History, part 1, the Zinc Company
The year 1900 was a time for beginnings. The new century was full of promise. The Industrial Age with its noisy, smoky factories, spawned in the last century, was spreading prosperity across the nation and particularly across Pennsylvania.
Anthracite coal from Carbon County had fueled much of this expansion. Its coal mining and transportation centers were experiencing growth and prosperity. Now that expansion itself had entered Southern Carbon County with the establishment of a Zinc smelting and refining operation just North of the Lehigh Gap, at the site of the present borough of Palmerton.
At the turn of the century the beginnings of a town could be seen near the Zinc plant. This was to become the classic “company town” of the era. The zinc company owned most of the land, the water system, and many of the houses lived in by the workers and their families. Company buildings and offices dotted the landscape.
In 1900 the management of the fledgling New Jersey Zinc company decided that a communications system was needed to enhance the efficiency of its operations. So in that year an invention of the second half of the nineteenth century, the telephone, came to the yet unincorporated town of Palmerton.
Bell and Watson had invented the telephone in 1876 and the Bell companies were soon well established as providers of telephone service in large cities and towns nationwide. While the Bell Telephone Company was catering to the urban areas, rural areas and small towns were going without telephone service. Bell found it easier and more profitable to serve areas where there was a high concentration of potential subscribers than expend the company’s capital to serve more sparsely populated areas. These areas were left to telephone associations, cooperatives and small companies to serve. Additionally the manufacturing arm of the Bell companies, Western Electric, would not sell equipment to any non-Bell company. Bell management probably reasoned that without adequate equipment the small rural companies would fail or that their subscribers would rush to the “superior” Bell system when Bell finally got around to serving small towns. This was not to be.
Bell’s basic patents for electric telephony had expired in 1894 and numerous small manufacturers had sprung up to serve the rapidly expanding rural market. Today we would call these people entrepreneurs. It is not known which of these companies supplied the equipment for that original system, but it may well have been Federal Telephone Company, a company that supplied equipment to Palmerton Telephone Co. in later years. A single line serving seventeen subscribers was constructed and what was to become Palmerton Telephone Company was born. A directory of that era might have listed various New Jersey Zinc Company offices, the Chestnut Ridge Railroad, the Horsehead Inn and the residences of some of the more important Zinc Co. officials.
Seven years later a telephone association was formed to oversee the new telephone operations. In 1912 the Palmerton Telephone Company incorporated taking the name of the newly incorporated borough of Palmerton. This new corporation operated as a subsidiary of the New Jersey Zinc Co. as one would expect in a “Company Town”. By this time 121 telephones were in use on this growing system. The telephone system was owned by the Zinc company until 1948.
In 1915 a new two position switchboard was installed on the third floor of the Zinc company’s administration building. This allowed two operators to work at the same time to connect calls for the company’s 300 subscribers. Two operators were employed full time, one for the day shift and one for the night shift, with part time workers filling in as needed.
By 1921 the demands of the company’s 635 subscribers had exceeded the capacity of the manual switchboard and improvements were necessary. Automatic switching of telephone calls was invented by an Indiana Undertaker in 1879. It was first used for a local exchange in the Bell system in Norfolk, Virginia in November of 1919. By 1921 it was in use in Allentown, Rochester, Beaver Falls, Hazleton, Harrisburg, Erie, York and Philadelphia, Pa. Only one of these places, Erie, was an independent company This was soon to change. In this year, Palmerton Telephone Company became the second independent company in Pennsylvania to offer automatic local switching to its customers.
Installers from the Automatic Electric Company of Chicago, Ill had just finished installation of an automatic dial exchange in Philadelphia when they came to Palmerton. The new exchange was installed on the third floor of the New Jersey Zinc Company Administration Building. Automatic Electric was the name taken by the company founded by Almon B. Strowger, the inventor of Automatic switching. The old manual switchboard was not discarded. It was put into service to handle toll calls to and from other places.
As the borough of Palmerton and the New Jersey Zinc Company grew, so did the Palmerton Telephone Company. In 1943, during World War II, when the Zinc Company was operating at full capacity to meet the demands of war production, there were 1236 telephones in use on the system.
