Telephonic Supply Chains

Telephonic Supply Chains (1876-1937)

This project explores the creation of a digital collection of materials related to the geographic and productive positioning of the telephone in the late 1800s and early 1900s (spanning its documented invention in 1876 to the final stages of mass manufacture in the late 1930s). Archival materials related to the production and distribution of the telephone tend to be difficult to access. Many of the materials remain in corporate archives with difficult access policies, while others are distributed through various museums and archival collections in the federal system. These materials are largely corporate publications, pamphlets, trade journals, accounting ledgers, manufacturing notes, trade catalogues, advertisements, technical drawings, purchase orders, and corporate correspondence between the various companies and entities involved in the international manufacture of the telephone.

Much of this material has not been made directly available, with a few key exceptions that this collection will not focus on (Bell's papers, records of patent disputes, etc.). Collecting this material into a singular collection would be difficult, given the diverse number and nature of institutions involved. A digital collection of the material, however, would make it possible to explore records related to telephone manufacture and production that cuts across a large number of institutional boundaries. The documents will come from three principle sources: The AT&T archives, the collections of Business History and trade pamphlets at the National Museum of American History, and private collections of telephone Americana. While relevant materials in these collections range up to several thousand documents (of many more in total), a smaller number will be selected for initial digitization (see selection policy below).

The primary purpose in creating this assemblage of existing collections, and presenting them as a digitized whole, is to provide a resource for exploring the material communication that was necessary to the manufacture and massification of the telephone. This offers the opportunity to engage in research outside of the traditional structures afforded by telephone collections: exploring issues related to its "invention," or the social processes necessary for its consumption. Rather this project builds a basis for the material exploration of the telephone, and a way of approaching its material history, that brings in perspectives from business history and the history of global production and manufacture.


This project will create a thematic collection of information published relevant to the geography of telephone production in the early decades following invention to manufacture, initially by digitizing a few dozen documents. In order to select this material, because much of it has not been evaluated in the context of scholarly research, particularly emphasis will be given to creating a diverse collection of the richer materials. These tend to be lengthier, although smaller in number (a few dozen) and can be digitized completely. Supporting materials will be selected to provide a sample of the type of document, their geographic region, and their spread over the process of manufacture. Additional weight will be given to material drawn from private collections and the americana trade, which might not otherwise be available in existing archives. In the first stage only a small number (~100) of documents will be digitized.

While the information is certainly international in scope, the initial collection will focus on collecting materials relevant to North America (the United States and Canada). International materials, while potentially quite valuable, would pose difficulties and increase the time and cost of the project. In order to maximize the collection's productiveness for scholars engaged in research on early industrial production, particularly attention will be paid to the tagging the collection with appropriate geographic and manufacturing details. In order to engage with telephone historians, the collection will index undigitzed documents, and provide references to collections outside the scope of its particular aims.

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