The Telephone Revolution on Capitol Hill
During the American Industrial Revolution, Alexander Graham Bell invented the first
functional telephone in 1876. Shortly thereafter, major cities across the
United States and Europe began to install the revolutionary telephone system. Service
expanded to Washington, D.C., in 1879, and slowly transformed the information system
throughout the Nation's Capital.
The first telephone was installed in the U.S. Capitol Building in 1880. Situated
in the lobby of the House of Representatives, the telephone was placed under the
supervision of the House Doorkeeper,
Walter Brownlow. Within two years the telephone became so popular that Brownlow
petitioned the House to permit him to hire an additional Page to work the telephone.
By the early 1890s telephones became standard equipment, appearing in a variety
of Capitol offices, including the Speaker's Office, the Office of the Clerk, and
the Appropriations Committee. In the early 1890s, the first telephone was installed
in the Press Gallery. The invention increased the speed and accuracy that a reporter
could get the latest congressional story to press. By 1897 the expanding telephone
system required a larger switchboard and a fulltime operator. The telephone continued
to grow in use and popularity within Congress and across the country, diminishing,
but not completely eliminating the use of the telegraph. Over time, the number of
calls handled by Capitol Hill operators shrank, aided, in part, by the use of e-mail
beginning in the 1990s and the addition of cellular phone technologies. Nevertheless,
the telephone remains a popular method for constituents to contact their Representative.
More than 125 years since the installation of the first telephone in the Capitol,
the Capitol switchboard office employs a staff of more than two dozen and handles
in excess of 30,000 calls per week.
Representatives Florence Kahn and Edith Nourse Rogers (featured with a telephone)
meet in the Ladies’ Cloakroom in 1927. Image courtesy of Library
An early Member office in the Cannon House Office BuildingImage
courtesy of Library of Congress