History, part 2, PP&L
After the war, the image of the “company Town” began to change. Manufacturing companies began to divest themselves of operations that were not a part of their core business. The New Jersey Zinc Company management decided that they no longer wanted to be in the business of producing electricity and providing telephone service and a suitable buyer was sought for both the Palmer Lighting Company and Palmerton Telephone Company. That search ended in 1948 when Pennsylvania Power and Light Company of Allentown agreed to buy the Zinc Co.’s electric and telephone plants. At this time Palmerton Telephone Company served 1749 subscribers.
Although PP&L was primarily a supplier of electric service, they did not shy away from providing telephone service. Beginning in 1951 they embarked on a large scale plant improvement project at a cost of $450,000.00. A new central office building was constructed at 465 Delaware Avenue. This building was to house the company’s business office, operators and new Step-by-Step switching equipment. The switching equipment then in use by the company was housed in the Zinc Company’s administration building. This equipment was replaced by a 120 line, 200 terminal Step-by-Step Private Branch Exchange for the exclusive use of the Zinc Company. A new switching machine manufactured by Federal Telephone & Radio Corp. of Clifton, New Jersey was installed in the new building. The new switch machine had a capacity for 800 lines and 900 terminals thus increasing the company’s ability to provide service to the community. A new four position switchboard was installed in the room adjacent to the switch. Now up to four operators could handle calls simultaneously. Although the operators had not been setting up local calls for many years, they were kept busy answering incoming calls for the Zinc Co. and connecting Palmerton subscribers to the rest of the world via toll lines. The total cost of the new Palmerton central office switch and the Zinc Co. PABX was $ 152,186.00.
Between 1951 and 1955, PP&L rebuilt practically all of Palmerton Telephone Company’s aging infrastructure. The underground conduit system in the main business district was improved and extended. New cables were placed in the underground system and aerial plant was also replaced with new cables. In addition to renewing outside plant in Palmerton proper, PP&L also rebuilt major portions of plant in Bowmanstown and Parryville thus improving service to those communities.
During World War II and the Korean War which followed closely behind, most materials were diverted for the war effort. This created a shortage of materials for consumer products and non-essential industries. One of the consequences of this shortage was that once the capacity of Palmerton’s telephone system had been reached, no new subscribers could be connected to the system. Newspaper accounts of the period mention the fact that literally hundreds of people were on a waiting list for telephone service in Palmerton Telephone’s service area. The company management promised that when all of the scheduled plant improvements were complete, that all those waiting for service would be accommodated.
History, part 3, PENCOR
In 1955, PP&L also decided that the telephone company was best run by others with more interest in communications than electricity. In February of that year, a group of local people headed by the late Claude Reinhard had established a small corporation whose business was just that, communications. This company, then known as the Palmerton Company, had recently constructed a cable television system in Palmerton and the surrounding area. Since the Palmerton Company was concerned with communications it seemed only natural that they become the next owner of Palmerton Telephone Company. This may have been the first time that a telephone company was purchased by a cable television company and could become an omen of things to come. The purchase price was $685,000.00. At the time of the purchase of Palmerton Telephone Company from PP&L, by the Palmerton Company, P.T.Co. was serving 2850 subscribers in a 26 square mile area comprised of Palmerton, Bowmanstown, Parryville and the surrounding areas.
The following year would begin an expansion phase in the company’s history. In 1956, Palmerton Telephone purchased the facilities of Blue Ridge Telephone Company for the sum of $ 47,400.00. This was a small rural company that had been providing telephone service in the Kunkletown area since 1898. At the time of the sale, Blue Ridge served 450 subscribers from a manual exchange in Kunkletown. Blue Ridge’s subscribers were scattered across a 100 square mile territory that spread from Preacher’s camp to Gilbert and from the Blue Mountain to the Effort Mountain.
By October of 1957, a new North Electric type CX relay switching system had been installed at Kunkletown to replace the obsolete manual switchboard. This was a big change for the rural customers who had been used to the old hand cranked magneto phones and having the friendly voice of the local operator greet them when they “rang up”. Now people had to remember telephone numbers instead of asking the operator to connect them to someone by name. With the installation of the automatic dial exchange, Palmerton Telephone Company was granted permission from the PUC to eliminate the toll charge between the Palmerton and Kunkletown exchanges. Basic rates in the two exchanges were also equalized.
