J. Casale 2012

Charles Williams Jr.

Part Two: Human Voice sent via Telegraph

Probably the most famous of Charles Williams' workers was Thomas Watson.
Thomas A. Watson

Thomas A. Watson
Watson was a son of a Salem Massachusetts livery stable foreman. He had drifted from jobs for four years until July of 1872, at age 18, he was hired by Charles Williams. He started out turning binding posts on a hand lathe for $5.00 a week. By 1874, Watson was considered one of the shop's best men out of the 25 employees working there at that time. Watson studied the scientific principles behind his work and was educated about electricity by Moses Farmer. Williams provided a small library of books on electricity for his employees that were read during lunch time. Watson was assigned almost exclusively to do custom work of inventors.

A destinctive binding post design that was frequently used on Williams' early telegraph and telephone equipment.

Early in 1874, while working on an apparatus of Farmer's, Alexander Graham Bell came into Williams' shop and went directly over to Watson. He was looking for Watson to make modifications to a transmitter and receiver of his harmonic telegraph. His design was to send 6 to 8 messages at different pitches simultaneously over one wire and receiving them on tuned receivers. Bell was 27, and a Professor in Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University. By January of 1875, Watson was assigned to Bell in addition to doing work of other inventors.

By the spring of 1875, after months of discouraging results with the harmonic telegraph, Bell attempted to cheer up Watson one night by letting him know of another plan. He said to Watson, If I can get a mechanism which will make a current of electricity vary in its intensity, as the air varies in density when a sound is passing through it, I can telegraph any sound, even the sound of speech.
Telephone Discovery
In the attic of Williamsí shop, on June 2, 1875, Bell and Watson were continuing with their weeks of experiments with tuned transmitters and receivers as a means of sending several simultaneous telegraph messages over a single line. Bell had two stations set up in his room. One station consisted of a number of transmitters (interrupters) with telegraph keys and a second station consisting of receivers made with horseshoe electromagnets, and the corresponding reeds of the transmitters. A third station was set up in Watson's room with a duplicate set of receivers. All three stations were connected in series.

Each of the transmitters and receivers had a reed made from a strip of spring steel, positioned over an electromagnet and clamped at one end so that the pitch of its natural vibration could be adjusted by changing the clamping point. The instruments were adjusted to various pitches. Each transmitter was fitted with a pair of interrupter contacts, similar to those used in an electric bell. When a transmitter was keyed, the steel strip, or reed, would vibrate at its natural pitch and only the corresponding receiver with the matching reed would respond--vibrating at the same pitch.
Alexnader Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Image # SIA2012-1090

On this day, when Bell keyed all his transmitters in succession, the corresponding receivers responded with the exception of one located in Watson's room. With the transmitters and battery off the circuit, Bell connected the two stations of receivers together in a closed circuit and noticed while Watson was trying to pluck the reed free on the non responding receiver, that the reed on his receiver started to vibrate evidently by only some residual magnetism. Bell also noticed he could faintly hear the specific tone of Watson's reed on every one of his receivers.

It was this discovery of a means of producing a varying electromagnetic current that led to Bellís development of the telephone--which is essentially a device for converting voice into a continuously varying electric current and using it to actuate an electromagnet acting against a diaphragm.
5 Exeter Place
In January of 1876, Bell decided to keep his experimental apparatus out of sight until he secured patents, something that was not possible at Williams' shop. He was worried about possible spies of Elisha Gray of the Western Electric Mfg. Co. who was also working in this field. Bell rented two rooms a half mile away from Williams' shop in the attic of 5 Exeter Place. Bell slept in one and Watson set up a lab in the other. Most experiments for the next two years were done there until the telephone went into full production. Watson made modifications to the instruments in Williams' shop and then carried them over to Exeter Place. Williams' men erected an outdoor line between the Williams Shop and Exeter Place soon after the experimental work began there. It was a no. 12 galvanized wire, a half mile long and run over house tops. It remained in constant use until it was abandoned in July of 1877. Watson spent hours at night listening to stray currents on this line with his primitive receivers.

