The Sumter Telephone

This article is from the December 4, 1909 issue of the trade magazine Telephony, pages 612-614.

The Sumter Company

The name Sumter is prominently identified with the history of our country, both telephonic and otherwise.  At Fort Sumter the first gun in the Civil War was fired, and at the City of Sumter, S. C., 90 miles away from the fort, belongs the honor of firing the first gun in the battle for Independent telephony in the South.

Long before the birth of the telephone, Sumter was the headquarters of an electrical industry.  Here many of the telegraph instruments used by the Confederate army were manufactured, and as cooper, silk and rubber could not be obtained, it was necessary to use other materials to as great an extent as possible.  Cows horns were used instead of rubber.  These were boiled until soft, and then flattened into sheets and cut up.  The tips of the horns were used for key knobs.  Copper bars from France were brought through the blockade in Charleston harbor and drawn into wire, which was laboriously covered by hand.

It may be said that the present Sumter Telephone Manufacturing Company was the outgrowth of this business.  Charles T. Mason, Sr., made these instruments, assisted by his son C. T. Mason, who is the president of the present company.  It was the early training and experience received in this shop that to a great extent determined the present Mr. Mason’s life work.

With a view to perfecting himself in electrical and mechanical engineering, young Mason went north, and after careful training, accepted a position as superintendent of a large machinery plant, where he had supervision over 2,000 employees.  He was only 21 years old at this time.

At the Philadelphia Centennial, 1876, Mr. Mason saw the exhibit of the original Bell telephone, and early realized the commercial practicability of the device, which was then looked upon as little more than a toy.  The time was not ripe, however, for him to take up this work, and he turned his attention to other matters, and soon produced several notable inventions of a mechanical nature.

The call of the South became too strong to be resisted, and Mr. Mason returned to his native city.  He soon realized the spirit in the South to keep abreast with other sections of the country in electrical development, and he turned his attention to the establishment of electric lighting plants in many Southern cities, identifying himself with the Westinghouse interests. 

About this time the telephone began to be considered as a possible means of practical communication, and, realizing that the many small cities and towns of the South could not secure telephones owing to the small size of the systems, which would not be considered by the only operating company of that day, he determined to make these instruments for himself.  He produced an instrument, which for that period was unexcelled, in spite of the fact that nearly every conceivable device was covered by patents. 

Strange as it may seem, some of these early Mason telephones are still in use, giving good service alongside of more modern instruments. The transmitters were of the pendant carbon type, and receivers of the single pole variety. The hook switch operated by pushing the receiver between two prongs, which moved  sliding contacts like a knife switch, not operating by gravity because the gravity hook switch was covered by a patent when this instrument was designed.  Since this period Mr. Masons unusual ability as an inventor of electrical and mechanical devices has manifested itself in the high standard reached by the products of the Sumter company, his inventions being covered by many patents, notable among which will be recalled his famous Multi-discharge, square coil, lightning arrester, the Mason transmitter, receiver, Unitype switchboard, and many others.  These patents enable the Sumter company to embody many exclusive features in its instruments.

Mr. Mason continued the manufacture of this equipment for several years, under the name of the Mason Electrical Works, his product at this time coming to the attention of Mr. F. C. Manning, hereafter mentioned.  Soon thereafter a new company, known as the Telephone Manufacturing Company was formed by these and other gentlemen, to take care of the rapidly growing business.

About the year 1900 Mr. Mason and Mr. Manning arranged the present company, a new corporation known as the Sumter Telephone Manufacturing Company.  Thus is will be seen that the present company may claim to have an experience dating back to the pioneer days of the industry, and as an actual fact, was among the very first to manufacture a complete telephone.

The present factory grounds cover a little less that 10 acres and the buildings are so placed that they can be enlarged without interfering with the general design of the plant.  The buildings are substantially constructed of brick and have upwards of 400,000 square feet of floor space.  The works are provided with private side tracks, coal and lumber yards, and other facilities for quickly receiving and handling new material.  A private, standard gauge railroad provides facilities for transporting heavy loads from one department to the other.

