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February 25, 2009 > History: Can You Hear Me Now?

History: Can You Hear Me Now?

To say that the technology of communication has come a long way is a bit of an understatement. Almost everyone has a cell phone and many people do not have land lines anymore because of the cost. In fact, you actually do not have to speak with someone to talk with them if you're adept at text messaging. But of course it wasn't always so. So the question is, how did Hayward residents talk to one another and people outside the area in the past besides writing a letter?

The first form of modern communication was the telegraph. Sending a telegram was faster than a letter sent via a mail service. Telegraph service first came to California in 1853, eleven years after it was invented. The California State Telegraph Company laid the first telegraph line in the state, connecting San Francisco to San Jose. Shortly after, independent telegraph companies began operating throughout the state. In 1867, the Western Union Telegraph Company took direct control of all the Pacific Coast lines. While 40 miles of telegraph wires had been built in Alameda County, none went to Hayward. Telegraph service finally made its debut in Hayward when the San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda Railroad came to town and laid telegraph lines along the train tracks. This line, however, was built solely for railroad company use; Haywardites would have to wait another year for public telegraph service.

As Hayward's size grew, a need for quicker communication also developed. Luckily for Hayward (and the rest of the world!), Alexander Graham Bell announced his invention of the telephone in 1876. Unlike the telegraph, which transmitted words electronically via Morse code, the telephone transmitted the voice. Hayward got its first phone service in 1883. The Sunset Telephone-Telegraph Company, which operated local and long distance lines outside San Francisco, connected Hayward with a sparse but expanding network. One circuit connected Hayward and San Leandro with Oakland. The first telephone exchange was connected to this circuit at Dr. Hood's drug store on B Street between Main Street and Castro (now Mission Boulevard). At the store, which was a bit of a gathering place in town at the time, residents could receive a message or call other areas served by the Sunset Telephone Company.

As more Hayward residents became interested in phone service, a need for a switchboard arose. The first telephone switchboard was located in a small room of the Palmtag Building in May 1892. A year later, a whopping five phones were connected to this central office. One problem facing the central office was stringing private lines. Individuals or businesses strung their own local telephone lines from home to home or between businesses with no connection to the central telephone office. Private lines would range from one block to a half mile in length. Several phones would be connected to each line in order to reduce the cost of construction and maintenance for each subscriber. Construction practices were not elaborate; wires were attached to trees, fences, houses, barns, or any solid object that could serve as an anchor. Eventually, private lines were replaced by the telephone company's equipment when subscribers realized that the central office service was cheaper and more effective.

The telephone was gaining popularity. In 1897, 14 phones were serviced by the central office. By 1899, 23 phones were in service. The growth demanded a two-position switchboard, which was installed in the B Street office. By 1904, further growth forced the central office to relocate to the Wood Building at B and Main Streets.

Those people and businesses located within the service area were covered by the central office's services, but what about the farmers located further away from the downtown business district? The telephone company sent solicitors to the outlying areas to interest people in forming "farmer line companies." They tried to gather five to ten people to go in on a farmer line (or party line) to keep costs down. A wall telephone unit cost $12-13 and a telephone wire approximately $25 per household. The telephone company assisted in planning the farmer line, but most groups appointed a secretary/treasurer, who coordinated with the town electrician for construction and repairs of their line. By 1926, over 240 farmer lines were served by the Hayward central office.

Meanwhile, the downtown central office expanded as well. In 1908, it served 231 telephones which prompted yet another move to a larger building on B Street that included a four position switch board. Ten years later, the switchboard increased in size to seven positions, and then 17 positions by 1926. The 17 position switchboard served the 4,500 residents of Hayward, as well as an additional 10,000 people residing in the entire exchange area.

In the early days, it was possible to tell the operator the name of the person you wished to speak to and they would make the connection. Everyone knew everyone else in the exchange area and there were not that many people you could call anyway. As more and more people got phones, it became necessary to assign telephone numbers. At first these numbers were only two digits long, then three digits and then four. Eventually, the telephone company had to assign an alpha-numeric system, utilizing two letters and five digits. Names were assigned to the prefix letters to help people remember the phone numbers. Hayward's prefix was LUcerne.

With the growing post-World War II population in the area, the alpha-numeric system became outdated. In the early 1960s, the telephone company converted telephone subscribers to the seven digit All Number Calling system (ANC). This greatly increased the amount of telephone numbers available. Instead of categorizing the prefix numbers by letters, the phone numbers were given prefixes by locality ("351" and "352" for Oakland and "782" and "783" for Hayward). Direct Distance Dialing was also introduced around the same time, which brought area codes to the Bay Area (415 and 408) to further expand telephone numbers available.

The ease of quick communication by cell phone is often taken for granted today but it took an awfully long time to get here!

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