Fences as primitive phone networks

Somewhere between two-cans-and-a-string and Ma Bell lies the barbed wire fence telephone networks used by ranchers in the early 20th century. From CF Eckhardt's short history of these "rural telephone systems" at TexasHillCountry.com :
Across much of the west, to the west of old US 81 (present I-35) in Texas--and not a small part of it east of that demarcation--there was already a network of wire covering most of the country, in the form of barbed-wire fences. Some unknown genius discovered that if you hooked two Sears or Monkey Ward telephone sets to the top wire on a barbed-wire fence, you could talk between the telephones as easily as between two "town" telephones connected by slick wire through an operator's switchboard. A rural telephone system that had no operators, no bills--and no long-distance charges--was born. Most ranch perimeter fences joined at corners, and in most cases the top wires touched each other or were even interwoven for strength. Where it became necessary for a telephone system to cross a road, all that was required was two posts about 15 feet long, buried about 3 feet into the ground for stability, and enough wire to go from one top fence wire up to the top of the post, across the road, and down the other post to the top fence wire on the other side.
"Before Maw Bell - Rural Telephone Systems In The West"

More at BLDGBLOG: "Fence Phone"



  1. I recall being at a convention/meeting in San Jose, CA in the early 90’s where a Novell representative was taking questions.  TCP/IP was kinda new to LANs back then and if you were running Novell NetWare, you were absolutely running IPX/SPX.  

    Coax wiring (ThinNet) EtherNet and ArcNet were the prevailing physical layers.  

    A question arose regarding whether IPX/SPX would be supported over some new physical layer – fiber NICs I think – and the response from the podium was “If enough customers are asking for it, IPX could be implemented to run over barbed wire.”

    1. Wow — it makes me feel better to know that someone else stripped a telephone wire when they were 8, stuck it in his mouth and hollered to the next-door neighbour boy to dial their home number. 

      1. We had a patient once who stuck a stereo wire up his urethra and put on some Led Zeppelin.

  2. If you called someone in town, going through their fence might incur lawn-distance charges. 

  3. The lack of “long distance bills” was kind of a given anyway since this system would only be useful for local calls regardless.  Granted, “local” is a pretty big area in a midwestern ranch, but you’re not going to be calling people three towns over with this setup. 

    In fact it doesn’t scale at all.  It’s a neat hack for two people, but rapidly falls apart if more than two want to join in. 

  4. After the wildfires destroyed our area in 2011 in Texas, we sat around a fire one cold winter night in a burned out forest talking about how to rebuild.  In the event of a disaster like a flood, or fire or viral driven zombie apocalypse – basic things we take for granted like instant communication with our neighbors and loved ones becomes crucial.  We realized that even though there were evacuations, many of the homes around us never received notice.  In a thick forest setting where everyone owns at least several acres with a wildfire spreading quick – if the cell towers are burning, and the land lines are down, and the police are running too – how can we make sure everyone knows to there’s an emergency?

    How can we know if a neighbor is in trouble?

    The fence wire telephone system is a great idea because it relies on no central hub.  It uses a series of basic protocols that are easily understood and could greatly benefit small hamlet type communities.  It uses materials that are easily acquirable even after a major disaster.  Just think if all your neighbors came running in an emergency to help.

    We had the idea for a fence wire telephone system that post-disaster cold winter night, and although we didn’t implement it – it’s nice to know it worked a long time before we ever thought of it.

    /something to file away for the future.

    1. That’s the kind of world ham radio operators dream of. Unfortunately few people are licensed or equipped for that. Something creatively rigged like you describe could work, though it still suffers a bootstrap problem where you already need to be able to communicate in order to tell them how to set up their communication.

      I was in an area that was hit by the utilities/communications blackout of Hurricane Sandy (thankfully, no permanent injuries or property damage where I was). Losing that communication, especially cell phone connectivity (which I take for granted as being more reliable than our landline) was a little disturbing.

      1.  I’d guess that the effective range of this would be the sort of distance you could walk or ride easily, so you could expand your network by just following the fence wire, repairing as necessary, until you reached your neighbours.

      2. The up-close-and-personal method works best.  You walk next door and telll two people, and maybe help them set up.  Then they walk some distance away and tell people, and so on, and so forth…

        It’s an alien concept these days – not assuming that someone already has something and helping them set up – but it worked for many years when neighborhoods were people who knew and interacted with one another, and didn’t just pass one another on the street on their way to work.

  5. Is “Monkey Ward” some kind of Texasism?  I’ve never heard such a nickname for Montgomery Ward before.

    What do I know, I come from a state where people often pronounce Target as a French word.  

    1. My grandmother, from rural western Kentucky and living most of her life in middle TN, used the phrase, too.

  6. This is a little off-topic but it’s one of the many good ol’ boy stories that came down to me from the farmer days of my family:

    My grandfather when he was young took an even-then-old crank-the-handle-to-get-the-operator type phone and wired it to the body of his friends car.  Those phones were actually little electrical generators, you’d crank the handle to send a charge down the wire to ring the bell on the operators console.  When my grandfather’s friend grabbed the car door handle my grandfather cranked up the phone and gave him a terrible shock through the car’s body.

    The friend was livid but got over it quick and they pulled the prank on the other folks leaving the house each in turn. 

    I think that when I was told this story I was also told that they kept the old phone around to stun ponds full of fish, which would then rise to the surface.  That last part might’ve been true or a tall tale or I could have heard it somewhere else entirely.

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