Academic journal article Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal

Carterfone: My Story

Academic journal article Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal

Carterfone: My Story

Article excerpt


Our story begins not forty years ago, when Carterfone was decided, (7) but 132 years ago in 1876--a good year, a vintage year for telephony, and sufficiently so that I chose it as my postal box number in Iowa City. Alexander Graham Bell, better known for the telephone than for the cracker that bears his name, (8) filed his patent on February 14th of that year--and received patent number 174,465 three weeks later on March 7th--for what he called the "talking machine." (9)

It is a bit ironic for our purposes that the funding for Bell's efforts came from someone motivated by a desire to bust the monopoly of the Western Union Telegraph Company, a lawyer who would later become Bell's father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard. (10) Actually, Bell misrepresented to Hubbard that he was working on an invention that would permit one wire to carry multiple telegraph messages simultaneously (11)--something, however, he also accomplished. (12)

Although you might not guess it from my appearance, the truth is that I had not yet been born in 1876. I am, however, old enough to have lived through over half of the history of the telephone. When I first went to visit my uncle's farm near Galva, Iowa, in the 1930s, it might as well have been the 1830s. There were horses for power. Wind pumped the water for the horses and we pumped the water for ourselves by hand. The toilet was outdoors. In addition to the horses there were dairy cows, hogs, chickens, and an occasional goat to care for. Corn was picked by hand. Cooking was done on a wood stove that also provided heat for the house. A garden was the source for most of our produce, some of which was either canned or stored below ground for winter. If you wanted to talk to someone in town you either walked or rode along a dirt road--virtually impassible when muddy.

With the coming of electricity, all that changed. I no longer had to clean the kerosene lantern chimneys each morning. We had light bulbs, indoor toilets, heat in the winter, and we had two wonderful inventions that had to be cranked to start. One was the tractor. The other was--that's right--the telephone, in a wooden box on the wall. (13) Of course, it was a rural party line. (14) When we had a call, not only did our phone ring with our distinctive ring, but so did everyone else's up and down the road. Anyone who wanted to listen in could do so--kind of like the way the federal government does with our calls today. (15)

In Iowa City, Iowa, the town where I was born and raised (and to which I have returned from Washington, D.C.), telephony was a little better and came a little faster. But a long distance call was still a pretty big deal--and expensive. (16) We couldn't call direct. (17) We'd have to call the Iowa City operator and tell her whom we wanted to talk to, say my aunt and uncle in Galva. The Iowa City operator would call the Galva operator who would try to reach them.

There were, however, advantages to this system. If there was no answer at the farm, the operator might say she had just seen my aunt cross the street at the hardware store and would ask if we would like to call her on the phone over there. (18)

We only had three other families on our line in Iowa City. The phone company handed out four-digit phone numbers like house numbers, walking down the street and assigning them in numerical order. Over the years we've kept those last four digits, as the phone company first added a fifth number, then two more, and finally an area code. (19) Ultimately, the phone company was able to require us to place our own long distance calls--even the overseas calls--and charge us for doing it.

Although I might note that when I took my first trip from my office as Maritime Administrator to the FCC, this agency, with responsibility for the nation's communications, had not made that much progress. Its offices were located in the attic of the old post office building and up over a delicatessen on 12th Street. …

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