Sumter is located in the heart of an agricultural section, and has no manufacturing plants that can in any way furnish parts, tools or machinery for the telephone factory.  Therefore the Sumter company is equipped to make everything entering into the telephone, even the tools, dies and special machinery for manufacturing the various parts; and for a number of years it has been the policy to make everything, with the exception of rubber parts, receiver cases, mouthpieces, etc.  Other manufacturers are fortunately located near other plants who can often produce parts for them cheaper than they can do it themselves, but by the Sumter method each part is of known quality, on the principle of make it yourself and you know its right

The best grade of oak is taken in the log, sawed, thoroughly dried, and made into cabinets which are finished by hand, thus producing the piano finish for which Sumter apparatus in justly famed.

For many years the product of the Sumter company has been confined to heavy duty magneto telephones, and, by making a specialty of the line, a type of equipment resulted of the very highest quality.  Of late years various types of common battery switchboards and telephones have been added to the line, and, as an indication of their worth, it may be said that the Sumter company has just completed an order for several thousand of these instruments for the United States Signal Corps for service in various army posts, forts and barracks throughout the Untied States and the Philippines.

Some of the latest Sumter Products are shown in the accompanying illustrations.  The Utility all enameled desk stand, the Mason arrester, Unitype switchboard, Midget common battery wall set, and Mason transmitter and receiver are particularly worthy of notice as being typical of the latest products of independent engineering skill.

Southern climatic conditions in certain sections are unusually severe, the atmosphere being hot and moist.  This makes the greatest care necessary to secure high insulation and freedom from corrosion.  The various cables for Sumter switchboards are completely immersed in tanks of boiling beeswax, where they remain until thoroughly saturated.  Then, after being connected to the apparatus, they are heavily coated with shellac dissolved in the best grain alcohol, thus giving them a durable, glossy finish and rendering them practically impervious to moisture.  This and many other matters of detail of a like character are given most careful attention, and the result is a product singularly free from the small troubles so annoying and so often present in even the best equipment not manufactured where these peculiar requirements are necessary or fully understood.

The Sumter Company is peculiarly Independent. It is essentially home owned and controlled, practically all of the stock being held by local men.  The board of directors are business men prominent in the financial affairs of the City of Sumter and the South.  Among these may be mentioned Mr. C. G. Rowland, treasurer of the company since its organization.  Mr. Rowland is president of the Farmers Bank and Trust Company, of Sumter, and brings to his position these qualities which only years of experience in financial matters can give.  His careful financial guidance has resulted in a liberal and constructive policy, which, combined with honest business methods, has proven advantages alike to the company and its customers.  Mr. Rowland is a railroad man of many years experience, having been prominently identified with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and its work at Sumter.  This makes Mr. Rowland peculiarly fitted to look after the customers interest as to quickest and best routes for shipment, tracing, etc., and this part of the business receives his personal supervision.

Mr. F. C. Manning is vice-president and secretary of the company.  Mr. Manning's interest in the Independent telephone field dates from about 1894, when he was connected with a machinery and electrical supply establishment interested in equipping the cotton mills, which at that time were rapidly building throughout the South.  A private telephone system was frequently required in these establishments, for communication between the mill, power-house, store, railroad station, officers residences, etc., and Mr. Manning became much interested in supplying this demand, furnishing equipment of various manufacturers, of whom, in those days, there were very few.  While on a trip through South Carolina Mr. Manning saw for the first time, in the City of Laurens, S. C., a Mason telephone.  Being impressed with the superior workmanship and efficiency of this instrument as compared with the telephone apparatus he had thus far been able to secure, he proceeded to Sumter to  learn something more of the instrument. 

