Science & Technology

Valentine (Richard, That Is) Brought Telephone To Wisconsin

Women operate Milwaukee’s first telephone switchboard around 1883.

Valentines are associated with love, but they might just as easily be associated with telephones, especially in Wisconsin.

Richard Valentine was a telegraph operator and owner of a telegraph school in Janesville. His interest in communication had brought him, in 1874, to Chicago to witness the work of Elisha Gray.

Gray had spent several years experimenting with sending sound over wires. He even claimed a fantastical story of inspiration in Milwaukee, where he’d had seen a string telephone, or “lovers’ telegraph,” as they were sometimes called, used by two boys. He wrote: “I noticed two boys with fruit-cans in their hands having a thread attached to the center of the bottom of each can and stretched across the street … I took the can out of one of the boy’s hands … putting my ear to the mouth of it I could hear the voice of the boy across the street, I conversed with him a moment, then noticed how the cord was connected at the bottom of the two cans, when, suddenly, the problem of electrical speech transmission was solved in my mind.”

Gray wasn’t, of course, the only person working on the telephone. Two years later, on Feb. 14, 1876, both Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for patents for an “electric speaking telephone.” Bell was given rights to the technology but not without considerable controversy (and court cases) over its development.

Inspired by what he’d seen from Gray, Valentine strung a wire between his home and that of his brother, Arthur. In 1877, using a primitive telephone device on the ends of his telegraph line, he made Wisconsin’s first phone call. (It’s not clear what he might have said) He soon had more people connected by creating the first telephone network in the state.

Valentine became a sort of evangelist for the telephone, giving demonstrations around the state. For lawmakers in Madison, Valentine strung lines from the state Capitol to Science Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus so legislators could talk to professors.

Not everyone loved the idea, though. Factory owners in Milwaukee laughed him out of the room when he suggested telephones as a way to connect factories and warehouses. Many others did want telephones, though — so many that switchboards were needed to handle the volume. Valentine set up the first one in Wisconsin near Dartford in 1878.