Alexander Graham Bell never planned to invent the telephone. While attempting to improve the telegraph, he inadvertently patented the phone, beating out four other inventors.
Such is the first thing you learn on a tour of The Telephone Museum in Ellsworth, a cavernous space filled with more retro telecommunications technology than an early James Bond film. Lucky for even the most smartphone-infatuated teenagers, the tour guides aren’t afraid to teach you how to use any of the old gear.
“Did you expect to see this many phones today?” asked Museum Treasurer David Thompson, gesturing at the crank and rotary phones all around the front room. “Most people come here and expect to see 12,000 telephones behind glass. We want people to use them.”
Throughout the tour, Thompson stressed interactivity, beginning with two metal cans on a wire before moving on to a crank phone (which enabled long-distance calling) and several large switching systems (which allow visitors to make calls across the room).
Children usually get the biggest kick out of the old-fangled technology, Thompson said, imitating kids dialing a rotary in a manner that would probably amuse older visitors.
Despite not wanting to impart too much history, Thompson packs a lot into one hour. Even as Bell Telephone Co. was shooting lines across the country, he explained, many farmers still wanted their own systems. Maine at one point had at least 45 independent companies, one of which used to serve the far-flung island of Frenchboro. Now the museum houses the old CX-100 relay switch that Island Telephone Co. donated when another operator took over there.
Thompson’s bona fides as a historian come as no surprise. His hobby of tinkering with phones while growing up in Massachusetts eventually led him to work for Eastern Telephone Co. in Maine.
White-haired and living in Bucksport, his old orange hardhat now hangs in the museum he runs with about five other volunteers. Besides their efforts, the museum has gotten help from some unusual places since opening in 1983. Its catalog draws from as far away as Peru (the country, not the town), and late night talk show host Jay Leno, acquainted with someone on the museum board, once wrote them a check for around $2,000.
Still, they’ve had trouble raising funds for the visitor center they hoped to open this summer, a $140,000 project for which they still need $12,000. Beyond the center, which would free up space in the museum and have restrooms, Thompson hopes they might one day heat the museum, which now takes a while to fully function after a damp winter.
Nevertheless, the converted barn space has a rustic charm appropriate to the aging technology to which it remains a sanctuary. Cell phones have grown to the point where some companies may drop landline service entirely. Explaining how to operate a magneto switchboard, it was clear Thompson himself wouldn’t be doing so anytime soon.
At that point in the tour, a young visitor once declared how much easier his smartphone was to operate. Thompson politely disagreed.
“It’s just a matter of perception,” he said.