In 1959 the company scored another “first”. While manual mobile telephone service was widespread throughout the state and automatic (dial) service was available in the large cities, no independent company had automatic service. Palmerton Telephone Company would change that by installing a Motorola MTS mobile telephone system. The equipment was bulky and contained many vacuum tube circuits. It put a strain on the automobile’s electrical system and if your battery wasn’t quite up to par, you soon found out. They were a far cry from today’s miniaturized Cellular mobile phones with a transceiver about the size of a paperback book.
By 1960, demand for service in the Bowmanstown – Parryville area made it obvious that this area needed an exchange of its own. Telephone switching equipment had improved considerably since the installation of the Step-by-Step machine at Palmerton in 1951. The new switching technology used a type of arrangement called “Crossbar” . This technology allowed each switching module to make several simultaneous connections thereby taking up less space than the older steppers. In July of 1961, a North Electric Co. NX-2 crossbar switch was cut into service at Bowmanstown.
This exchange served Bowmanstown, Parryville and parts of East Penn, Mahoning and Franklin Townships with what was then the most advanced type of telephone switching available. At this time the total number of subscribers served by the company equaled 4302.
In May of 1965 the Palmerton Company adopted its present name Pencor Services Inc. PENCOR is an acronym that stands for Pennsylvania ENtertainment COmmunications and Recreation.
Service demands in the Kresgeville and Kunkletown areas prompted the company to consider the installation of new switching machines for this area. Because of the size of the area to be covered and considering the possibility of future growth in the area, the company split the former Kunkletown exchange into two separate exchanges called Kunkletown and Kresgeville. A new North NX-2 switch machine was installed at Kresgeville and cut into service in June of 1965. Its twin was installed at Kunkletown in September of the following year. By this time the company was serving 5102 subscribers.
March of 1967 saw the demise of the long distance operator as a regular part of making toll connections. Advances in switching technology and the advent of a nationwide telephone network made it possible for the company to install Direct Distance Dialing equipment. This allowed most customers to place a station to station long distance calls by prefixing a “1” before dialing the number. Many other companies, including Bell, required two, four and multi-party subscribers to continue to use an operator to place long distance calls. Palmerton installed a system whereby the subscriber was able to identify his telephone automatically. The subscriber first dialed a “1” and then a “circle digit” that identified his individual telephone as unique from the others sharing the same line. Palmerton’s former toll operators were absorbed into other divisions of the company.
In September of 1969, the MTS mobile system was replaced by an Improved Mobile Telephone System (IMTS) manufactured by Motorola. The multi-channel capability of this new system allowed the mobile subscriber to go anywhere in the country where IMTS service was offered and use his mobile unit. In addition, advances in solid state electronics had shrunk the size and the power requirements of the new mobile units. Radio paging was installed as a “Piggyback” system on the new IMTS. This allowed the company to offer “Beeper” service over the same radio channel as the mobile telephone service. By the end of 1959 the company’s assets had grown to over 1 Million dollars.
In 1970 a new North Electric crossbar Private Branch Exchange was installed at the Palmerton Hospital. This replaced a rotary switching unit that had been installed many years previously.
Increased demand for private lines and a desire by the company to offer new services to its Palmerton subscribers lead to the replacement of the Federal Step-by-Step machine in 1971. An International Telephone and Telegraph, Pentaconta A-1 crossbar machine was installed in its place. Many years before, ITT had merged with Federal Telephone and Radio. Now all 4759 of the company’s subscribers were served by modern crossbar switches. This installation made it necessary to construct a building addition nearly doubling the size of the Palmerton building.
Advances in telephone switching technology were now coming rapidly. Electronic switching was rapidly replacing electromechanical devices. Computers were being placed in control of switching functions both in electronic and electromechanical switches. An entirely new concept in telephone switching was also being developed.
Until now, switching systems had connected a voice path through the switching machine connecting one caller with another. At any point along the switch train, one could bridge across the path and hear a human voice speaking. This is known as an analog system. A new system that first converts sound into bits of information was developed in the 1970’s. This system, known as Digital, represented a true marriage between data processing and telephony. In this system the sounds that had been converted into data could be manipulated, transmitted, stored or re-assembled into sound without the distortion or other impairments inherent in analog systems. Switching of calls could be handled faster since a computer would control the action and there would be no moving parts.
