Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Ezra T. Gilliland, The Inventor of the Telephone Switchboard and Friend of Thomas Edison, Was a Pelham Manor Resident

Ezra Torrence Gilliland was a prolific 19th century inventor and one of the most creative people ever to live in Pelham.  He served as one of the earliest village trustees of the Village of Pelham Manor, beginning his service in 1893 only two years after the Village was formed.  He later became President (i.e., Mayor) of the Village of Pelham Manor and served in that capacity until shortly before his death on May 13, 1903.  He also served for a time as President of the old Manor Club before that club became a women's club.  In 1893 Gilliland's wife, Lillian M. Johnson Gilliland, joined the board of The Pelham Home for Children and served in that capacity for many years.

Ezra Torrence Gilliland in an Undated Photograph.

Gilliland was born in New York in 1846, a son of Robert C. Gilliland and his wife, Caroline.  As a youngster, Ezra lived with his family in Portville and in Allegany Township, both in Cattaraugus County, New York.  As a young man, he became a telegrapher.  By the beginning of the Civil War, Ezra Gilliland had become an expert telegraph operator.  By the age of 24, he had moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and had begun tinkering as an inventor.  

After invention of the telephone Gilliland became interested both as a manufacturer and an improver. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Chief among his inventions are the Gilliland bell, for attracting the attention of  “central”, the Gilliland switch board, now in common use, and the exchange, of which he gave the original idea."

Gilliland was, at one time, a close friend of Thomas Edison.  The pair got to know each other in about the early 1870s while working with telegraph equipment.  They became fast friends, even referring to themselves as "Damon and Pythias."  They built summer resort homes next to each other in Fort Myers, Florida.   Gilliland and his wife even introduced Edison to his second wife, Mina Miller, during a visit by Edison to see the Gillilands in Boston.  

During the late 1870s, Gilliland presented tinfoil phonograph "exhibitions" throughout the midwest, trying to drum up public interest in the invention.  During the 1880s, Gilliland worked with Edison in various aspects of the improvement of the phonograph and became a major investor in the Edison Phonograph Company.  The pair had a falling out over ownership of the Edison Phonograph Company.  Edison even sued Gilliland in a lawsuit that attracted national attention, alleging that Gilliland and his lawyer friend, John C. Tomlinson, cut a secret deal to profit from the phonograph behind Edison's back.  In April, 1890, a judge ruled against Thomas Edison and in favor of Ezra Gilliland in the matter.  Thomas Edison reportedly never spoke with Ezra Gilliland again.  

Advertisement that Appeared in the June 4, 1878 Issue
of the Cincinnati Daily Gazette Touting an Exhibition
of the Tinfoil Phonograph Managed by Ezra T. Gilliland.
NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

Gilliland married Lillian M. Johnson on February 5, 1880 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The couple lived there for a period of time.  While there, Gilliland was granted three patents for two telephone apparatuses and a driving gear for a magneto electric machine.  

For many years Mr. Gilliland oversaw the Bell Telephone Company’s "experiment station" in Boston.  While there, according to the New York Times, he "did most of his important work." Gilliland also was one of the organizers of the Western Electric Company.  

Among Gilliland's many inventions was the telephone switchboard.  On April 30, 1895 the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued Letters Patent Number 538,327 for an invention by Gilliland called the "Telephone Central-Office System". According to the patent: 

"The system herein described is particularly adapted for use with small exchanges and a magneto telephone system. It is of great importance that the apparatus should be simplified as much as possible and that the line should be kept as clear as possible so as to make the fullest use of the current developed by the voice, for its strength is necessarily limited and should be utilized to its full advantage. With these two objects in view I provide a system in which when two subscribers are connected the annunciator drop of one of them is retained in the circuits as a clearing out drop while the other is shunted out. Special clearing out drops are therefore unnecessary. To effect this I attach to an ordinary spring-jack and additional or auxiliary contact plate which is connected with the subscriber's leading-in wire before it passes through the drop, and I provide a pair of plugs on the opposite ends of two strands of wire, one of the plubs having a plate which contacts with the additional contact and excludes the drop from the circuit, the other having a plate which contacts only with the contact that is connected to line through the drop, thereby including the drop in the circuit. When two subscribers are connected through their spring jacks and such a pair of plugs, the result is that the annunciator drop of one of the subscribers is in the circuit and the annunciator drop of the other subscriber is out of the circuit. This apparatus embodies the main feature of my invention." 

Gilliland's patent including its abstract, drawings, description and claims may be accessed by clicking here.

Ezra T. Gilliland's Patent Drawing Included with United States
Patent and Trademark Office Letters Patent Number 538,327
for an Invention by Gilliland Called the "Telephone
Central-Office System"  NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

In about 1891 or 1892, Gilliland and his wife began looking for a home near New York City.  According to Mrs. Gilliland, "We hunted around in Connecticut and had almost decided on Davenport Neck in New Rochelle when we finally determined to come to Pelham Manor."  In about 1892, the Gillilands built a home on Wolfs Lane in the Village of Pelham Manor.  Soon thereafter they built a laboratory for Ezra's "experimental work" next door.  See Good Times Began At Home and Stayed There In The Old Days In The Manor – Mrs. Ezra T. Gilliland Who Will Celebrate 80th Birthday in December Recalls Neighborhood Character of Social Life in Pelham Manor in the Early Days of the Village, The Pelham Sun, Sep. 9, 1938, p. 3, cols. 1-5.

The Gillilands built their Pelham Manor home on a corner lot where Secor Avenue (now Secor Lane) meets Wolfs Lane.  The laboratory was built on the adjacent lot with frontage on Secor Avenue.  

Detail from Map Published in 1899 Showing Location of Home
and Laboratory of Ezra T. Gilliland.  "Secor Ave." Since Has
Been Extended Across and Beyond Wolfs Lane and Now is
Known as "Secor Lane."  Source:  Fairchild, John F., Atlas of the
City of Mount Vernon and the Town of Pelham, Plate 22
(Mount Vernon, NY:  John F. Fairchild, 1899).
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

The couple cherished their time in Pelham Manor.  They played golf on a "small neighborhood course" once located at the intersection of Highland Avenue and Boston Post Road.  They had a tennis court on their property and flooded it during winter to allow neighbors to ice skate.  They held lavish clambakes on their property and enjoyed bicycling throughout the region.  See Good Times Began At Home and Stayed There In The Old Days In The Manor – Mrs. Ezra T. Gilliland Who Will Celebrate 80th Birthday in December Recalls Neighborhood Character of Social Life in Pelham Manor in the Early Days of the VillageThe Pelham Sun, Sep. 9, 1938, p. 3, cols. 1-5.

Ezra Torrence Gilliland died from heart disease at the age of fifty-five in his Pelham Manor home on May 13, 1903.  His wife continued to live in Pelham Manor for nearly forty years thereafter and remained active in the Manor Club over which her husband had once presided.  

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Below is transcribed text from a variety of sources relating to the life of Ezra Torrence Gilliland of Pelham Manor.  Each is followed by a citation to its source.  Links are included when available.  

He Was the Inventor of Appliances for
Improving Telephone Service.

Ezra Torrence Gilliland died yesterday from heart disease at his home in Pelham Manor in his fifty-fifth year. Mr. Gilliland was a native of Adrian, Mich. At the beginning of the civil war he became an expert telegraph operator, and when the telephone was invented he became interested both as a manufacturer and improver. Chief among his inventions are the Gilliland bell, for attracting the attention of  “central”, the Gilliland switch board, now in common use, and the exchange, of which he gave the original idea.

For many years Mr. Gilliland was in charge of the Bell Telephone Company’s experiment station in Boston and while there did most of his important work. He was one of the organizers of the Western Electric company and was also associated with Thomas A. Edison for several years.

Of late years Mr. Gilliland had not been active in electrical work. Up to a year ago he held the Presidency of Pelham Manor. A widow survives him. The funeral will take place at Pelham Manor on Friday at 10 o’clock. Interment will be at Adrian, Mich."

Source:  DEATH OF E. T. GILLILAND -- He Was the Inventor of Appliances for
Improving Telephone Service, N.Y. Times, May 14, 1903.

"Ezra T. Gilliland was born in 1846 at New York.2,1  He was the son of Robert C. Gilliland and Caroline G. ?.1  Ezra T. Gilliland appeared on the 1850 Federal Census of Portville, Cattaraugus County, New York, in the household of his parents, Robert C. Gilliland and Caroline G. ?.1  Ezra T. Gilliland appeared on the 1860 Federal Census of Allegany township, Cattaraugus County, New York, in the household of his parents, Robert C. Gilliland and Caroline G. ?.3  Ezra T. Gilliland appeared on the 1870 Federal Census of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, enumerated 2 June 1870.4  

Ezra T. Gilliland married Lillian M. Johnson on 5 February 1880 at Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana.5,6  Ezra T. Gilliland and Lillian M. Johnson appeared on the 1880 Federal Census of Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana, enumerated 14 June 1880.5  In 1889, Ezra was in a legal dispute with Thomas A. Edison.7  Ezra T. Gilliland and Lillian M. Johnson appeared on the 1900 Federal Census of Pelham, Westchester County, New York, enumerated 11 June 1900.8  Ezra T. Gilliland died on 13 May 1903 at Pelham, Westchester County, New York.2,9,10  He was buried at Oakwood Cemetery, Adrian, Lenawee County, Michigan.2  (For burial information see Find-a-Grave.) 

Ezra was a telegrapher and a close friend of Thomas A. Edison.11  He was also an inventor in his own right. While living in Indianapolis he was granted patents for three devices: a driving gear for a magneto electric machine, and two telephone apparatuses.12  An article written by historian John T. Cunningham and published in the Elyria Chronicle Telegram on August 15, 1979, tells of the friendship between Edison and Ezra and how Edison met this second wife, Mina Miller, at the Gilliland's home when they were living in Boston.11  However, sometime in early 1889 Ezra and Thomas became entangled in a bitter business dispute. Edison charged Ezra and a lawyer, John C. Tomlinson, with "treachery and breach of faith" and filed a suit in the U.S. Circuit Court.7  In April 1890, a judge rules against Edison and for the defendants Ezra T. Gilliland and John C. Tomlinson.13  


1.  [S5347] Robt. Gilleland household, 1850 U.S. census, Cattaraugus County, New York, population schedule, Portville, page 241, dwelling 30, family 30.; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com). 

2.  [S5374] Ezra T. Gilliland, online http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi 

3.  [S5358] Robert Gillerland household, 1860 U.S. census, Cattaraugus County, New York, population schedule, Allegany township, PO Allegany, page 1, dwelling 10, family 10.; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com). 

4.  [S5390] Wilford Baker household, 1870 U.S. census, Hamilton County, Ohio, population schedule, Cincinnati 14th Ward, PO Cincinnati, page 21, dwelling 122, family 121.; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com). 

5.  [S5391] Ezra T. Gilleland household, 1880 Federal Census, Marion County, Indiana, population schedule, Indianapolis, ED 115, page/sheet 42, dwelling 326, family 381.; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com). 

6.  [S5392] Marion County (Indiana). Clerk of the Circuit Court. Marriage records 1877-1881, microfilm, access date: January 14, 2014, Film 0499373, Family History Library, 35 North West Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah. 

7.  [S5395] New York World, May 13, 1889. 

8.  [S5393] Ezra T. Gilliland household, 1900 U.S. census, Westchester County, New York, population schedule, Pelham, ED 109, page/sheet 5A, dwelling 55, family 55.; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com). 

9.  [S5398] Logansport Reporter, May 15, 1903, front page. 

10.  [S5400] Unknown author, "Death of Ezra T. Gilliland." 

11.  [S5396] Elyria Chronicle Telegram, August 15, 1979. 

12.  [S5397] Sullivan Times, February 23, 1884. 

13.  [S5399] New York Times, April 11, 1890."

Source:  Gilliland Families -- Finding John Gilliland, Person Page 244 (visited Jul. 27, 2015).

Death of the Man Who Gave the First Impetus to Telephones in Indiana.
Sold for $20,000 What Was Worth $1,000,000

The death of Ezra T. Gilliland Wednesday at his home in Westchester county, New York, closed the life of a man whose genius had a great deal to do with the remarkable development and utilization of the telephone.

Mr. Gilliland began life as telegraph operator on the line of the Michigan Central on the Lake Shore railroad and in his boyhood days became acquainted with Edison. This developed into a friendship which lasted all through life. They were associated in many business enterprises, and in the development of the telephone and phonograph he shared honors with Mr. Edison.

The fundamental principles of the switchboard, used by every telephone system throughout the world, is an invention of Mr. Gilliland, and the perfected transmitter is also the result of his work.

Mr. Gilliland organized and contructed the first telephone exchange in Indianapolis, which at that time was situated in the Vance block -- at present the Indiana Trust block. That was in the ‘70s. He owned that exchange and the Indiana rights of the telephone, and he operated the Indianapolis exchange for a year or more and sold it to a syndicate for $20,000. This syndicate, within twenty-four hours, turned it into the Central Union company for $1,000,000.

His reasons for disposing of the telephone exchange and his rights in Indiana was prompted by his love for mechanics. With the money obtained by the sale of the property he started the Gilliland Electric Manufacturing company, at Indianapolis. The business prospered and outgrew the quarters and he bought the old factory of the Indianapolis Shoe company, on Brookside avenue. He carried on the business there for three years and moved his factory to Adrian, Mich. The Adrian plant became on of the largest electrical and manufacturing houses in the United States.

For thirty years he manufactured equipment for the Western Union, and he made practically all of the insulating pins that carry Western Union lines over the country.

One of his latest inventions was a cigarette making machine which has a capacity of 500 cigarettes a minute. This machine was made with a view of entering into competition with other cigarette manufacturing machinery controlled by the French government. It has been adopted by the Havanna Commercial company, which has monopolized the business in Cuba.

Source:  WAS INVENTOR OF THE SWITCHBOARD -- Death of the Man Who Gave First Impetus to Telephones in Indiana -- Sold for $20,000 What Was Worth $1,000,000, Logansport Reporter [Logansport, Indiana], May 15, 1903.  

"The Phonograph.

Yesterday Mr. E. T. Gilliland began the public exhibitions of Edison's speaking phonograph in Greenwood Hall.  Three exhibitions were given -- one in the forenoon, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.  Their style is pleasantly informal.  Mr. Gilliland and his instrument, standing in the middle of the hall with his auditors and spectators gathered around him while he explains the operations of the marvelous piece of mechanism, answers any questions that may be put, and exhibits its powers in the same way that was described last week when he gave the newspaper writers a hearing.  As a means of entertainment and as a study to those thoughtfully inclined, the instrument was shown to have great interest, and many there were who returned several times to listen to the miraculous voice.  Mr. Gilliland's explanations are exceedingly simple and unaffected with technical terms, and he seems to take delight in bringing the most marvelous of inventions right down to the comprehension of the veriest tyro in the study of mind and its phenomena.  The exhibitions will continue several days in Greenwood Hall."

Source:  The Phonograph, Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 4, 1878.

He Sues Gilliland and Tomlinson, Charging Broken Faith and Treachery.

THE WORLD recently announced that Thomas A. Edison had discovered that Ezra T. Gilliland and John C. Tomlinson had sold to Jesse H. Lippincott the agency held by Gilliland for the sale of phonographs for $250,000, in alleged breach of contracct, and on representations that they received only $75,000.  Suit has now been begun in the United States Circuit Court by Mr. Edison, charging Gilliland and Tomlinson with treachery and breach of faith and demanding an accounting.  In his complaint Edison says that he induced Gilliland to join him in business by offering him a larger salary than he had been receiving from the Bell Telephone Company, and that he made Tomlinson wealthy by giving him large retainers as counsel.  Gilliland was made general agent for the sale of the phonographs, but he agreed to hold this monopoly at the control of Edison.  He further says that the defendants induced him to sell his 11,960 shares of the Edison Phonograph Company to Lippincott for $500,000, and then they sold the agency to the same person, virtually making him sole owner of the business.  The defendants put in a general denial.

Mr. Tomlinson says that neither he nor Gilliland is a beneficiary of Edison, but, on the contrary, they have lost heavily through their connection with him.  The sale of the agency was a perfectly fair and honorable transaction.  He denies that they told Edison that they were to receive only $75,000, but that they had accepted $250,000 of the stock in the new company, and subsequently sold the stock to Lippincott for $250,000.

The case will probably come to trial in June, Edison's counsel being Col. Robert G. Ingersoll and Eaton & Lewis, while Frederick R. Coudert and W. Bourke Cockran are for Gilliland and Tomlinson."

Source:   WAS MR. EDISON GULLED? -- He Sues Gilliland and Tomlinson, Charging Broken Faith and Treachery, N.Y. World, May 13, 1889.


Judge Wallace of the United States Circuit Court yesterday handed down a decision sustaining the demurrer to the complaint in the suit of Thomas A. Edison against Ezra T. Gilliland and John C. Tomlinson.  Edison alleged that he authorized Gilliland to sell his phonograph company stock; that Gilliland found a purchaser -- Mr. Lippincott of Philadelphia; that a contract was made for the sale, and that then he made a discovery.  It was that Gilliland, having taken Tomlinson in with him, had agreed with Mr. Lippincott to take the stock for $500,000 and to pay $250,000 for certain rights to sell phonographs held by Gilliland.  Gilliland, Edison charges, represented that he was to be paid for his agency rights in stock not worth over $75,000, and at the same tie had an agreement with Lippincott to take the stock off his hands at par.  Mr. Edison sued to recover the $250,000, which he alleged the defendants had obtained by fraud.  

Judge Wallace says:  

'The bill is fatally defective.  Because the facts set forth do not disclose that the plaintiff has parted with his stock or otherwise been a loser in consequence of the alleged misconduct of the defendants.  He has entered into an agreement to sell and deliver his stock at a future day upon receiving the purchase money, but that day had long expired before the bill was filed, and it does not appear that the contract was ever consummated.  For all that appears he has the stock now, is still its owner, and nothering ever came from the contract.  Whether Lippincott repudiated it or whether the plaintiff did or whether it was carried out is left wholly to conjecture.

'It must be assumed upon demurrer that the plaintiff has stated his case as favorably as the facts will permit.  It must be inferred therefore that the contract for some unexplained reason has fallen through and that the plaintiff is in the same position as before it was made.  The case as stated by the bill is at best one in which a principal has employed agents to sell property for him and they have taken advantage of their agency to sell their own property at a price largely in excess of its real value.  The case is not one where the principal has lost the sale of his own property by the misconduct of his agents, but the theory of the bill is tht the property was actually sold, while the facts alleged show that the sale has never been completed, and consequently that the plaintiff has lost nothing by the transaction.'"


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