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How the Telephone Conquered the World. Episode Eight: The Russian Field of Experiments

How the first telephone arrived in the Russian Empire—mistakenly delivered instead of a crate of wine

The history of the invention of telephony reads like a captivating detective novel, but even more intriguing are the events that contributed to the worldwide adoption of this technology. In this series of columns on IQ.HSE, Anton Basov, HSE Faculty of Computer Science editor, discusses how telephones have become an integral part of our everyday life. The eighth episode of the series recounts how Russia first adapted the telephone for military and logistical purposes, created a shell company headed by a nominal executive for reselling the rights to Western competitors, and intensively developed communication infrastructure in the country's two capitals, making such progress that Vladimir Lenin insisted on capturing and maintaining control of telephone exchanges at all costs.

The telephone made its debut in Russia under highly unusual circumstances. Legend has it that in December 1877, a certain major general stationed at the front of the Russo-Turkish War ordered a crate of wine to be delivered from St Petersburg. Due to a mix-up, the general received, instead of wine, some obscure tubes that the chief of the field telegraph identified as the recently invented telephone.

Whether this actually occurred remains unknown. But it is a fact that experiments involving telephone communication between various military units were indeed conducted at that time and were likely among the earliest recorded uses of the telephone in military operations.

In late 1879, experiments began on the use of telephone in railway operations. The initial attempt at telephone communication between St Petersburg and Malaya Vishera station (160 km away) proved to be unsatisfactory. According to the head of the postal and telegraph district, 'the sounds of speech were muffled and resembled those coming from far away or perhaps from an underground cave.' However, at shorter distances, the sound quality was better. Telephone conversations between St Petersburg and Lyuban (80 km), Novgorod and Kresttsy (96 km), Pskov and Ostrov (52 km) turned out to be successful, leading to the adoption of telephone communication in railway practice.


Soon afterwards, private telephone lines started to emerge in Russia. On December 17, 1880, Grand Duke Dmitry Konstantinovich wrote to his sister, Queen Olga of Greece: '... I have a telephone line to the stable, and without disturbing anyone, I can order a carriage for myself or give urgent orders.'

But private lines did not constitute telephone networks, whose progress was hindered by legislative obstacles. Just like in other European countries, the telegraph in Russia was a state monopoly. In February 1881, the Telegraph Department of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs prepared a report recommending that the organisation of telephone communications in Russia be delegated to private operators. The Committee of Ministers endorsed the report, and on February 27, 1881, Emperor Alexander II approved the Regulation on the Establishment of Telephone Communications.

Alexander II was assassinated shortly afterward, on March 1, 1881, in a bomb attack carried out by members of Narodnaya Volya. The regulation on telephony was one of the last documents signed by the emperor. On March 30, his successor, Emperor Alexander III, signed a decree on the establishment of telephone communication by both private and public operators, as well as government agencies for their own needs.

On June 20, 1881, based on this decree, a private telephone connection appeared in Nizhny Novgorod for the first time in Russia—two lines connected the apartments of the heads of the Druzhina Steamship Company and the St George Pier on the Volga River. Druzhina was a large company, owning 24 steamships in 1876. In a document preserved from that time, the chairman of the steamship company's board requested permission 'to install telephones solely for the purpose of transmitting orders to the pier, instead of the unavoidable dispatch of sailors with written notes, with the company undertaking... not to use the telephone for any purpose other than the transmission of internal orders concerning the shipping business...'

On September 25, 1881, the Basic Conditions for the Construction and Operation of Urban Telephone Communications in Russia were finally approved. They closely resembled the regulations issued by theBritish andFrench Ministries of Posts that governed the installation of telephone networks, as discussed in previous instalments of this series.

An entrepreneur wishing to install a telephone network was required to enter into an agreement with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and obtain police permission to carry out the work. The agreement was a monopoly contract lasting 20 years, after which the telephone network would be transferred to the government without compensation. The network operator was prohibited from charging a subscriber more than 250 roubles per year, with 10% of this amount going to the treasury (for government agencies, the tariff was 125 roubles, with 5% going to the treasury).

The first contract for establishing telephone communication in St Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Riga, and Odessa was signed on November 1, 1881, with the engineer Vladimir von Baranov.

The entire von Baranov affair resembles a detective story in and of itself. Some sources claim that he had genuinely intended to build telephone networks, and quote a list of equipment allegedly purchased by von Baranov for this purpose, including 6 tons of wire, 5,000 insulators, 400 telephone sets, 6 switchboards, and more.

