunications in the United States is often said to have unfolded in a more-or-less linear fashion from the commercialization of the electric telegraph in the 1840s until the breakup of the Bell System in 1984. Prof. John's paper is based on the published and unpublished records of the Chicago City Council, as well as trade journals, newspapers, and telephone company archives at AT&T and SBC. It is drawn from a larger study of American telecommunications between 1840 and 1920 that is tentatively entitled "Making Connections: The Advent of American Telecommunications."


Richard R. John is an associate professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he specializes in the history of business, technology, and communications. His publications include Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Harvard University Press, 1995; paperback, 1998). He is currently working on a history of electrical communications in industrial America that is tentatively entitled "Making Connections: The Advent of American Telecommunications."