The “Farmer’s Phone System” was the result of someone looking at a fence and thinking “This Could…” do more. A barbed wire phone network was the result.
When telephones were first introduced in the early 1900s, phone companies were only interested in building networks in cities. Rural settlements were too sparsely populated and remote to justify the investment in the wire, poles, equipment, and manpower that would be needed to connect them.
But specifically because of their remote locations and dispersed populations, farmers had real needs for a telephone. Phones would allow them to get help during emergencies, share weather reports with other farms, and simply talk and connect with one another to battle rural isolation. Their needs may have been real, but so was the phone companies’ focus on profits.
So farmers took matters in their own hands.
The early telephone system was little more than a network of basic units for speaking and listening and junction boxes connected by a network of wires. Some farmers began looking at ways in which they could replicate this simple system on their own. They could buy the phone units and junction boxes. As for the network to connect them all, they realized a wire network was already in place. It just went by a different name: barbed wire fences.
Lost to history is the name of the person who looked at miles of fencing wire stretching across the prairie and thought, “This could be a phone network.”
Some farmers would run special phone wires along the top of existing fences. Others would use the existing barbed wire for the phone network. Junction boxes were installed in kitchens or the local post office. As Lynne Hayes describes in an article for Growing America:
“Typically, a smooth wire was strung from a telephone in a house or barn to a barbed wire fence. From there, it hooked into the top strand of barbed wire (most fences had at least three strands) and the telephone signal would follow the length of the wire to a second telephone that was connected to the barbed wire down the line. With thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing spanning the country in the early 1900s, all the makings of this crude system were already in place.”Lynne Hayes, Growing America
The “Farmer’s Phone System” as it became known is one of the most significant manifestations of This Could Thinking—looking at an existing asset (the barbed wire fence system) and realizing This Could meet our need (for a phone network). At its height, over three million people across the Midwest were connected by the barbed wire phone network—more than were connected by the official Bell System.