Did you know the Smithsonian was an early adopter of the telephone? In June of 1878, a system of electronic bells and telephones was installed throughout the Smithsonian Castle. The system connected several workrooms and offices to provide instant communications within the building. At that time, there were only 187 telephone lines throughout Washington, DC. Why did the Smithsonian decide to install this cutting-edge communications system so early on?
The first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry (1797-1878), was a noted physicist whose research focused on electromagnetism – one of the integral components of telephone technology. In April of 1875, Henry was visited by a young Scottish inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who asked for advice about an invention he was working on to transmit speech. Henry reviewed Bell’s plans and pronounced them quite sound, and Bell proceeded to file for a patent on March 7, 1876 for the telephone. The next January, Bell returned and demonstrated his telephone for the Henry family. So after watching this new technology develop and mentoring its inventor, it’s not surprising Henry was an early adopter. The service cost $4 per month, and other early users include the White House (#1), the Senate (#2) and the DC police.
When the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum (USNM), now known as the Arts and Industries Building, opened in 1881, it was wired for electricity – quite a modern development – with the statue in the rotunda holding an electric torch-shaped light. The USNM also contained telephone and telegraph lines, as well as an electric bell alarm system to protect the exhibit cases. Telegrams and telephone calls went through a central switchboard, which was operated by two women. Telephones were serious business and primarily used within the Smithsonian. But by 1896, the switchboard was handling approximately 78 calls per day, 2,370 per month and 28,446 for the year. Of course, the National Museum did collection Bell’s early telephones, as well.
When the “new” United States National Museum opened across the Mall in 1910 (now the Natural History Museum), it not only had official phones but also a pay telephone in a staff area for employees to make personal phone calls during the workday. Though staff could only use department phones for official business, the public had no such restrictions and was known to use the direct line to the Smithsonian for fun. On April Fool’s in 1919, the National Zoo got over 600 prank calls for Mr. Lyon, Miss Fox or Mr. Wolf, shutting down the switchboard! But by the 1940s, desktop phones were the norm across the Institution, and Bell’s invention was a familiar part of the workday. The popular use of these newfangled machines meant fewer things were written down, decreasing our archival documentation.
Today video conference calls and webcasts are part of everyday Smithsonian work. Our public inquiry office has had, for decades, a group of dedicated volunteers who answer questions from the public about how to visit the Smithsonian and myriad other topics in art, culture, history and science that the volunteers forward on to Smithsonian experts. Researchers use phones in the field to record music and performances in distant lands, record images of invasive marine species, capture images of temporary art installations, and document a sea of pink hats at a demonstration. And today, since virtually every visitor has a phone, our museums offer mobile apps to teach you more about the exhibit you are visiting, let you solve Civil War mysteries as a Smithsonian “intern,” remix the collages of African American artist Romare Bearden, and how to identify that tree in your back yard. Podcasts and webcasts share our research across the globe. Given Joseph Henry’s interest in installing telephone lines at the Smithsonian before they were commonplace, he would probably be quite pleased with how the Smithsonian has stayed ahead of the communications curve to advance the mission of increasing and diffusing knowledge.