When Alexander Graham Bell made that first "phone call" to his assistant Thomas Watson on March 10, 1876, who could have imagined it would be the beginning of today's worldwide connections.
Much of the history behind today's technology can be found at Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum, which opened on May 4. The museum is housed in a restored 1896 building at 12 Hancock Ave. in Jefferson Barracks Historic Park.
A centerpiece of the exhibit is a life-size sculpture of Bell, with wires at his feet and riding a surfboard. Wires symbolize how the telephone served to connect people throughout the world. The surfboard suggests how dialing a phone would some day lead to surfing the Internet, according to museum Executive Director Carol Johannes.
The sculpture was created for the People Project in 2000 by Jan Brander-Kinnison, an art teacher at Mehlville High School. It stood in the lobby of the Bell Building downtown for many years, but was then relegated to a closet, Johannes said.
"We thought he should come out of the closet so we relocated him to our museum," Johannes said.
The sculpture is one of over 3,500 donated items and memorabilia on display. As expected, phones of all shapes and sizes can be found, beginning with the earliest candlestick phones and wall crank phones from the late 1800s.
A sampling of other items include:
• Telegraph keys, which Johannes called the earliest form of texting.
• Step by step switch which was used after direct calling came into being. An average central office would handle about 10,000 customers.
• Insulators which drew rain away from the lines so they didn't short out. Before World War I some were made of clear glass but due to the addition of manganese they turned purple after being exposed to UV rays.
• A St. Louis phone directory from 1880 with four-digit numbers which included a waiting list of individuals wanting phone numbers.
• Princess phones from the 1960s marketed as "It's little; it's lovely; it lights," which came in a variety of colors.
• A "Margaret" phone, the UK's version of the Princess phone named for the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth.
• Three-slot pay phone from the 1950s which features a slot for nickels, dimes and quarters. Originally, when payment was required to complete a call, an operator would manually keep track of the coins based on their sounds before connecting the call.
• A wooden phone booth with original equipment from the 1940s.
• A portion of a telephone pole with belts workmen wore.
• A variety of rotary phones.
• Touch phones including Trimline and Princess phones from the 1970s. Users could make music with these phones if buttons were pushed in certain combinations.
• A private switchboard used by the Poplar Camp Telephone Co.
• A phone booth which was at Gate 8 behind left field bleachers at Busch Stadium before it was demolished.
• Various novelty phones such as Mickey Mouse and Kermit the Frog.
• Military phones from World War II and Vietnam.
• Original mobile phones called "bag phones" from the 1960s. They could be recharged by plugging into the cigarette lighter. Customers had to watch out for roaming charges which could cost $8 a minute which Johannes discovered on a trip out of Missouri.
"We're very pleased with everything we have," said Johannes. "We've gotten a lot of contributions from our members and all of these pieces would have been in someone's home or basement or the company."
Johannes is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the collection.
"There were two or three of us who researched most of these things," she said. "We made up our minds from the beginning that we weren't going to just put the collection on a shelf and not tell people a little bit of the history behind it."
Volunteers will either take visitors on a guided tour of the museum or they can take a self-guided tour, Johannes said.
She is among about 20 volunteers committed to bringing the history of the telephone to the public. They are retired AT&T workers and are part of Telecom Pioneers, the volunteer arm of AT&T. Johannes, who lives in South County, worked for Yellow Pages for 27 years before retiring.
The Pioneers were instrumental in not only gathering the collection, but in restoring the 1896 building through a lot of sweat equity – an estimated 66,000 volunteer hours, Johannes said.
"We've worked on the building for 13 years before we were able to open," Johannes said, noting it was previously a duplex which housed officers quarters. The building is rented from St. Louis County Parks.
The Telecom Pioneers funded some of the cost and a grant helped. The project proved to be expensive, however, since the building is on the National Historic Register so the exterior had to be returned to its original condition, plus a new roof was needed which cost $60,000.
To the Pioneers the effort was worth it to preserve the rich history of the telephone.
"Many of the volunteers who originally worked on this project passed before we were able to open," Johannes said. "We felt we needed to honor their commitment by seeing this through to the finish.
"There's so much history that the kids need to know. Once it's gone, it's gone. We didn't want to see that happen," she said.
The museum is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays-Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors age 60 and older and $3 for children ages 5 to 12; $1 off admission for groups of 10 or more.
For more information, call 314-416-8004.