The History of Los Angeles Telephone Service

by Gary Goff and Others

Parts of Los Angeles had some telephone service soon after the telephone was invented. This article will not cover the early years and early efforts to provide service, but will look more at the larger players in the field and how they interacted with one another. One of the primary motivations behind the research for this article was to show how independent telephone providers and early Bell System interests provided service to a rapidly growing area during a time when city governments and other public bodies had a lot to say about who was approved to provide public utilities.

In 1879, the Los Angeles Telephone Company obtained a ten-year franchise to provide phone service, most likely in the area that is now considered downtown L.A. There were seven customers when the company set up shop. In 1883, The Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company that was operating in the northern part of the state, acquired the assets of the Los Angeles Telephone Company and was granted a charter to operate until 1916. At the end of 1903, they were providing service to over 13,000 customers, and this was manual service, not automatic (no dials).
In 1902, the Home Telephone and Telegraph Company, a private interest group that was not pleased with the telephone service available, acquired the plant and equipment of the Empire Construction Company, obtained a 50-year franchise to provide telephone and telegraph services, and, by 1903, had 10,177 stations installed, all automatic. The central office equipment and customer telephones were Strowger, manufactured by Automatic Electric.

In 1906, the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company acquired the stock of the Sunset Telephone Company and another player, the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company. The PT&T then operated the  nterests of Sunset from 1906 through 1916. The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, a Bell System company, was organized under its present name and operated the Sunset franchise under this name.

In 1916, the Home Company had 16 central offices serving approximately 60,000 telephones; of these, approximately 25,000 were manual stations operated from private branch exchanges and as public pay stations, and 35,000 were dial stations. The PT&T company who had acquired Sunset interests, had nine manual central offices, serving 68,000 stations.

At this time, the subscribers of the two competing telephone systems serving the same area had become dissatisfied with the inadequacy of such service, as business firms were forced to subscribe to two different services, and the residence telephone users, where they subscribed usually to only one service, found it was
entirely inadequate.

In 1916, arrangements were consummated to end this dual telephone service.
A plan was adopted for the organization of one new company which was to acquire the properties of the two existing operating companies and unify the service, continuing with plant and equipment then in use, making such modifications and rearrangements as were required to give a unified service. The Southern California Telephone Company was organized in April, 1916, as a subsidiary of the Pacific T & T, for this purpose and began operation on May 1, 1917. The necessary rearrangements, changes and equipment additions in the two plants were made, and the physical consolidation was completed in May, 1918. All the switchboards in the existing manual offices were provided with dialing equipment and out-going trunk circuits to permit the direct connection of manual subscriber lines through the dial central offices to dial subscribers.
There were approximately 375 subscriber switchboard positions in the manual offices that required the installation of this equipment.

In all, there was a total of 110 central office projects in connection with this consolidation, and the total involved an expenditure of approximately $1,250,000.
An abstract of this entire conversion project may be available at some point from TCI, most likely as a bonus item.
Following are some specific details that are very unique to the experience in Los Angeles. Most of these are related to the installation of automatic equipment, the modification of equipment in place, and the move on the part of the Bell System to provide automatic telephone service to all customers.

• The automatic telephone system in Los Angeles in the early 1900s was owned and operated by the Home Telephone and Telegraph Company. This was a complicated three wire system that, in spite of the design, provided better phone service than that provided by the two wire manual Bell System.

• After about two years of operation, 1902-04, the Home Telephone Company had added not less than 20,000 stations to their network, had the largest automatic switchboard plant in the world, and wasthe largest installation competing anywhere with the Bell System.

Note the W.E. receiver, transmitter faceplate, and absence of pushbutton for ringing normally found on these sets

• In 1916-18, after the merger of the Home and Pacific companies into the new Southern California Telephone Company, a huge technological task was completed where manual service was converted toautomatic service and existing, in-place equipment was modified to work on the newly modified networks.

• Most if not all of the automatic subscriber equipment was Strowger, wall and desksets with the ten or eleven digit dials, ringing buttons and other features that would not work without modification.

• This article is accompanied by two photos of a wall mounted Strowger set that has been retrofitted with Bell System parts.
The set pictured is owned by a collector who purchased it on eBay from a Los Angeles area owner.

Note the modified Strowger perch that accommodates the W.E. backcup, etc. The finish on the phone is said to have been done when the phone was mechanically refurbished to operate on the new system.

• Perhaps the most interesting item, at least to this writer, is the Southern California Telephone Company, Bell System ten page booklet that was sent in 1917 to all subscribers providing instructions on howto use the automatic (dial) sets.

It is also very interesting to see non-Bell equipment, like a Strowger candlestick pictured in a Bell System instruction booklet.

Early in the history of the Home TelephoneCompany, a similar instruction brochure was sent to customers. It also may interest readers to know that the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company took over the operations of the So. Cal Telco in 1947.
As a service to our members, we have had a limited quantity of these interesting and unusual instruction brochures printed.

(Research for this article was provided by Vic Sumner, Pacific Telephone Historian; Tom Adams, owner of original modified Strowger Wallset; and Scott Poling, for providing a copy of the original SoCal booklet.)

This article was previously published in the March 2009 TCI Singing Wires Newsletter