Wall-mounted telephone

A Charles Williams Jr wall-mounted telephone c.1880, $35,000 (£28,000) at White’s Auctions.

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The collection of telephone apparatus dating from the pioneering years of the late 1870s came for sale at White’s Auctions in Middleboro on April 14 from a deceased estate of a collector.

The story of the development of the electric telephone is famously complicated. Antonio Meucci, Charles Bourseul and Elisha Gray among others, have all been credited with its invention. However, putting all the claims and counterclaims aside, it was the Scottish-born engineer Alexander Graham Bell (1847- 1922) who had the ideas, the finance and the business plan that proved commercially decisive.

US patent

Bell was granted his US patent for a device using a liquid transmitter and an electromagnetic receiver in March 1876. What he unveiled in June the same year at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was the prototype to the very first commercial units - such as the pair of Bell Telephone Company ‘coffinform’ transmitters offered by White’s with a guide of $500- 1000. They were hammered down to an online bidder using the LiveAuctioneers platform for $36,000 (£28,800).


A pair of Bell Telephone Company coffin-form wooden transmitters c.1877, $36,000 (£28,800) at White’s Auctions.

Stamped to the 10in (25cm) walnut cases with patent dates for March 1876 and January 1877, these wall-mounted instruments predate the invention of the switchboard by about a year (the first installed in New Haven Connecticut in January 1878).

Instead, they operated in pairs, united by a single wire for the sending and receiving of audio. Notably they have just one opening for sound (the user listened and spoke into the same camera-like hole) and signalling a call required a blast of a whistle into the transmitter.

Bell Telephone Company bell

A Bell Telephone Company bell stamped for Charles Williams Jr, $35,000 (£28,000) at White’s Auctions.

The solution to ensuring the user at the other end picked up was to install a second wire and a bell. Sold at $35,000 (£28,000) against the same guide was an 1879 wall-mounted brass and walnut bell stamped for both the Bell Telephone Co and the maker Charles Williams Jr. He is an important figure in this narrative.

A manufacturer of electrical telegraph instruments, it was in the attic of Williams’ shop at 109 Court Street in Boston on June 2, 1875 that Bell and his assistant Thomas Augustus Watson had first successfully transmitted sound via electromagnetism.

When in 1877 Williams connected his home to his workplace using Bell’s device, he enjoyed the world’s first permanent residential telephone service.

1000 telephones per week

From 1877 to the spring of 1879 the Bell Company relied exclusively on Williams to make the apparatus it leased to its customers. By 1880, the factory was making 1000 telephones per week (still not enough to cope with demand) and Williams had registered a series of patents of his own as the competition and pace of development quickened.

Offered here was a deluxe Williams instrument in an Eastlake style case that incorporates into a single wall-mounted unit a bell, a hand-cranked magneto (for generating a ringing voltage in a distant instrument), a hand receiver, a switch hook, and a transmitter. Dating to c.1880, it too sold to a LiveAuctioneers bidder at $35,000 (£28,000).

Long distance telephone or transmitter

A model 1886 Bell wood and brass long distance telephone or transmitter, $43,000 (£34,500) at White’s Auctions.

Remarkably from these small beginnings, only a decade later over 150,000 people in the US owned telephones. Standard commercial apparatus from the late 1880s survives in much greater numbers although the search for better ways of transmitting the voice fired the development of increasingly sophisticated devices. In 1886 Bell patented an elegant 14in wood and brass phone which used a platinum diaphragm for better longdistance transmission.

These are extremely rare, and the example offered here, numbered 11319 for c.1887 was in good condition. Estimated at $500-1000, it became the highest-priced lot in the sale when it hammered for $43,000 (£34,500).