Thus it was about the year 1894 when Mr. Manning and Mr. Mason first met, and Mr. Manning was so impressed with Mr. Masons marked ingenuity and the superiority of the apparatus he was then making, as compared with other equipment on the market, that he at once became in the development of independent systems, and began a systematic organization of telephone companies in various sections of East Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Virginia.  During 1896-6 Mr. Manning was instrumental in building quite a number of exchanges throughout the territory mentioned, equipping them with apparatus furnished by the Mason Electrical Works.  During the spring of 1897 Mr. Manning severed his connection with the electrical and machinery supply business, and became identified with Telephone Manufacturing Company, which had been organized to take over the business of the Mason electrical Works.  Mr. Manning remained with the Telephone Manufacturing Company until he, Mr. Mason, and Mr. Rowland organized the Sumter Telephone Manufacturing Company, as above set forth, since which time Mr. Manning has served the company in the capacity of vice-president and secretary, the sales and purchasing departments being under his supervision.

When the large territory through which the Sumter Telephone Manufacturing Company is doing business is considered, its customers extending throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and other foreign countries, there is sufficient evidence of the successful methods employed in the sales department of this company: the long list of old customers who have been constant patrons of the company since its inception represent a feature of which Mr. Manning is justly proud, this being indisputable evidence of the durability and satisfactory service rendered by Sumter products, even under the most adverse conditions.

Mr. E. H. Rhame, assistant secretary, has been in charge of the order and bookkeeping department since the company is inception.  The office of this company is provided with all the modern devices used where system, without red tape, is in vogue.  Mr. Rhame is ably assisted in this department by Mr. E. M. Hall, who has also been with the company for a number of years and as a result of the very useful and systematic manner in which the orders and accounts are handled, the company has frequently been complimented on the service rendered from this department.

Mr. H. R. Van Deventer, electrical and sales engineer, is one of three brothers who made electrical pursuits their life work.  After completing a collegiate education and obtaining the degrees of B. S., E. E., Mr. Van Deventer took up general engineering work being employed in responsible positions by several of the larger operating companies.  Realizing the field for independent telephony in the South, Mr. Van Deventer became associated with the Sumter company.

Immediately the advantage of his fifteen years of practical experience in the operating field was apparent, especially in connection with actual service tests, and the design of special circuits to meet certain conditions.  The United States government specifications are particularly rigid as to inspection, and the technical details of the apparatus to be furnished, and Mr. Van Deventer has been remarkably successful in devising tests to locate imperfections in raw or finished material, with the result that every order of Sumter apparatus submitted has been inspected and approved without change or rejection in any particular.  By means of a fully equipped laboratory, with connections through cable to the city exchange, many miles of cable being in circuit if desired, Mr. Van Deventer has attained actual service conditions for tests, which all Sumter  apparatus must undergo before leaving the factory.

Mr. Van Deventer is a well known contributor to the technical press on various subjects of a practical nature.  Being a registered patent attorney and member of the various engineering societies, he also realized the necessity of collecting and preserving the literature of the telephone art.  To this end he has for many years gathered date, models of apparatus - especially early designs of Mr. Mason, etc., some of which have but recently proved of great value in patent litigation of vital importance to Independent telephony.

Mr. Van Deventer has long desired to contribute something of permanent value to telephone literature, and, after more than two years labor, has just completed Telephonology, a work of nearly 600 pages with over 700 illustrations, describing in detail modern apparatus, systems, and methods, written especially for the practical man, and valuable to the large and small exchange.  This work incorporates date never before obtainable outside the engineering offices and laboratories of the larger operating companies and manufacturers.  The appearance of this work is awaited with interest.

Mr. Van Deventer handles the advertising, and usually represents the Sumter company at conventions, and in other ways booms Sumter products.  Throughout the South he is widely known as a through Independent, and practical telephone man.

No better illustration of the industrial progress of the South is in evidence that this mammoth plant, the only one of its kind in the southern states.  The Sumter factory stands as a monument to the cause of Independent telephony, the quality of its equipment, and the ability of those who constitute its working and executive force.


Information and pictures provided kindness of Rob Honeycutt.

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