Teaching Cleveland
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Elementary School Edition: K-5

Lesson 14

"Operator!" - The Telephone in 1896


Students will compare and contrast the telephone as a means of communication in 1896 with the telephone communication systems of the present.



receiver, transmitter


  1. What did the telephones look like in 1896? Similarities? Differences?
  2. What was the availability of telephones in 1896, who was using them and how were they used?


  1. Ask students how many of them have phones in their homes? How many have more then one phone in their homes? How many have phones in their cars or cellular phones?
  2. Discuss with students the importance of phones to our communication today. What do we use them for? How accessible are they? Where can we call? How important are they in emergencies?
  3. Bring to students' attention that telephones were not always available. The telephone was a new instrument of communication that first went into service in Cleveland on September 23, 1879. At that time there were seventy-six subscribers to the Cleveland Telephone Company service in the central business area. By 1890 there were 2,979 subscribers to the telephone system. Who do they think had telephones then? Who would you be calling if you had a telephone in 1896? Ask students why they think the number of telephone subscribers had grown? What do they think it is today?
  4. Distribute copies of Handout #1 and have students review the various styles of telephones. Discuss differences in styles, equipment, features and costs. Compare them to phones of today.
  5. Read through "Instructions for Using Telephones." How does it compare with how we use phones today? Be certain to highlight the use of an "operator" vs. computers today. This could also lead to a discussion on how we have moved away from more personal contact and service today and how this has affected the job market. (elimination of some jobs and creation of new jobs as technology changes)
  6. Through class discussion have students identify the differences in telephones and the telephone system of 1896 with telephones and the system of today. (Be certain to discuss the change in phone numbers from just a few digits to 7 digits and the need for area codes, and the Cleveland area growth to two area codes. What does this say about the increase in number of homes, phones, and phone usage, including cellular phones.) Have students brainstorm how they think phones will be different in the future. What will they look like; how will they be powered; where will they be calling?
  7. Assignment: Ask students to design their phone of the future. They will need to illustrate the instrument and include instructions for using their phone of the future.

    NOTE: This can be done as a cooperative group activity where students not only design their phones of the future, but can also include marketing and advertising plans. An alternate activity for younger students could be to have them write or discuss instructions for using a telephone today, including important numbers to know, etc.
  8. Discuss with students the availability of telephones outside of your home, excluding cellular phones. How easy is it to find a public phone. Where are they usually located? How much does it cost to make a call? What happens if you do not have money with you? Distribute Handout #2 - Public Telephone Stations. Review the handout with students or have students work in cooperative groups. Questions to discuss should include:
    1. Why were public telephones established? (for the convenience of people who do not want or need permanent connections in their homes, and to stop people who do not have a phone in their business or homes from asking to use others' phones)
    2. What is the significance of the "stars"? (indicates that these phones can be used for long distance)
    3. What are the numbers before the addresses? (the exchange or "phone number" of the public telephone)
    4. What was the rate for using these phones? (10 cents for 5 minutes)
    5. Do subscribers of the phone systems have to pay for the use of public phones? (yes)

  9. Review the locations of the public telephones and have students locate them on a street map of Cleveland. The map can be reproduced as a transparency or taped to the board. (Not all locations will be able to be identified due to changes in buildings and street names, however, students will be able to locate enough in order to identify a pattern of Public Telephone locations and availability.) How easy was it to use a Public Telephone in 1896?

Alternate Activities for Younger Students:

  • Have students make their own "telephones" using paper cups, and waxed string. Have students connect two paper cups with approximately 5 feet of string that has been waxed by running a candle over it. Punch a small hole in the bottom of each cup. Run the string through the bottom of each cup, being certain to knot the string so that it does not slip through. Students can have "telephone" conversations with partners throughout the room.
  • Introduce children to the game of "telephone." Students sit in a circle. One student turns to the student on their right and delivers a message. Each student repeats the message to the student on their right in order. Once the message has gone around the circle, have the last student repeat the message and compare with the original message.

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