Palmerton Telephone Company’s management could see where the future of telephone technology was going and in 1978 began planning to convert the company’s network to digital. The first candidate for replacement was the Kresgeville NX-2 crossbar switch. Rapid growth in this rural area had nearly exhausted the capacity of this small office. The NX-2 was designed to handle a small rural exchange of 1200 lines or less. Kresgeville was rapidly approaching this figure and it was predicted that the number of potential subscribers would be beyond the capacity of the switching equipment within a short time. One of the first independent manufacturers to successfully produce a digital central office switch was TRW-Vidar of Mountain View, California. It was to this company that Palmerton Telephone Company turned to design and install a digital switching network for the company. On June 16, 1979, at 2:00 AM, Palmerton Telephone Company entered the digital age with the cutover of a 1344 line remote switch at Kresgeville. A host switch, capable of controlling several such remote offices, had been installed at Palmerton. This was the first commercial installation of the California company’s host/remote configuration. Except for the actual physical cross connection of outside plant facilities to the switching equipment, all functions of the remote are controlled from the host. A major cost saving was achieved in the future when other remote offices were added in that the same central processor could be utilized by a number of remote units. Many new custom calling features were made available to subscribers served by the digital switch. Among them were Call forwarding, Call waiting, Three way calling and Speed Dialing. At the end of June, 1979 the company was serving 6617 subscribers.
Although the installation of a digital host/remote was a major undertaking, it was just the first step in an ambitious plan to convert the company’s entire network to digital transmission and switching. No sooner were all the loose ends from the Kresgeville cutover tied together than planning began for the next phase.
During the remainder of 1979, 1980 and for most of 1981, Palmerton Telephone Company’s staff worked closely with planners and engineers from TRW to plan, install and test the new digital equipment.
Many problems had to be addressed. The three remaining offices were to be cut over simultaneously. A new fiber optic transmission system had to be constructed between Palmerton and Kunkletown. A conventional digital transmission system had to be constructed between Palmerton and Bowmanstown. The thirty year old manual switchboard at Palmerton was to be replaced with a modern digital unit.
Over two years of planning and preparation culminated at 2:00 AM on November 7, 1981 with the simultaneous cutover of remotes at Bowmanstown and Kunkletown and a host switch at Palmerton. In one fell swoop Palmerton Telephone Company’s entire network had become digital.
In 1982, as a cost saving measure, the area served by the Kunkletown remote was split roughly in half and a new remote was installed to serve the Eastern end of the territory. The Western half is served from the original Kunkletown building while the Eastern half is served from a new building constructed along Meixsell’s Valley Road near Weir Lake Road in Ross Township.
The fiber optic transmission system briefly brought Palmerton Telephone Company a bit of fleeting fame. When it was installed, it was the longest system of its type in the world. However , in those days advances in fiber technology were coming so fast that in about two weeks we were surpassed by a system installed by a company in Texas.
During 1983 the winds of change began to blow over the telephone industry. An antitrust lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice against American Telephone and Telegraph was settled out of court with an agreement that effectively broke up AT&T into eight smaller companies. While the settlement did not directly effect Palmerton Telephone Company and other small independent companies, we eventually were effected by it indirectly. State regulators expected us to allow customers to purchase, install and own their telephone instruments and premise wiring. We were required to place a demarcation point to identify where our facilities ended and the customer’s began. Telephone companies could not require a customer to purchase equipment from the company in order to receive telephone service. In many cases the telephone company is placed in the same position as an electric utility, delivering service to a demarcation point where the customer takes over.
During the mid to late 1980’s there was a phenomenal growth spurt in the rural areas of our Kresgeville and Kunkletown exchanges. A large number of people from the New York City, Long Island and Northern New Jersey areas were attracted to our area by its rural beauty and relatively inexpensive land and construction costs.
New housing developments and the homes to fill them seemed to spring up over night challenging our engineering and construction departments to keep pace. The need to quickly provide service to a rapidly growing area has lead to the increased use of electronics in the local distribution plant. Low concentration analog and high concentration digital subscriber carrier units have been used to multiply the number of subscribers which can be served by a copper cable.
In 1990, growth in the Gilbert area of Monroe County prompted the opening of a branch business office in the “Olde Village Plaza” office complex. A remote digital switching office was also installed at this site in September of that year.
