The first residential telephone was at this home in Somerville


By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer

The house at 1 Arlington Street in Somerville, still standing today, was the site of the first home telephone, in 1877.
The house at 1 Arlington Street in Somerville, still standing today, was the site of the first home telephone, in 1877.

SOMERVILLE – Many people know the story of the first telephone call, made by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 to his assistant Thomas A. Watson in the next room. But far fewer know that the first residential telephone was installed in a house in Somerville, owned by the man who made the first commercial telephones.

The house at 1 Arlington Street was built in 1858 and is now listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It was owned by Charles Williams Jr. and was used by Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson to set up the very first home telephone in 1877.

The first practical telephone line in the United States was installed between Williams’ house in Somerville and his factory on Court Street in Boston. The home is believed to be privately owned today. 


Manufacturer of first telephones for Bell

Charles Williams Jr. was an electrical telegraph equipment manufacturer. His equipment was used to transmit text messages electrically over wires as opposed to physically via some other means like a train, horse, or on foot. The most well-known worker of his was Thomas A. Watson, the recipient of that first successful telephone call made by Bell. Supposedly, Bell said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” 

Alexander Graham Bell went on to start the Bell Telephone Company. Watson joined the company and worked there for several years. Williams had telephone number 1 and 2 of the Bell Telephone Company. He built the phones in the early days of the Bell Telephone Company, manufacturing two different models. The first was a box telephone and the second was a hand telephone. The initial production order was for 25 box phones at $160 each and fifty hand telephones at $2.45 each. 

Customers would pay a monthly lease for two phones that were connected to a private electrical line between two locations, like a home to business, home to home, or business to business. Bell’s first paying customer was a man named Roswell C. Downer, a friend of Williams.

Charles Williams Jr.’s home later became known as the “Telephone House.” He was born on March 2, 1830, in Middlesex Village (now known as part of Lowell and Chelmsford) and was sixteen when he and his family moved to Somerville. He was the son of Charles Williams Sr., a hatmaker and Rebecca Frost Williams, and was one of five children. He died in Somerville on April 14, 1908, of bronchial pneumonia. 

Somerville was a very different place in the 1800s as compared to the Somerville we know today. Many of those who resided there were involved in agriculture. A small number of men were doing business in Boston. Union Square had a half dozen homes and a couple of stores. The Middlesex Canal was in operation and Somerville had no sidewalks or streetlights, and no municipal water supply. 


A subdued legacy

Chris Wisniewski, a historian, was invited to speak by the Somerville Historical Society in the fall of 2015. She helps families, businesses and non-profits preserve their stories. She takes personal photographs and turns them into books. She was hired by the ancestors of Charles Williams Jr. and along with fellow historian Stephanie Nichols, worked for two years putting this project together. They interviewed more than twenty family members and went through archives of old photos. The family members did not know much about him other than the fact that he had a lot to do with the telephone. 

The Charles Williams Jr. House in Somerville, Massachusetts is now listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Photo/Meyersj-Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

“Almost everyone knows the names Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson connected with the early days of the telephone,” said Wisniewski. “But without Charles Williams Jr., Bell and Watson probably would not have achieved their success with their ideas as they did.” 

There are a few references to Charles Williams Jr. in a publication called The Electrical Engineer. He is also associated with many patents; some of which were from his machinists and foremen. 

It is a bit surprising that the name Charles Williams Jr. has not gotten the fame he deserves. He was instrumental in creating the early telephones and without his expertise, the ability to make a phone call and eventually connect with people all over the world might not have been a possibility at the time. 



Boston’s steaming kettle is 150 years old (

Necco’s sweet journey of creating classic candies began in Boston (

The Massachusetts man who created America’s doughnut habit (