Alexander Graham Bell phone side view.

Alexander Graham Bell phone bottom view.
A side and bottom view of what is considered one of
Alexander Graham Bell's first telephones.
Speaking into the opening causes a diaphragm to act
against an electromagnet. Two of Williams' distinctive
binding posts are shown.
Bell was granted his telephone patent (Improvement in Telegraphy) on March 7, 1876. On March 10, with the addition of a membrane that varied the resistance of a battery powered, liquid transmitter, Bell was able send a complete sentence to Watson's reed receiver between the two rooms at Exeter Place, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you."

In the summer of 1876, Bell decided to exhibit his telephone in the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. Watson built a set of instruments at Williams' shop using bronze instead of wood and polished them like mirrors. Because Bell decided to exhibit them late, his telephones were not put with other electrical instruments but with the educational section. Bell received high marks from Sir William Thompson who stated ....This, perhaps the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the electric telegraph, has been obtained by appliances of quite a homespun and rudimentary character.

That summer, two of Bell's supporters, Gardiner G. Hubbard, who later became his father-in-law, and Thomas Sanders, a financial backer and the father of one of Bell's visible speech pupils, offered Watson a full time job for the development of the harmonic telegraph and speaking telephone. Urged by Bell, Hubbard offered Watson the same pay he was earning at the Williams shop, free room and board, and a tenth interest in Bell's patents. At that time Watson was earning journeymen's wages of $3.00 a day and was in line to become a foreman. Watson thought about it for a couple of weeks before signing a contract.

A.G. Bell Co. Formation
Charles Williams Jr.'s home in Somerville, MA

Charles Williams Jr.'s former home today.
The first practical telephone line in the U.S. was
installed between Williams' home in
Somerville, Massachusetts and his factory.
Courtesy of the Somerville, MA Public Library
Early in 1877, Watson gave Williams the first production order of 25 box and 50 hand telephones. Up until this time, Watson had built all the phones. On April 4, the first private phone line for practical use was installed between the Williams shop and his home in Somerville. Bell said I went into his office this afternoon, and found him (Williams) talking to his wife by telephone. The reported success in the press stirred public interest. Inquiries and orders started to pour in and within a month a leasing plan became practice.

Interior view of Charles Williams Jr.'s private office and salesroom

An artist sketch of Charles Williams Jr.'s private office
and salesroom in his factory at 109 Court Street in Boston, Mass.
In this scene, E.T. Holmes watches as Williams "shouts" into his phone.
From: A Wonderful Fifty Years, E.T. Holmes, 1917

The first customer was a friend of Williams, Roswell C. Downer. On May 1, 1877, Downer rented two phones that were put on a private line between his State St. office and Downer's home in Somerville. The first paying customer was James Emery who on May 30, paid Williams 20 dollars for a year lease. Williams carried it around in his pocket for awhile until he could ask Gardiner Hubbard what to do with it. At that time, only a "patent association" of Bell, Sanders, Hubbard and Watson existed. On July 9, 1877, the Bell Telephone Company was organized as an unincorporated "voluntary association" without any capitalization. Watson became a superintendent in charge of manufacturing and Bell was the "Electrician," although Watson also filled this role. A strict policy of leasing instead of selling phones was adopted. On July 8, 1877, Watson dismantled the Exeter Place lab and moved it back to the Williams shop.

Sale to Western Electric
By August 1, 1877, 778 phones were in operation without failure. Williams was manufacturing phones at the rate of 25 a day. That month, Williams promised to increase his production from 25 to 50 daily, although he was incurring significant production expenses. The Bell Company, short of capital, relied heavily on the credit extended by Williams.

The manufacturing arrangement between the patent holders and Williams had been informal to this point. A formal agreement was not drawn up until August 1, 1878 giving Williams exclusive rights of manufacture. It consisted of a three page hand written contract. The Bell Telephone Company agreed to purchase all their telephones from Williams, paying him $1.60 for each hand telephone, and $2.45 for each box telephone. Each was subject to inspection by the company's superintendent, Watson. Williams numbered the instruments in series, the leases were closely monitored, and Watson personally shipped all the instruments.

