THE MANITOBA TELEPHONE SYSTEM
NORTH AMERICA'S FIRST PUBLIC TELEPHONE UTILITY
by George Siamandas
Horace McDougal, Manager of the Northwest Telegraph Company brought the first phone in Winnipeg. He had obtained the western Canadian rights to this new invention and he connected his home to his office in 1878. This was just over a year after Alexander Graham Bell had obtained his patent. It cost McDougal $60 per year.
McDougal sold his interest to Bell in 1881 by which time there were 26 subscribers in Winnipeg. Bell sent the first switchboard by Red River Cart and the phones could now be connected pair to pair. The first wires were strung from roof to roof.
In the tradition of using boys on telegraph systems, boys also worked the first switchboards. But the boys lacked good manners. The first woman operator was Miss Ida Cates in 1882. She was described as having a "voice with a smile." Brandon and Portage La Prairie got service in 1882. And by 1887 the first long distance call to Selkirk was made.
Canada Bell's patent expired in 1893 and overnight dozens of phone companies sprang up. It was so competitive that one company was cutting down the poles of the other. These companies provided no phone service to rural areas so the Manitoba government stopped incorporating new ones.
In 1905 Francis Dagger a telephone expert from Liverpool strongly advocated public ownership of the phones. At the same time, the Grain Growers Grain Company, a group of Manitoba farmers, led the pressure to create the utility. This group which was the predecessor to the current UGG, was also instrumental in promoting education, temperance and the vote for women. On January 15, 1908, Roblin's government took over the phones paying $3.3 million to Bell.
Several public initiatives at the turn of the century were based not on the principle of socialism but on good business sense. Roblin wanted to avoid a duplicate system to serve rural areas and he wanted to retain the profit for the people. Public power had brought down Winnipeg's hydro rates to become the cheapest in North America. They were also looking at the water supply.
Between 1908 and 1912 service was extended to rural areas increasing subscribers from 14,000 to 40,000. The province's territory was expanded three times in size from 73,732 sq mi to 251,832 sq mi. In 1917 the first fully automatic phone exchange in North America was set up in Brandon. And by 1926 Winnipeg had the first automatic dial service in Canada. In 1921 Manitoba Government Telephones was renamed the Manitoba Telephone System. In 1923 MTS started CKY as an experimental radio station adding CKX in Brandon in 1928. The industry continued to change rapidly with microwave transmission of TV signals in 1957. Since then MTS has been in the highly innovative and competitive communications industry.
Today the industry is changing so rapidly requiring the flexibility to change and compete. The recent amalgamation by two US east coast communications firms, (Atlantic Bell and Nycom or something similar), saw them attract 200,000 new customers for a new service in a six week period.
The telephone workers were part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and went on a sympathy strike in 1919 even though they had successfully settled their contracts prior to the walkout. The system operated through the strike with management replacements.