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Rural telephone network with using barbed wire fences

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Rural telephone network with using barbed wire fences

When you were younger, you might have tried to build one of those tin can telephones so you can talk to your friend that lived across the yard. Back in the 1900s, a small portion of the US rural West had a subscription-free telephone network that anyone could hook up to provided they had a telephone. Amusingly, the wires weren’t specifically installed for the purpose of a telephone network, but rather were systems of barbed wire fencing.

C. F. Eckhardt explains that the person who first hooked some telephones up to the barbed wire found that if they were connected to the top wire of the fencing, that it provided a line of communication that was reportedly as clear as any standard telephone service at the time. However, because it used pre-existing barbed wire fences, users could bypass all of the less-than-ideal aspects of a standard telephone service, such as bills and long-distance charges.

The barbed wire network required a lot of insulation, which followed the network’s do-it-yourself nature. Reports state that wires were being insulted and propped up using just about anything available, from leather straps wrapped around the wires and nailed to fence posts, to the necks of whiskey bottles and corn cobs installed over the nails.

People who owned ranches generally had a lot of barbed wire, so they would string some wire up to the central system, and would be able to contact anyone else on the system. However, because the network didn’t have any operators, no one was directing calls. Network users developed a solution that involved using unique rings so people would know who the call was for — basically custom ringtones.

Due to the nature of the system, it was completely independent, and couldn’t call anyone on standard phone lines. If people on the barbed wire network wanted to call anyone in town, they would have to contact a ranch that had access to both the barbed wire network and the standard phone lines, and have them deliver the message.

Eckhardt notes that some of the barbed wire phone lines were still operational as of the 70s. Though being able to say your phone calls are so intense that they’re made through barbed wire is pretty cool, I think we can all agree that being able to browse the web on our phones is worth being less cool.