Pouring Water on the Ground Wire
At the turn of the last century, the majority of telephones were made of hardwood and mounted on the wall. The simple components were a transmitter, receiver, induction coil, hand generator, bells, and two dry-cell batteries.
The hand generator produced up to 80 volts of alternating current, which was used to operate the bells of other telephones on the same line, or to throw the drop signal at the switchboard. The batteries, located in the lower section of the cabinet, were used to supply direct current for voice transmission. In earlier days, these batteries consisted of positive and negative electrodes immersed in glass jars filled with sulfuric acid.
These batteries were eventually replaced by dry cell batteries similar to those used today. Once installed, these phones were practically indestructible, and maintenance was minimal.
Line circuits connecting telephones to the switchboard were of the ground return type. One side of the circuits consisted of a strand of galvanized iron wire. The circuit was completed by running another wire from the telephone to a ground near the foundation of the premises where the telephone was located. Such a ground was obtained by driving a rod or burying a long piece of wire in the ground at the desired point. In dry weather, the subscriber would help the system by pouring water on the ground wire to make their telephone work.
Surprisingly, the telephone did’nt catch on as quickly as one might think. People were a little suspicious of that box on the wall and the mysterious way of talking over the wires. Many thought that telephones attracted lightening. Slowly but surely, however, telephones made their way into businesses and homes throughout the country.
(From “Telephony in Florida” p.89)