I recently received this solicitation from an author in Ireland, who has written a volume about telephone history and would like to share it with us. While we specialize in open wire plant history, this information may both inspire and intrigue our readers, so I have included Mr. Larkin’s commentary here where telecom history is always welcome. Quoting from the original email to our Guest Book:
“Thank you for your prompt response to my article. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, sentimentality, or “something else” that I can’t explain, I really do feel so “connected” and interested now in the pioneering journey of my ancestor, Thomas Larkin. You modestly say that your website is your contribution to the history of the telephone and the evolution of telecommunications . . . As I said in my initial correspondence, it’s a wonderful and informative website. Compliments!
I’m not sure what knowledge you may have relating to the island of Ireland. If you ever have a desire to cross the Atlantic Ocean, make sure Mayo is part of our itinerary, where I would be delighted to show you some of its attractions and especially, a visit to the ancestral homestead of Thomas Larkin. I would be privileged if you were to publish my initial article (or part of) in Song of the Open Wire. . .
Making the Right Connections
By Michael Larkin
“One day, every major city in America will have a telephone.” –Alexander G. Bell
When Alexander G. Bell modestly spoke the above words, it’s unlikely that he could have envisaged the enormous impact that his new ‘speaking telegraph’ would have on our methods of communication. In the early years following the invention of the telephone, the American public were skeptical and unconvinced that his invention would ever achieve commercial success. Even U. S. President at the time, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly stated, “That’s an amazing invention Mr. Bell, but who would ever want to use it?”
While Bell, his assistant Thomas A. Watson, along with Gardiner G. Hubbard, Thomas Sanders, Theodore N. Vail and others deserve enormous credit for their persistence and investment in this new technology, great credit is also due to the thousands of early telephone pioneers and employees of all grades who ensured the successful roll-out of the network throughout North America initially and later throughout the rest of the world
“If you don’t know history, you’re a leaf that doesn’t realize it’s part of a tree.” –Michael Crichton, U. S. Author, Screenwriter & Filmmaker
While not everyone has an equal interest in the past, events in history have paved the way for how today’s society and world have evolved. Throughout our lives, some events are meant to happen, other events occur either through fate or by accident. What better example do we have than the accidental spilling of acid by Bell in his laboratory, with his now famous words, “Mr. Watson, come here I want to see you,” being the first coherent words successfully transmitted over a wire, leading to the world’s first telephone call.
It was also by accident that I recently discovered the excellent, informative and broad-ranging ‘Song of the Open Wire’ website, curated and directed by Mr. Douglas G. Schema, part of The Electric Orphanage of North America, Inc. website. Without hesitation, I must say, that this site vividly describes and illustrates yesterday’s history of telecommunications in the most meaningful way possible.
Unlike the thousands who follow this site on a regular basis along with its many contributors, I am not an employee, past or present of any telephone network. However, there is a direct and very tangible connection with the Bell Telephone Company through the memorabilia of my ancestor Thomas Larkin who was one of the early Telephone Pioneers of America.
A Unique Tapestry of Connectivity
There is absolutely no doubt that the degree of connectivity between Ireland and the United States of America, is indeed unique and very special. Many of those connections can be traced back to the mid-1800s in Ireland, when the failure of the potato crop led to thousands of people fleeing from an impoverished rural island, migrating westwards across the Atlantic Ocean to North America in the hope of finding work and a more secure future.
Thomas Larkin was born in the townland of Derrew, Ballyheane, County Mayo on July 4th, 1874. Like thousands of other young Irishmen and women he made that perilous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the ‘New World’ of America, having initially emigrated to Liverpool in the United Kingdom. Following his arrival at the port of Philadelphia on May 25th, 1899, there were a surplus of immigrants relative to the amount of work available (He stated many years later: “If I had the fare to return to Liverpool at the time, I would have done so.”).
Titanic Memorial in Ireland. Photo by M. Larkin.
Following a time in the Philadelphia region he migrated westwards through Pennsylvania in the hope of better opportunities further west. His “American dream” became reality when he secured employment with the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania, spending most of his distinguished career in the Greater Pittsburgh region.
While much of the handed-down information relating to this man’s time as one of the early Telephone Pioneers of America has been lost in the mists of time, thankfully, some artifacts and memorabilia have survived.
Ruins remain but memories prosper. Photo by M. Larkin.
In the old Larkin homestead here in Mayo, on the mantle piece over the fireplace, small black and white photographs of family members, many long since deceased, signified a link to times past. On the wall, a much larger picture of President John F. Kennedy and the remnants of the handwritten “letters from America” signified connectivity though emigration with the United States of America. However, the artifacts and memorabilia relating to Thomas Larkin’s career with the Bell Telephone Company were extra special.
In the parlor, or “front room,” the framed picture of the Bell Telephone Company certificate, presented to Thomas Larkin at a prestigious ceremony in the AT&T Headquarters in New York, the engraved, once gleaming copper cup, with its Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania insignia, his American passport; those artifacts, coupled with the telling and re-telling of stories over and over again, have prompted me to “write down” at least some of the handed-down information relating to this man’s pioneering journey.
Hindsight is wonderful, for me, having little interest in listening to stories about “an old man,” the marvel of the telephone, telegraph, “letters fro America,” emigration, and etc., at a time when transistors, tape-recorders and television were much more “cool,” those items were new and modern as opposed to the “old stuff.”
