“Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.” Soon after that fateful day of March 10, 1876, with the message from Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant Thomas A. Watson, the telephone grew in popularity.
In July of 1877, the Bell Telephone Company was formed and by the end of 1877 there were three-thousand telephones in service.
Some suggest ʻIolani Palace had telephones before the White House. However, the White House had a phone in 1879 (President Rutherford B. Hayes telephone number was “1”.) “By the fall of 1881 telephone instruments and electric bells were in place in the Palace.” (The Pacific Commercial, September 24, 1881)
“The first telephone ever used in Honolulu belonged to King Kalākaua. Having been presented to him by the American Bell Telephone Company.” (Daily Bulletin, December 4, 1894)
The earliest telephone in Hawaiʻi followed the first commercial telegraph, and like the earlier device stemmed from the efforts of Charles H. Dickey on Maui.
In early-1878, Maui’s Charles H. Dickey installed Hawaiʻi’s first two telephones between his home and his store. The phones were rented from a Mainland firm and ran on wet cell batteries.
Years later, Dickey wrote: “In 1878 I received a letter from my brother, JJ Dickey, superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph at Omaha, describing the new invention. … Before the year was out … I sent for instruments and converted my telegraph line into a telephone line.” (Schmitt, HJH)
In a letter to the Hawaiian Gazette, CH Dickey noted, “Sir, the greatest discovery of the age is the Bell Telephone. By its use, persons many miles apart can converse with ease. Every sound is distinctly transmitted.”
“The tones of the voice, musical notes, articulation, in fact any and every sound that can be made is reproduced instantaneously in a miniature form, by all the telephones on the wire.” (CH Dickey, Hawaiian Gazette, March 13, 1878)
“I have made arrangements to have a few sent me, to be used by the Hawaiian Telephone Company, and hope soon to be prepared to furnish telephones to all who wish them in the Islands, as agent for the manufacturers. …”
“A number of instruments can be attached to the same wire, although but one person can talk at a time, as is usual in polite conversation.” (CH Dickey, Hawaiian Gazette, March 13, 1878)
“Let a good line be put up, beginning at the upper end of Nuuanu, running down the Valley, connecting with the residences and business houses; then out on King street, connecting with the Palace and Government Building; then up through the residences to Punahou, and ending say at Waikiki.” (CH Dickey, Hawaiian Gazette, March 13, 1878)
Shortly after this, the newspaper commented, “it is plain that this new invention is destined to come into general use at no distant date.” (Hawaiian Gazette, March 30, 1878)
On April 11, 1878, Dickey submitted his application for a caveat (a kind of provisional patent), asserting his “intention to introduce into the Hawaiian Islands the Invention known as The Bell Telephone,” but the Privy Council apparently failed to act on his request.
Less than two weeks later, on April 24, 1878, a letter was sent to the Advertiser from Wailuku stating that “the East Maui Telegraph Company are about to introduce that new wonder of the age, the telephone.”
The Maui telephone system was apparently put into operation in May or June, 1878; a letter from Makawao, dated June 27, 1878, and printed in the Advertiser, boasted that “the telegraph and telephone are old here, ‘everybody has ’em’ ” and went on to tell how “comes the word by telephone that Mr. Spencer (E. Maui Plantation) has met with an accident.” (Schmitt, HJH)
In 1878, S. G. Wilder, Minister of the Interior, had a line installed between his government office and his lumber yard, and other private lines quickly followed. Organized service in Honolulu began during the late fall of 1880, and on December 30 the Hawaiian Bell Telephone Company was incorporated.
On December 23, 1880, a charter was granted to the Hawaiian Bell Telephone Company (Bell had nothing to do with the company; the name “Bell” was added to honor Alexander Graham Bell.)
There were 119 subscribers by the end of 1881; the next year there were 179. (On August 16, 1883, a competitive group was granted a charter, it was called the Mutual Telephone Company. Competition brought the rates down.)
The 1880-1881 directory, published in 1880, noted that the Hawaiian Telegraph Company “was established in 1877, and was the pioneer line of the Kingdom, and is up to the present time the only public line.”
“It was originally worked with what are known as Morse Sounders, but, the business of the line not being sufficient to pay for experienced operators, telephones have been substituted.” (Schmitt, HJH)
The first calls were operator assisted – the first operators were men.
They knew each subscriber by voice and did more than just connect calls – they made appointments, conveyed messages and even announced the current attraction at the Opera House. Throwing a master switch, they could inform all subscribers on matters of general concern, with a “Now hear this!”
On November 2, 1931, the Mutual Telephone Company inaugurated interisland radio telephone service. Mutual introduced radio telephone service with the Mainland a few weeks later. (Schmitt, HJH)
Annoyed by the growing numbers of free-loaders who used merchants’ phones for their private calls, the company (with the approval of the Public Utilities Commission) forbade free calls from stores and other public places, and in 1935 installed the first pay phones in Honolulu. (Schmitt, HJH)
Shortly after the turn of the century, women replaced men as telephone operators. On August 28, 1910, Honolulu telephones were converted to dial operation, but the last manual phones in Hawaiʻi (at Kamuela and Kapoho) were not phased out until 1957.
That same year (1957,) the first submarine telephone cable laid between Hawaiʻi and the mainland United States (actually two cables, (one transmitting in each direction.)) This provided the first direct dialing between Hawaiʻi and the mainland. It was replaced in 1989 with more advanced Fiber Optic cable technology.
Direct Distance Dialing was made available for calls from Oahu to the Neighbor Islands and Mainland beginning at 12:01 a.m., January 16, 1972. This permitted callers to bypass long-distance operators and reduce charges appreciably.