Charles Ezra Scribner, chief engineer at Western Electric, held more patents (441) than any man in an electrical industry. His most important contribution was the development of the multiple switchboard, an important component of networks. Charles Ezra Scribner was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, February 16, 1858, son of Charles Harvey and Mary Elizabeth (Morehouse) Scribner.
His first paternal American ancestor was Benjamin Srivener, who came to this country from England prior to 1670 and settled in Norwalk, Conn. From Benjamin and his wife, Hannah Crampton, the descent was through Thomas and Sarah Scribner, Uriah and Marthis (Scrivener) Scribner, Asa and Rachel (Olmstead) Scribner, Harvey and Lydia (Jelliff) Scribner, and Asa and Esther (Jelliff) Scribner, the parents of Charles E. Scribner. His father was a lawyer and judge.
After attending public school in Toledo, Ohio, Scribner, an 18-year old “whiz kid”, went to Chicago in 1876 and began work with the Gold & Stock Telegraph Co. as an assistant in the inspection of Gray printers, the printer being a pre-telephone device with an alphabetical keyboard which typed messages on paper tape. An early invention of his, an automatic telegraph repeater, was developed during that period and consequently, although the telephone soon superseded the printers, his inventive ability was directed to improving telephone apparatus.
“It was this instrument that brought me into contact with the Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago, the best instrument makers I knew of,” he wrote years later.
In 1876 his inventive promise attracted the attention of Enos M. Barton, then president of the Western Electric Manufacturing Co., Chicago, and in 1877 Scribner left the Gold & Stock Telegraph Co. to become assistant to the inspector of Gray printers at the Western Electric Manufacturing Co., which became the Western Electric Co. in 1882. In 1896 he became chief engineer in Chicago and in 1908 chief engineer for the company in New York city, in charge of experimental and development work. He continued in that post until his retirement in 1916.
Scribner became Western Electric’s most prolific inventor. He was the founder of the Engineering Department – forerunner of the Bell Telephone Laboratories. Thomas Edison himself once described Charles Ezra Scribner as “the most industrious inventor I have ever known.
His imagination seems boundless.” It is often said that there were few items of telephone equipment, aside from the transmitter and receiver, that did not feel his direct influence. Scribner contributed to the growth of telephonic equipment and devices, beginning with the rudimentary telephone exchanges installed in 1879. Following the acceptance of the telephone, effective methods of interconnection of large numbers of telephones had to be perfected. In that formative period Scribner solved a problem that confronted the industry, the devising of a practicable and smooth-working switchboard for large offices.
The result was his multiple, or duplicate, switchboard, as it was first called, through which he originated the main features of switchboard development. Because of his work his company became one of the largest manufacturers of switchboards.
During his career he filed approximately 700 patents and took out approximately 500, most of them relating to early telephone switchboards and to switching systems. The electrical circuits employed in intercommunication, switchboards and signaling apparatus, as devised by him, were adopted throughout the world. He also fostered Western Electric’s research and development department, which in 1924 became the Bell Telephone Laboratories.
Under his direction the de Forest audion was acquired and refined by one of his assistants into the first modern vacuum tube, enabling the first transcontinental telephony in 1915. He was author of Western Electric Company’s “Contribution to Early Telephone Development” (West. Elec. News, February 1913).
The multiple switchboard permitted an operator to reach any subscriber’s line in the exchange without having to trunk the call to another operator.
He was a fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and a member of the Engineering Foundation, Telephone Pioneers, United States Engineering Society, the Machinery Club of New York city, and the Wanbanakee Golf and Ethan Allen clubs of Burlington, Vt. In 1900 he was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exposition for his inventions.
His religious affiliation was with the Kenwood Evangelical Church of Chicago. Politically he was a Republican. Motoring and playing golf were his chief re-creations, and he was fond of music. Scribner was married in Toledo, Ohio, December 1, 1880, to Mary Etta, daughter of George Moody Brown of that city, and had three children: Charles Harvey; Margaret Belle, who married Harry Lamar Grant; and Mary Etta, who married Nahum Chapin Palmer. His death occurred in Jericho, Vt., June 25, 1926.