Irish telephone pole intertwined with vine. Photo by M. Larkin.
“Believe me, the day will come when you will be able to “see” the person whom you are speaking to on the telephone.”
When Thomas Larkin uttered the above words, following his retirement from the Bell Telephone Company and return to a predominantly rural Ireland, they were greeted with suspicion and doubt. Perhaps if he could now realize that today you can indeed “see” the person whom you are speaking to on the telephone, he might smile and say, “I told you so.”
While his yearning to return to the land of his birth was fulfilled following his retirement, he seriously contemplated returning to Pennsylvania once again as the Ireland he return to was still decades behind the U. S. A. in terms of social and economic growth, infrastructure, public transport and communications. Apart from the telephone, he frequently referred to the wireless, or the “talking box,” which was a common name for radio at the time. Again, like his utterances relating to the telephone, few were interested in hearing about such “futuristic gadgets” (Radio KDKA Pittsburgh was the world’s first commercial radio station, having gone on the air in November 1920).
Throughout his time in the U. S. A., he remained interested in activities related to nature and the soil. Similar to his conversations relating to the telephone and radio, when he described how “giant machines, capable of harvesting over 40 acres of grain per day, pulled by teams of up to 20 horses” were in use on large American farms, listeners gasped in awe. At the time in Mayo, few could comprehend the vastness and scale of the great American plains as many of the small farms did not own even one working horse. While he was invited to speak in local schools about his life experiences in the U. S. A., people remained skeptical as to whether his utterances were factual or fictitious.
Call Box (Telephone Booth) of the Republic of Ireland. Photo by M. Larkin.
An Ode to the Telephone Pioneers of Yesteryear
Those telephone poles have had their day,
I hear you say,
Leaning now towards earth,
That once gave them their birth.
As Douglas fir or Lodgepole pine,
They reached into the skyline,
Carrying their wires of copper,
They once stood tall and proper.
Now overgrown by woodland green,
As one walks along the narrow boreen.
Hush! You can almost hear that harsh grating sound,
Of the shovel and spoon, as they dug this stony ground.
The telephone man, Alexander Graham Bell,
He was told ‘there isn’t a chance in hell,,
that this telephone device,
Will ever carry the sound of a human voice.’
Throughout our nation, several thousands of men,
Yes, it was all men back then,
Climbed those telephone poles, oh so tall,
Dedicated lineman, swiftly answering the call,
To get rid of that annoying old whine,
Or repair that broken-down line.
— Michael Larkin
Pastoral scenes of peaceful Irish bliss for equines. Photo by M. Larkin.
Thomas Larkin remained single throughout his lifetime. While much of the handed-down information relating to this man’s pioneering journey has been lost in the midst of time, I can vividly recall “the older people” stating that he “worked for the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania, spending most of his time in the Greater Pittsburgh region.” Connecting with the President of the Ft. Pitt Telephone Pioneer Chapter, Pittsburgh, was a significant step in my attempt to discover, or perhaps “walk” in at least some of the footsteps of this man. Discovering some of the addresses on Pittsburgh’s south side where he once resided, was particularly special. The visit by the President of the Ft. Pitt Telephone Pioneer Chapter to Mayo was another significant milestone.
Telephone cable on angle pole with stay (guy wire), Ireland. Photo by M. Larkin.
Here, in a simple, yet very special ceremony, she placed a bell-shaped wreath at the headstone of Thomas Larkin, acknowledging the significance of “this special connection.” In 2016, on the occasion of the completion of the latest trans-Atlantic fiber optic cable, connecting the east coast of the U. S. A. with Ireland’s west coast, Mr. Greg Varisco, Chief Operations Officer of Aqua Comms stated: “How fitting it is that this new, ultra-modern fiber optic cable is reaching landfall in Mayo, birthplace of one of our early Telephone Pioneers of America.
Making the Right Connections is the title of my recently launched book which depicts some elements of Thomas Larkin’s pioneering journey. It also encompasses themes relating to the evolution of telecommunications, statements made predicting that Bell’s new invention would never achieve commercial success and an overview of the social history of Ireland and the U. S. A. in the early 1900s. In an independent review of the book, multi-award winning author, columnist and editor, Ms. Janice Lane Palko, Pittsburgh, states:
Typical scene of Irish countryside. Photo by M. Larkin.
“While I would recommend this book to anyone who is of Irish heritage, or anyone who is a student of history, the primary reason I recommend it is for the emphasis Michael Larkin places on maintaining contact on a personal level as he says at the conclusion: Remaining connected with family and friends, becoming involved in activities within our neighborhood, connectivity with our diaspora, befriending an elderly person or neighbor *in our community. . . this is real connectivity which has stood the test of time.”*
Mr. Larkin is a firm believer in “writing down” and recording the spoken words from yesterday, so that future generations will appreciate the lives and journeys of our ancestors. Throughout his professional career in the field of mental health with the Health Service Executive, he constantly highlighted the benefits of creative writing as part of a holistic approach towards positive mental health and well being. A recipient of a “Mayo Person of the Year Award” in 2017, he has written articles for a number of magazines, journals and Irish networks abroad, including the Irish American Cultural Institute, Ireland-U. S. Council, American Irish Historical Society, and etc. In 2018, he was proclaimed an Honorary Member of the Ft. Pitt Chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America.
His book: Making the Right Connections is a hardback volume available from:
and is published by Bookhub Publishing:
and is published by Bookhub Publishing: