Part 2

Creating the Electric Tree: Physical Limitations of Telephone Poles and Wires

By Michael Feagan

This is the second entry in a three-part series on the history of utility poles in Canada. Click here to read Part 1.

Although the standard for telephone poles was set for forty-feet tall, many poles went well over this height. For example, Figure 1 shows the erection of a sixty-foot tall pole in Toronto in 1895. Early Bell specifications set the distance between poles at 130 feet, meaning there were forty poles per mile.[1] Bell also standardized crossarms, with each being ten-foot long, spaced two feet apart, and carrying ten wires.[2] Wires were secured to and supported by glass insulators, and were screwed to wooden pins on the crossarms. These techniques were originally used by the telegraph industry and were an element that both forms of communication shared in constructing lines. One of the major problems caused by using wires that were more adapted to the telegraph than the telephone was that signal degradation from the wires was much higher for telephones than telegraphs. The wires that hung from these poles were iron or steel, which itself was galvanized or sometimes untreated. These telephone wires experienced problems with corrosion and rust resulting in loose and noisy connections. Without a method to amplify telephonic signals, like the telegraph had, telephone messages could only be used in very short distances. Eventually wires of hardened copper became the standard for telephone service, but distance continued to be an issue.[3] For the late nineteenth century, the telephone remained a technology for local and intra-urban communications, whereas the telegraph was utilized for long-distance communications.

Figure 1: Bell Canada, Bell Telephone Company crew erecting sixty-foot pole near corner of King and Dufferin Streets, Toronto, Ont. 1895, Canada, Bell Canada / Library and Archives Canada,

In addition to technological and corporate limitations, municipal governments in Canada also regulated the appearance and functionality of telephone poles. The municipal government of Kingston, Ontario, for instance, limited telephone poles by requiring them to be no more than forty-feet tall; wires had to be at least twenty-feet above the street, and there was to be no more than one row of poles per street.[4] These by-laws not only regulated the appearance of poles and wires but also placed restrictions on how much business their infrastructure could carry. This was because each wire represented a telephone subscriber, as cabling was not yet prevalent, so one row of forty-foot tall poles could only support so many wires without them dangling too low or the poles growing too tall. This meant there was a physical limit on the amount of subscribers that could be served in a particular city. For a smaller city like Kingston with less telephone subscribers this may not have been an issue, but for larger cities like Toronto or Montreal it could be detrimental for a technology that was already limited to intra-urban communications. This helps to explain why telephone poles often exceeded corporate or municipal standards. The Globe even called out telegraph and telephone companies for erecting sixty-foot tall poles when they only had the authority to erect poles that were forty-feet tall.[5]

The reasons why residents and governments wanted these limitations and what effects poles and wires had on urban landscapes will be explored in more detail in the third part of this series.


[1] Edward F. O’Neill et al., A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System, vol. 1 (New York: The Laboratories, 1975), 200.

[2] O’Neill, 200.

[3] O’Neill, 202-203 and 206.

[4] The Consolidated By-Laws of The City of Kingston (Kingston: Daily News Office), 1883, 199-200.

[5] The Globe, Unsightly Telegraph Poles, Aug. 4, 1887, 4.

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