The Victorian Invention That Connects Us to the Electric Guitar

One of the most important elements of your electric guitar setup also happens to be one of the oldest.
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One of the most important elements of your electric guitar setup also happens to be one of the oldest.

Yep, that seemingly unremarkable 1/4" plug on the end of your guitar cable was invented long before Leo Fender was born or even - for you oldsters - before Nipper first heard his master’s voice playing on the gramophone.

In fact, it made its first appearance in 1878, smack in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Just two years previously, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell had been granted a patent for the telephone. Getting phone service and placing a call back then though, was a lot more complicated than just asking Alexa or Siri to connect you.

Let’s say it was 1877 and you wanted to call your local music store, Mandolin Center, to inquire about when an electric guitar might be invented. You would begin by contacting the American Bell Telephone Company either in person or by letter, as you had no phone yet so you obviously couldn’t call them.

You would then purchase two phones. Yes, two. That’s because early phones were only sold in pairs: one for the caller and one for the callee.

Workmen would run a line from the new telephone in your house to the matching telephone in the music store. At this point you could place your call, and if you were very, very lucky, the person on the other line might suggest - after answering with the period-correct, “Ahoy-hoy!” - “Why not call James and Jennie Fender over in Dixon, Illinois? 

"I hear they’ve just had a son they’re calling Clarence, and maybe that son in turn will have a boy to carry on the family name someday. Although with a name like Fender, a future in the as-yet-nonexistent automotive parts replacement industry seems more likely than electric guitar manufacturing, it’s worth a shot.”

At which time you would buy another pair of telephones and repeat the entire process, this time to be connected between yourself and Leo Fender’s future grandparents.

Obviously Bell’s telephonic pyramid scheme couldn’t last. It was at this moment that George Coy arrived on the scene. He had recently heard a lecture by Bell and realized that what was needed was some way to connect any single phone in town with any other phone in town.

Coy figured he was just the person to supply the missing piece. In 1878, he created the first telephone switchboard, in New Haven, Connecticut. It was pretty primitive even by the standards of the day, but one has to admire Coy’s ingenuity. 

His earliest version was a kind of patch bay built using pot lids, carriage bolts and metal wires he’d scavenged from women’s undergarments (Don’t ask - he was very resourceful.) But the important point was that with it he could connect any two subscribers, with each subscriber needing only a single telephone.

The New Haven townsfolk who subscribed to his service were given the world’s first phonebook and had their phones hooked up to his switchboard. They would ring the switchboard operator, who would then use a short length of cable to connect the caller’s line to the phone line of the person they wanted to call.

What Coy needed on the end of the operator’s patch cable was a sturdy little plug that was simple to use and which would continue to transmit audio signals reliably with little degradation even after thousands of uses. And so he created the 1/4-inch phono plug.

This early version was later standardized and patented by Henry Clausen in 1902. Other versions were developed with as many as five or more conductors on the tip. It was the basic phono plug though, with its rounded end for easy insertion and an indent just behind the tip to fit in the jack so that it stays in place yet comes back out with an easy tug, that became the standard for radio, amplifier and eventually electric guitar connections.

So from the Victorian Coy to the postwar Fender - the connections are as clear as an, ahem, Bell.