A Williams Coffin Telephone

The "Coffin" was probably the most
famous telephone produced by Williams.
A single magneto hand telephone could
serve as both a receiver and transmitter.
Some models came with two, one for each hand.
Coffin images courtesy of Tom Adams
From 1877 to the spring of 1879 the Bell Company relied exclusively on Williams' shop for telephones and associated apparatus. By early 1879, Williams could not keep up with the demand. Williams' machinists were not used to being strictly production workers, they were considered craftsman, used to making modifications on the fly for inventors. Additionally, Williams stated,..Almost every batch we turned out was an improvement over the preceding ones... By February 7, 1879 Williams' employees were working 11 hours a day but production was up to only 35 phones per day.

The Bell Company began to seek other manufacturers to build the associated telephone equipment, such as call bells and exchange apparatus, to help free up Williams so he could focus on telephones. In the spring of 1879, a newly formed "National" Bell Telephone Company made agreements with four other geographically located manufacturers for telephone equipment. The Electric Merchandising Co. of Chicago, Davis and Watts of Baltimore, Post and Company of Cincinnati, and the Indianapolis Telephone Company.(A recent Bell licensee run by E.T Gilliland) Williams was still the sole producer of receivers and transmitters but now free to focus on them only, although he did make some apparatus for the New England and New York markets. By the end of the year, Williams invested $2000.00 on new machinery and increased his work force to 60. His production went to 670 phones a week and by 1880, a 1000 per week, but it was still not enough.

During this period Bell faced heavy competition from Western Union. Back in 1877, Gardiner Hubbard offered Western Union Bell's rights for $100,000, but he was turned down. Western Union decided later to get into the telephone business themselves and operated under the patents of Elisha Gray, Thomas Edison, George Phelps and others. A patent infringement suit took place which was settled in November of 1879 in favor of Bell. Western Union had been supplied telephone instruments from the Western Electric Mfg. Co. factories in both Chicago and New York. This settlement put Western Union out of the telephone business and left the Western Electric Mfg. Co. with no telephone work.

Markings on a Coffine Telephone

A close-up view of the "Coffin's" markings.
The two plates also served as a lightning arrester.

Soon after this, the Western Electric Mfg. Co. started to warm its relationship with E.T. Gilliland, a Bell licensee and in March of 1881, purchased a 61 percent share in his company allowing for a back door re-entry into the telephone business. A proposal was then made for the creation of a Consolidated Mfg. Co., formed by a merger of the Gilliland Co. and Charles Williams' factory into the Western Electric Mfg. Co. On July 5 1881, Western Union, who was under a hostile take-over at that time, sold its one third interest in the W.E. Mfg. Co. to the American Bell Telephone Co. American Bell had succeeded National Bell in May of 1880 with even greater capitalization. Over the next few months, American Bell was able to obtain a majority control of the Western Electric Mfg. Co.

On a side note during this month, on July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot in the back while walking through a Washington railroad station. It was suggested that the bullet could be located by some sort of electromagnetic device. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, a former machinist of Williams, worked on an induction balance device to help locate the bullet. Bell's experiments for this were done at Williams' shop in Boston and at a small lab in Washington. Bell personally tried his apparatus twice on the President but was unsuccessful in locating the bullet. Bell made additional modifications to his device at Williams' shop but the President passed away before he could try it again. Bell's improved apparatus was later widely adopted as a bullet probe before the use of the X-ray.

