How a phone privacy add-on from the 1920s led to today’s Internet of Things

Advertisements described it as a “telephone silencer” that would solve three separate problems often encountered by phone users. It would ensure the privacy of phone calls, dampen the cacophony of office environments, and keep background noises out of the conversation.

The Hush-A-Phone would go on to accomplish so much more than that.

Hush-A-Phones were produced beginning in 1921 in models for both handset and pedestal phone styles. In form, it’s a small, rectangular baffle that fits over the telephone mouthpiece. An opening on the front of the device is just big enough to place your lips into. When you speak, the person on the other end of the line can hear you, but no one in the room with you is privy to your conversation.

Sounds simple enough.

So who would have thought that this nondescript little black box would eventually pave the way for telephone modems? Who would have thought this device would be the first step in a long chain of events that would eventually result in the breakup of AT&T and the development of the public Internet?

It’s true. Here’s how it happened.

In the first half of the 1900s, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company essentially had a monopoly on telephone service in the United States. It owned the lines people used to communicate with each other, and it owned the equipment they used to do so. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t like other companies mucking up the game and creating add-ons for its telephone equipment.

After the Hush-A-Phone started getting popular, AT&T started clamping down. Essentially, under penalty of cancelled service, AT&T forbade customers from using the Hush-A-Phone (or any other device “not furnished by the telephone company”), and they also forbade vendors from selling such devices. Some of Hush-A-Phone’s distributors stopped selling them to customers. If phone customers wanted privacy, AT&T said, they should just cup their hands over the receiver instead of using the Hush-A-Phone. (Seriously, they said that.)

In the late 1940s, Hush-A-Phone Corporation complained to the Federal Communications Commission about AT&T’s tactics. In 1955, the FCC sided with AT&T, saying that unrestricted use of the device would be harmful to the quality of the phone system.

In 1956, the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, overruled the FCC. In its ruling, the Court of Appeals noted that AT&T’s actions constituted “interference with the telephone subscriber’s right reasonably to use his telephone in ways which are privately beneficial without being publicly detrimental.”

Related: Have you heard about the undertaker who revolutionized telephone technology?

Read more here.

In other words, if customers wanted to use a device that improved the way they used the phone, they were free to do so. And if they wanted to invent a device that used the phone line in a manner different than the telephone — a modem, say, that could be used to connect computers to each other — they were free to do that, too. In fact, some people (including John Jenkins, SPARK Museum’s founder) say that the debates we’re having over net neutrality today started with Hush-A-Phone’s battle with AT&T in the 1940s and ’50s.

It may not have been for the reasons it was invented, but the Hush-A-Phone really turned out to be a pretty big deal.

The Hush-A-Phone device on display in SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention is signed “Hush-A-Phone Corporation” and is shown installed on an Automatic Electric Candlestick Telephone from circa 1921. Come check it out!