In May of 1991, Palmerton Telephone Company again broke new ground in the field of fiber optic technology. The fiber optic system which had served us since 1981 and which was “state of the art” when installed, had been rendered obsolete by advances in technology. In addition, rapid demand for new services had caused it to be outgrown long before it had been projected. Consequently it was replaced with a new AT&T DDM-2000, 150 Megabit system. This new system uses the latest SONET (Synchronous Optical NETwork) technology, an international standard which will allow the interconnection to equipment of any other manufacturer adhering to this standard. This was impossible with the older asynchronous proprietary systems. In addition, the new equipment and the associated fiber cable immediately tripled our transmission capacity from 672 to 2016 voice channels. The new configuration has primary and secondary transmission paths diverse routed to provide protection in the event of a cable cut on one route.
Increased demand by customers for more sophisticated features and government regulations which require a more diverse selection of long distance carriers have prompted advancements in the central office portion of our plant. In October and November of 1992, Palmerton Telephone Company placed new high speed central processing units (computers) in all of our central office switches. This is the culmination of nearly three years of research and development by Florida based American Digital Switching. These new processors promise the eventual availability of such things as Equal Access to long distance carriers, Enhanced custom calling features and faster processing of calls.
On the regulatory front, 1989 brought the enactment by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) of Extended Area Service (EAS) regulations. These regulations provide a mechanism whereby subscribers in one telephone exchange can receive toll free calling to another exchange where there is a bona-fide community of interest. Palmerton Telephone Company has complied with the regulations and has polled customers in all four of its exchanges as to their desires on EAS to neighboring exchanges. Bowmanstown customers have approved EAS to Lehighton and Slatington, Palmerton customers have approved EAS to Lehighton, Slatington and Allentown, Kunkletown and Kresgeville customers have approved EAS to Saylorsburg and Stroudsburg. These regulations have caused more controversy among our customers and between the company and the customers than any issue before or since. Whenever there is an “election” there are winners and losers. The winners are happy and the losers feel alienated because the will of the majority has been enforced upon them. For better or worse, this is the system with which we must live.
In 1993 our fiber optic system was extended to the Gilbert and Meixsell’s Valley remotes in Monroe County. At that time it was upgraded To a self healing SONET ring topology. An equipment or fiber failure at any point around the ring will cause an instant re-routing of traffic without the callers even being aware that it has happened.
On June 28, 1993, Palmerton Telephone Company passed another milestone. On that date the ten-thousandth subscriber was connected to our system.
In 1994 a remote Digital Switching Office was installed at Trachsville, Carbon County. This unit will serve all of the Towamensing Township portion of the exchange South of Beltzville Lake.
By 1996 it had become apparent that the VIDAR switching equipment that had served us so well since the early 1980’s would not carry the company into the next century. Limitations on size and features made the change to another manufacturer inevitable. Several North American manufacturers were considered with the contract finally being awarded to Northern Telecom (NORTEL)of Raleigh N.C.. Installation of a DMS-100 host at Palmerton and the six remote sites was begun in August of 1996. The plan for the new switching network also included a new remote site to serve the Little Gap area.
The new switching equipment could not be installed in the same area as the existing equipment due to lack of available space. A novel idea was suggested by the NORTEL engineers, that of a “Hot Slide”. The new equipment was temporarily installed in an adjacent room and the wall between the rooms was removed. After the DMS-100 was placed in service and the VIDAR equipment was removed, the new equipment was placed on rollers and slid into the now-vacant switch room. This was done while the DMS-100 was switching calls and providing service to Palmerton Telephone Company’s 11,300 customers. Once the new switch was in place, the wall was rebuilt and the environmental integrity of the switch room was restored.
The future will hold many changes for communications. At present we see trends toward sending some services, such as video programing, that formerly arrived over the air waves over wires or fiber optics. Telephone and high speed data may someday arrive at your home or business via a wireless medium. The internet may be used by more people for voice and video communications than use it today for data communications. Broadband and advanced intelligent networks will soon be available to any customer who is willing to pay for the service.
On July 31, 1998, Palmerton Telephone Company filed a Network Modernization Plan with the Pennsylvania PUC that pledges to make broadband communications service available to any customer who requests it within 5 working days of the request. The target date for this universal availability is 2015.
Within the next twenty years, we expect to see fiber optics replace most of the copper cable in the outside plant. In some cases fiber may run all the way to the home or business. With the increased bandwidth which fiber offers, the types of communications services we will be able to offer will be limited only by the imagination.