A Tele-Revolution -- Before the Internet

by Wayne Thalls, KB6KN

The Internet and the World Wide Web are all pervasive today. Arguably they are having a considerable negative impact on ham radio these days by competing for the attention of  young people. It is these latest marvels of electronic communications which are attracting devotees.

It wasn't many years ago when the groundwork was laid for this explosion. An old ham acquaintance, Tom Carter, played a key role in creating some of the most significant social, political, technical and business changes of the past half century. The internet is just the latest result of these changes.

His activities helped to reshape the communications industry, spawned numerous new businesses, and wrought significant social change in the U.S and in the world at large. They even helped pave the way for the internet.


In the 1950's telephone companies provided rudimentary mobile-telephone service (MTS). Offering only a few low-band VHF channels, MTS linked the telephone network to vehicles--primarily in metropolitan areas. Coverage was spotty; service was expensive. Businesses still needed their own radio dispatch systems.

Carter operated a two-way radio sales and service business in Texas. He believed his clients could benefit by being able to talk directly with their customers, from a vehicle.

Carter's solution seems straightforward today. He designed a phone-patch for privately operated radio base stations. A cradle accommodated the telephone handset. It contained a microphone and a speaker, as well as a voice operated switch (VOX) circuit. No electrical connection was required to the telephone lines. Carter called his product the Carterfone.


Telephone company tariffs traditionally forbade connecting anything to their property. Only company provided devices could connect to the lines. These prohibitions even included the use of information labels on phones, or protective covers added to directories.


What seemed a clever way to get around the restrictions was viewed differently by the telephone companies. Numerous state utilities commissions agreed with them and ruled that use of the Carterfone was illegal.

Carter fought his battle from state utilities commissions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1968 the high court, ruled in favor of Carter. Telephone companies were forced to permit the interconnection of customer-provided equipment. That ruling became known as the Carterfone Decision. As they say, the rest is history.

The court finding eventually contributed to the breakup of the worlds largest communications company--AT&T, and spurred ongoing deregulation of many other industries.


Carter is now a silent key. His legacy, however, lives on. It touches our lives daily.

How did Carter's efforts affect us? Well, you probably now own at least one telephone, as well as an answering machine and a computer modem. You may even have a cellular-phone. Repeater Phone-patch availability may have inspired you to get a ham license.

None of this was possible prior to the Carterfone.


I reflected on this during a visit to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. A major exhibition is titled the Information Age. It presents a history of electronic communications, beginning with Morse's first telegraph and continuing through television, satellites, and computers.

The Carterfone is there. Alongside it is VuSet, a compact data terminal developed by Plantronics in Santa Cruz. In the 1970's, I was heavily involved with that project. VuSet was designed to be offered by telephone companies. Ironically, the impending breakup of the Bell System created an insurmountable market obstacle for the product. Now businesses and individuals connect their own computers freely to the telephone network.

The greatest history making events are often unrecognized at the time. Were all those Y2K celebrations really historic events?

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