On July 23, 1881, Charles Williams offered to sell his firm to the American Bell Co for $120,000 in return for cash or stock of the new Consolidated Mfg Co. A contract was signed on February 6, 1882 along with a complex series of stock transfers. Out of this the Western Electric Company was formed receiving permanent and exclusive rights to manufacture telephones and apparatus for American Bell. By April of 1882, Bell owned 53 percent of Western Electric's stock. Williams' now expanded shop on 109 and 115 Court Street became a Western Electric factory, with Charles Williams staying on as its manager
Williams/Western Electric Co. Ad

Charles Williams Jr. sold his factory to the Western Electric Co.
in 1882.  He continued as the manager of the firm and served on
Western Electric's board of directors.
The Electrician and Electrical Engineer, January, 1884

Click here to view some early ads of Charles Williams Jr.

In 1884, a year after the completion of the consolidation, Williams began to transfer his operations to the Western Electric shops in New York and Chicago. Williams' Court Street factory and what remained in machinery was sold to Albert L. Russell, one of Williams' machinists who continued there as a manufacturer of telegraph and electrical instruments.

Charles Williams Jr. officially retired in 1886, remaining a director and heavy stock holder in Western Electric. Williams had a very quiet disposition, he was fond of books and reading and spent several years in retirement traveling the world and the U.S. with his family until 10 years prior to his death. He passed away in Somerville on April 14,1908 of bronchial pneumonia.


The following patents are associated with Charles Williams Jr.   Some are with his machinists and foremen.

Design #12179,
February 22, 1881,    Charles Williams Jr. & Thomas W. Lane, Design for Telephonic Apparatus

Patent #108743,
October 25, 1870,    Charles Williams Jr. & Jerome Redding, Improvement in Electro-Magnetic Alarm-Congs

Patent #217849,
July 29, 1879,    George L. Anders, Assignor to Charles Williams Jr., Improvement in Magneteto-Electrical Call Apparatus

Patent #226528,
April 13, 1880,    Edward N. Lord, Assignor of one half to Charles Williams Jr., Telephone Switch

Patent #240492,
April 19, 1881,    J. Oscar Ziegler, Assignor of one half to Charles Williams Jr., Electric Switch

Patent #248821,
October 25, 1881,    Charles Williams Jr., Thomas W. Lane & Frank W. Harrington, Telephone Switch-Board

Patent #250081,
November 29, 1881,    Thomas W. lane, Assignor to himself & Charles Williams Jr., Electrical Switch-Board

Patent #259558,
June 13, 1882,    Thomas W. Lane Assignor to Charles Williams Jr., Electric Switch-Board

Patent #259644,
June 13, 1882,    Thomas W. Lane Assignor to Charles Williams Jr., Magneto Generator

Patent #262059,
August 1, 1882,    Thomas W. Lane & Frank W. Harrington, Assignor to Charles Williams Jr., Electrical Switch-Board and Signaling Apparatus


Charitable Mechanic Association, Sixth Exhibition, Boston, 1850
The Massachusetts register, 1856
Boston Directory, 1862
Boston Daily Advertiser, Jan 30, 1862
The Telegrapher, June 1868, August 15, 1868, October 23, 1869
Journal of the Telegraph, June and August 1868
U.S. Circuit Court, A.G. Bell Deposition, July 9, 1879
The Electrician, January 1883
Electrician & Electrical Engineer, January 1884, August 1885.
The telegraph in America, 1886
Technology Quarterly, MIT, Society of Arts, May 1888
The Electrical Engineer, June 1890
American Telephone Journal, May 1908
Historic Leaves 1909, Somerville Historical Society
The Telephone Review, January 1915.
A Wonderful Fifty Years, E.T. Holmes, 1917
Exploring Life, Thomas A. Watson, 1926
Bell, Robert V. Bruce, 1973
The Anatomy of a Business Strategy, George David Smith, 1985
The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Volume One, Rutgers, 1989.
Williams' Coffin Images, Tom Adams,

Back To Part One--
Charles Williams Jr.: Experimental Apparatus Made to Order

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A version of this article was originally
published in the July 2010 and January 2011
issues of "The AWA Journal," the quarterly
journal of The Antique Wireless Association.
( A nonprofit historical society )

Copyright (c) by John Casale - W2NI
Troy, New York