Happy 313 Day! Detroit’s Telephone History
The Detroit Club where the first call between Chicago and Detroit was made. Photo courtesy of Burton Historical Collection
By Jason Clinton
Happy Detroit Day! For those who don’t know, every March 13th is known as Detroit Day or 313 Day because of Detroit’s 313 area code. That said, there are a limited amount of phone numbers that can begin with 313 and we’re about to use them all up. The new code, 679, will start being implemented in 2025.
That said, 313 is an iconic area code (at least for now) and has become one of symbols of Detroit, featured on stickers and t-shirts and hats (Oh my!). So on this 313 Day, I’d like to look back to a time when Detroit broke new ground in the world of telephones.
The year was 1877 and while telephones were not widely available yet, there was a lot of buzz surrounding this new piece of technology and what purpose it would serve in the future. Sure, you could speak to someone who wasn’t in the same room as you, but how far could you place a call before the signal got lost?
On March 7th, about 150 people walked through the doors of the Detroit Club for a rather peculiar experiment. The people were there for a concert, but that concert was occurring in Chicago. Members of the Detroit Club were gathered to see if a telephone could allow them to listen to music that was playing in an entirely different state. At the time, the farthest a call had ever gone was 84 miles; this call would be traveling 284 miles. No one was certain that this would even work. In fact, the Detroit Club offered salad and coffee as a consolation in the event that it didn’t.
This was a public test of Elisha Gray’s model of the telephone, a different design that was being made at the same time as Alexander Graham Bell’s phone. M.C. Kellogg (the article makes no mention if this person is related to the Corn Flakes dynasty), who was speaking on behalf of Elisha Gray introduced the device. He explained how it worked, describing an electric signal that was sent over the lines and would turn a piece of iron into an electromagnet, which would move a diaphragm that mimics the vibrations from the piano music in Chicago. The call was made possible by connecting the telephone to the telegraph lines that were already installed and using them to send the same electric signals used in landlines today. Because it was hard enough to hear these early phones when by oneself, the telephone was taken off the table and strung from a chandelier, to stop the wood from absorbing the sound.
At 8:20 pm, the room went quiet and soon everyone heard a muffled sound coming from the box. The audience looked at each other in awe as they heard “Comin’ Thro The Rye” being played hundreds of miles away. The experiment was a success! The audience applauded the new technology and, after a celebratory salad and coffee break, the guests were treated to more songs like, “A Life on the Ocean Wave”, “Hold Fort”, and ironically, “The Telephone Waltz”.
While making a call to Chicago may not seem like an event today, this opened more doors for what the telephone could do. No one could have imagined that this would be something that could connect people around the world nor could they imagine that it would be a household item. Much like Michigan Avenue, the telephone brought together the two midwestern cities. While distance isn’t a factor in the calls we make today, it’s worth remembering that there once was a time when it was a big deal to be from the 313 and place a call for Chicago’s 312.
Noble, Breana, and Hannah Mackay. “313 Is Running Out: Detroit Poised to Get a New Area Code.” The Detroit News, The Detroit News, 20 Jan. 2023.
“Musical Lightning: Successful Exhibition of Elisha Grey’s Famous Telephone.” Detroit Free Press (1858-1922) Mar 07 1877: 1. ProQuest. 10 Mar. 2023 .
About the Author
Jason is a Detroit artist and an administrative assistant for City Tour Detroit. He grew up on the northwest side of the city and became interested in Detroit when attending Renaissance High School and learning about the contributions Detroit has made to America’s history. He received his BA in theatre from Wayne State University and upon graduation, found a way to combine his love of history with his love of public speaking; being a tour guide! Jason continues to lead tours and does research and administrative work for City Tour Detroit in addition to running its blog.