The Telephone Comes of Age in San Diego

Hard to imagine now, but the first appearance of a telephone in the city of San Diego occurred in 1877, and that was just a demonstration by a local member of the U. S. Weather Service.

“The first public exhibition of the telephone in San Diego was made by Lieutenant Reade, U. S. Weather Officer, on December 5, 1877,” wrote William Smythe in his 1908 book, History of San Diego: 1542-1908. It wasn’t until May of 1882, according to Smythe, that the San Diego Telephone Company was organized and began stringing phone lines. When the first phone calls were made on June 11 of that year, there were a total of 13 subscribers in the San Diego exchange.

The company was at first not incorporated, Smythe wrote, “but was operated as a mutual affair, as the telephone business was thought to be in an experimental stage.”

In 1890 the San Diego Telephone Company was succeeded by San Francisco-based Sunset Telephone and Telegraph, which began efforts to connect the city of San Diego with the rest of California. Service reached Escondido in June of 1897, but the phone remained a relative novelty in the next few years. For example, Sunset’s 1899 phone directory showed listings for the entire Pacific Coast! There were only 18 telephone numbers in the Escondido exchange, in a city of around 700 people at the time.

In 1926, Sunset’s successor, the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, threw a party to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the telephone in San Diego, inviting surviving original subscribers and employees. They did it with a sense of humor too, according to an article on the bash in the June 9, 1926 San Diego Union.

“The place cards for the invited guests indicated their seats only by telephone numbers,” the article stated. “A tiny desk telephone was at each place , as was a list of the pioneers and a replica of the first San Diego telephone directory.”

The central table ornament was “a big synthetic birthday cake lighted with 45 telephone switchboard electric lamps,” the Union stated.

One of the invited pioneer subscribers was department store owner George W. Marston. But he began his remarks with an apology for not having his business’s name in the very first directory in 1882.

“He explained,” said the Union article, “that he feared at first that the telephone was only a toy and that it took a year to convince him that it would amount to something here.”

Sources for this post included the Smythe book, historic San Diego and Escondido newspapers, and the archives of the Escondido History Center.

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