Yet others contend that von Baranov had not intended to pursue a telephone business of his own, but perhaps served as a stand-in nominee whose role was to snatch the prospective contract from Bell's company, which had also applied, and then to resell the rights to it at a higher price.

Also intriguing is the possible involvement of Baranov's two influential relatives, one of whom was a count and a member of the State Council, and the other one a navy captain and the Mayor of St Petersburg. Clearly, they could have assisted a member of the cadet branch of their family.

In any case, on April 3, 1882, von Baranov sold the rights to establish telephone networks to the Bell International Telephone Company, which commenced the work immediately. On July 1, 1882, telephone exchanges started operating in St Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Riga, and Odessa. By October 29, there were 259 telephone subscribers in St Petersburg and 200 in Moscow.

Telephone technology in Russia at that time was at an advanced level, comparable to that in America. Making a phone call involved picking up the earpiece from the lever and rotating the handle of a magneto, a small electric generator. At the telephone exchange, a bell would ring and a numbered plaque would drop, alerting the exchange operator to the party requesting the call.

On April 1, 1886, a government-funded telephone exchange was opened in Kyiv. Once the government ascertained the telephone industry's financial viability, it ceased entering into new contracts with private individuals and companies for the establishment of telephone networks.

However, similar to the situation in France, a shortage of funding led to a slowdown in the development of the telephone. The number of subscribers also increased at a sluggish pace due to the high tariff, which acted as a deterrent for individuals. Consequently, telephones were primarily installed at factories, newspapers, and banks. Anticipating the imminent takeover of telephone networks by the government, Bell's company stopped upgrading the equipment, which no longer met the increasing demands.

On December 31, 1898, a 660 km-long telephone line between St Petersburg and Moscow was launched, becoming the longest in Europe. By the end of 1900, there were 100 urban telephone networks in the Russian Empire, serving 25,000 subscribers. Telephone service was available in 63% of provincial [gubernia] towns, but only in 5% of county [uezd] towns.

In 1901, the contract with the Bell International Telephone Company expired. By that time, the company was serving approximately 4,000 subscribers in St Petersburg and about 3,000 in Moscow. The two capitals then implemented different solutions: in St Petersburg, the City Duma assumed ownership of the telephone network, while in Moscow, it was transferred to the Swedish-Danish-Russian Telephone Company under a new concession.

The prices for telephone connections plummeted: in St Petersburg, the annual subscription cost dropped to 49.5 roubles for private apartments and 71.5 roubles for public institutions. The number of subscribers increased dramatically, prompting both cities to initiate the construction of new telephone exchanges capable of accommodating 40,000 numbers in St Petersburg and 20,000 in Moscow.

This is how the St Petersburg writer Lev Uspensky describes his first encounter with the telephone:

'At the contractor's feet, on the floor, there were bags and boxes with basic tools, and on the windowsill lay a peculiar structure—a brown wooden board with a strangely shaped box on it. A Martian-like nickel-plated lever protruded above the box, culminating in a funnel-shaped tube. A metal prong extended from the side of the box. Nearby, from another circular opening, a tricolored cloth cord extended; at its end, a thick, short ebony tube was affixed, black as compressed carbon from arc lamps...

This was Kvashnin's telephone, group A, number 1-20-57, and it was the first one I had the opportunity to use for a conversation. I can't express how improbable, strange, and fantastic it felt when I was told, "Go call Dad, ask if he'll come home early today" –and I asked the telephone operator to connect me to the proper number, and suddenly, from far away at 39 Liteyny, I heard my Dad's voice, who was evidently not too pleased about being called. "Yes, I'm listening," he said, and I shouted, "Dad, it's me, Leo... I'm talking to you on the phone!” It was a true miracle...'

While the telephone continued to advance in other parts of Russia as well, its progress was relatively slow. In conditions of limited private initiative, the establishment of telephone networks was exclusively undertaken by state institutions and local self-government at district [ zemstvo ] and county [ uezd ] levels. 

Thanks to the efforts of district councils, telephones were made available in rural areas where the central government did not see any benefits from telephone communication. By the start of the First World War, district-level telephone services had reached vast areas of the Volga region, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Urals.

Generally, it can be said that telephony in the Russian Empire developed in a manner similar to the rest of Europe. By 1917, the telephone had become an integral part of urban life. Perhaps Vladimir Lenin understood its significance better than anyone in Russian history when he emphasised that for the success of the revolution, it was essential 'to capture and retain at any cost: a) telephone, b) telegraph, c) railway stations, and d) bridges.'

Author: Anton Basov, January 24