Before telegraphs, telephones, and email, people who wished to communicate with others over distance had to write a letter. But letters are important historical treasures that have helped historians develop a picture of the daily lives of those who wrote them. Phone conversations are instantly lost, and telegraphs were generally short missives. Letters, however, give an in-depth look at how people were living and what they were feeling.
Keeping in Touch: Connectivity and Communication in Cayuga County
Writing a Letter
Letter from Evelina V. Throop to her aunt Mrs. Frances P. Lupton, 1828 (Cayuga Museum Collection)
The Cayuga Museum holds a collection of Throop family letters, many of which were written by the women of the family. While history records the political contributions of the Throop men, these letters give readers a glimpse into the lives of the Throop women. Interestingly, many of the letters contain news of these women traveling almost constantly to visit family and friends. Mainstream history tells us that the women’s sphere was in the home, but these letters broaden the picture. Wealthier women were not as physically tied to the home as poorer women. The Throop women traveled endlessly, sometimes staying with relatives for months at a time, and often leaving their husbands behind.
Typing it Out
The invention of the typewriter slowly allowed typewritten letters to gain popularity. While the typewriter was mainly used by businesses to produce more professional looking and easy to read documents, they did gain favor for home use as well.
Corona Typewriter Company Corona 3 typewriter (Cayuga Museum Collection)
The Corona Typewriter Co. began as the Standard Typewriter Co. with a factory in Groton, NY. The company changed its name to the Corona Typewriting Co. in 1914, after their Corona 3 model typewriter. The first Corona model was released in 1906 but it wasn’t until 1912 that the highly successful Corona 3 model was introduced. Over 600,000 were sold between 1912 and 1941, when the company (then the Smith-Corona) began making rifles for WWII.
The Corona 3 folded into a carrying case which made it the most portable model to date. It was even chosen as the typewriter of the British army during WWI, and Ernest Hemingway used it in his work as a traveling reporter.
In 1926, the Corona Typewriter Co. merged with the L.C. Smith & Brothers Co. becoming the Smith-Corona Co. The company closed its last plant in Cortland NY in 1994.
Oliver Standard Visible Writer
Developed by Thomas Oliver. Oliver was born in Canada but moved to Iowa and became a Methodist minister. In 1888 he developed a typewriter to make his sermons more legible. Oliver continued to improve on his typewriter, and in 1891 received his first patent. He proved to be a capable businessman and found investors willing to fund the manufacturing of his machines. While visiting Chicago to promote the machine, Oliver encountered businessman Delavan Smith, who became interested in the typewriter and bought the stock held by the Iowa investors.
The design of the Oliver typewriters remained largely unchanged throughout the company’s history. The Oliver typewriters were down strike typewriters meaning that the typebars strike the roller from above rather than from the front or from below. This design was a popular one, as it meant that the full page was visible to the typist as they were working (hence the “visible” in the name).
The development of the telegraph in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse and others revolutionized long-distance communication. Rather than waiting for a letter to be delivered, telegraphs could instantly transmit information. While the telegraph was important for communicating urgent matters, the letter was still widely used as a means of general communication.
Colby Radio Research Laboratory Receiving Transformer
Edward L. Colby was born in 1879 in Groton NY. As a young boy, he developed an interest in railroad telegraphy. He and several friends strung telegraph wires from the Lehigh Valley railroad station in Richfield to a local store, where they used the wires to learn Morse Code. Pursuing this early interest, Colby became a telegrapher with the Lehigh Valley railroad. In 1905 he was transferred from Aurora to Auburn. Shortly after, he left the railroad to found the Colby Telegraph School which taught its students railroad code and switchboard operation. Colby also trained wireless operators and in 1910 he began transmitting wireless signals.
Edward Colby applied for and received at least two patents related to early wireless communications. The first, granted in 1913, was for a Receiving Transformer for wireless communications. His Receiving Transformer was designed to make sharp tuning possible and was capable of cutting out unwanted stations and preventing interference. The second patent, from 1914, was for improvements made on the Receiving Transformer which refined the tuning through the use of switchable primary and secondary tuning coils.
Colby Radio Research Laboratory Receiving Transformer (Cayuga Museum Collection)
Making a Call
In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell had secured exclusive rights to telephone technology and launched the Bell Telephone Co., forever changing the way people communicated with each other. In 1880, Bell merged his company with others to form the American Bell Telephone Co. and in 1885 formed the American Telegraph and Telephone Co. (AT&T). By 1900 there were close to 600,000 phones in Bell’s telephone system, and by 1910, almost 5.8 million.
Stromberg-Carlson was formed in 1894 by Alfred Stromberg and Androv Carlson, two employees of the American Bell Telephone Co. in Chicago, when Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone expired. The two men established a firm to manufacture equipment, primarily subscriber sets, to sell to independent telephone companies.
In 1904, Stromberg-Carlson was purchased by Home Telephone Company, based in Rochester, New York. The new owners quickly relocated all Stromberg-Carlson operations to New York, mainly to the Rochester area. In addition to telephone equipment the company manufactured other consumer electronics like radio receivers, and television sets.
Early telephone use did come with its disadvantages. Many people did not have access to a telephone in their own homes and had to travel to use one in a local general store where others could easily listen to conversations. Switchboard operators would also listen in, making the telephone a less than ideal tool over which to discuss private matters. Despite these drawbacks, the telephone became a staple in American life. In the early 1990s, the cell phone gained popularity and quickly overtook the landline. The home phone has held on though; In a 2018 survey, it was found that around 43% of households still have a landline.
Stromberg-Carlson Telephone (Cayuga Museum Collection)
Willard LeGrand Bundy with Clock (Cayuga Museum Collection)
The Computer Does it All!
Willard LeGrand Bundy (1846-1916) came to Auburn from Otsego NY in 1849. After graduating school, he learned his trade in a jewelry store and in 1868 he was able to open his own shop. His most well-known invention, from 1887, was for a time recording device for recording when employees clocked in and out of work. In 1889, his brother Harlow, a lawyer, suggested that they develop some of his inventions and they agreed to form the Bundy Manufacturing Co. in Binghamton. In 1925, after becoming a prosperous and greatly expanded business, they merged with several other companies and became International Business Machines (IBM). Learn More About the Bundys
By the 1920s, IBM was a world leader in providing computer systems for businesses and scientific applications. In 1964, they introduced a family of computers called the System/360. The success of the System/360, the first time machines across a product line could all work together, caused many competitors to merge or go bankrupt, leaving IBM a powerful force in the computer industry.
The first email was sent in 1971 and communication has never been the same.