The 1920 Hush-A-Phone and today’s Internet

hush-a-phone adI’ve known about 1968’s Carterfone decision for decades, but just recently learned of the 1956 Hush-A-Phone decision. The Hush-A-Phone was a simple cup-like acoustic gadget that fit over a telephone mouthpiece. It had been manufactured since 1920. In the late 1940s, AT&T complained about the Hush-A-Phone to the FCC, who ruled against Hush-A-Phone. Hush-A-Phone appealed to the DC District Court, which overturned the FCC decision in 1956. Thus, the door to today’s open Internet was nudged open by a simple 1920-era gadget. In 1968, the FCC’s Caterphone decision opened that door a bit wider.

Carterphone adThe Carterfone was an electrical device that acoustically coupled a telephone handset to a radio transceiver. I’d call it an acoustic phone patch. A radio operator uses a phone patch to establish communication between someone in radio communication and someone with a telephone but no radio transceiver. Phone patches are valuable during emergencies. Most of the phone patches that I’ve used connect electrically via an audio transformer and coupling capacitor to the phone company’s copper loop. The Carterfone instead used rubber acoustic cups with microphone and speaker to couple the voices. Incredibly, AT&T objected to the Carterfone.

In 1968, the Federal Communications Commission ruled against AT&T and allowed the Carterfone and other devices to be connected directly to the AT&T network.

AT&T’s objections were nonsense.

Both the Carterfone and the Hush-A-Phone were mere acoustic devices; they had no electrical connection to AT&T’s desksets or its network. Despite this, and despite logic, AT&T argued that both devices would harm its network.

For the first half of the twentieth century, AT&T enjoyed a regulated monopoly in telecommunications. Democratic administrations helped protect their monopoly and profits in return for juicy union jobs. Union workers vote for Democrat candidates. The Hush-A-Phone decision in 1956 was the beginning of the end of the monopoly . . . and it laid the foundation for today’s open Internet.


I notice a pattern. Under Democrat administrations, the FCC ruled in favor of AT&T’s monopoly. The milestone rulings that dismantled the monopoly were under Republican administrations, including Judge Harold Greene’s landmark 1984 decision that divided the AT&T operating company into seven “baby Bells”. Do you think that this is a coincidence?

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695


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