As we celebrate the Jacksonville Bicentennial June 11, 2022, it can be hard to imagine what Jacksonville was like in 1822. So many inventions have been developed during those two centuries to help us live an easier and more convenient way of life. One of those conveniences that changed the world was definitely the telephone.
The wall phone in the kitchen of the Merrill House Museum is an example of the phone during that era. Florida’s first telephone service was established in Jacksonville in 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. Historic records list Mr. A. N. Beck, owner of Inland Navigation Company at Bay and Main streets, as the owner of Jacksonville’s first telephone. Beck had a telephone in his home connected to his business next-door, but there was no one else to talk to. Southern Bell opened the first telephone exchange here in 1880 with 34 customers, and the new device grew, and by 1955 Southern Bell had established over a million lines statewide. The original Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company was incorporated in 1879. In 1983 BellSouth Telecommunications was formed, replacing the original Southern Bell Tel. & Tel. Co. Then in 2006, AT&T acquired BellSouth and BellSouth became a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T, Inc.
Here in Jacksonville in 1976, with the help of Alexander Graham Bell’s grandson and scientist-astronaut Dr. Joseph Kerwin, local telephone pioneers celebrated the centennial of the invention of the telephone. It was March 10, 1876, when, after spilling acid on his pants during an experiment with the telephone, Bell’s call for help was transmitted over a pair of wires to his assistant in the next room. For the local celebration, veteran and retired telephone employees organized and planned the day. Company and pioneer officials, along with Mr. and Mrs. Graham Bell Fairchild, and their son David, began the ceremonies with a motorcade to two historic telephone sites and the unveiling of commemorative markers.
The motorcade visited Southern Bell’s 325 West Adams Street building for its first stop. The Adams Street facility was constructed in 1913. At one time the six-story building housed the manual switchboards which served most of downtown. The Adams Street building replaced Southern Bell’s West Forsyth Street office which served Jacksonville at the turn of the century and survived the fire of 1901. The second site marked was the location of the first cable placed across the St. Johns River. The 1913 project was part of a Jacksonville to Key West telephone route and brought the first service south of the river.
Following the motorcade, Mayor Hans Tanzler joined telephone employees and the public for a midday program on Church Street in front of the Jacobs Building. Mayor Tanzler presented the key to the city to Fairchild and Kerwin.
Southern Bell has been part of my family history since 1913 when my father went to work for Southern Bell at the age of 17 as an Installer’s helper. In 1914 his crew was sent to St. Augustine to help with the fire in St. Augustine. The picture of this crew is at the gates of St. Augustine. My father is the one on the right. He would save twenty-five cents from his pay to buy himself a new tie for work. In 1962, I started working for Southern Bell and enjoyed riding to work with my father for one month before his retirement with 50 years of service. Southern Bell has provided many jobs for the citizens of Jacksonville through the years.
The telephone has had a great impact on society by offering the ability to communicate instantly with anyone in the world. The first commercially available cellphone was invented in 1973 by Motorola and introduced to the public in 1983. In 1992, the first smartphone was invented by IBM. It was made available for purchase in 1994 and sold by the tens of thousands. We are all benefiting today from the innovations of Alexander Graham Bell and the phone has revolutionized the way people communicate.
Merrill House Docent