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, May 02, 2017

More on Ezra T. Gillilland of Pelham Manor, Inventor of the Telephone Switchboard and Friend of Thomas Edison

When most think of the inventor of the telephone and the phonograph, most think of Thomas Alva Edison.  Pelhamites, however, think of Pelham Manor resident Ezra Torrence Gilliland who actually assisted Edison in the creation and improvement of both inventions.  Gilliland further invented, on his own, the original telephone switchboard, the magneto bell, and a host of other technologies that were mainstays of the American telephone system for nearly a century.  

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 T. Gilliland in an Undated Photograph.

I have written before about famed Pelham Manor inventor Ezra T. Gilliland and his wife, Lillian Johnson Gilliland.  See: 

Tue., Aug. 04, 2015:  Ezra T. Gilliland, The Inventor of the Telephone Switchboard and Friend of Thomas Edison, Was a Pelham Manor Resident.  

Thu., Aug. 13, 2015:  Lillian Johnson Gilliland's Memories of Thomas Edison and 19th Century Life in Pelham Manor.

Ezra and Lillian Gilliland moved to Pelham Manor in 1891 or 1892.  The Gillilands built their Pelham Manor home on a corner lot where Secor Avenue (now Secor Lane) meets Wolfs Lane.  Some sources indicate Ezra Gilliland's laboratory was built on the adjacent lot with frontage on Secor Avenue.  Others indicate that his lab was on the second floor of the home.  Yet others indicate his laboratory was in the basement of the home.  Most likely, he did laboratory work at various places in and around the home during the twelve or so years he lived there in Pelham Manor.  

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.

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes two obituaries published at the time of Ezra T. Gilliland's death.  They are significant because they provide additional details of his life during his time in Indianapolis before he and his wife moved to Pelham Manor.  

ASSOCIATED WITH EDISONIndianapolis News, May 13, 1903,
p. 11, cols. 3-4.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlgarge.

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Below is the text of two obituaries that appeared after Ezra T. Gilliland's death.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.  

"Ezra T. Gilliland.

Ezra T. Gilliland, an inventor, to whom many of the improvements of the American Bell telephone are due, died Wednesday from Bright's disease at his home in Pelham Manor.  Mr. Gilliland was the inventor of the original bell switchboard, of the magneto bell and many other contrivances now in use by the company.  On the upper floors of his home he had a large laboratory, where he worked almost to the day of his death, solving problems of electricity.  He was an intimate friend of Thomas A. Edison, and they worked jointly on several inventions.  He was interested in the Gilliland Electrical Company, which has large factories in Adrian, Mich., and when he had perfected and patented his inventions he sent the models there to be duplicated for the market.  He kept seven expert electricians employed in the laboratory at his home.  He was for several years a director in the Bell Telephone Co.  He had served as trustee and president of Pelham Manor.

Mr. Gilliland was born in Cuba, N.Y., fifty-six years ago, and lived most of his life in New York.  He was a member of the Reform, Manhattan, Colonial, Pelham Manor, New York Athletic and Columbia Yacht Clubs.  He leaves a widow, who was Miss Lilian Johnson, of Indianapolis.  The funeral was held yesterday at his home.  The Rev. Harris E. Adriance, of New York, formerly pastor of the Pelham Manor Presbyterian Church, officiated.  The burial will be in Adrian, Mich., which is the home of Mr. Gilliland's mother and brother."

Source:  Ezra T. Gilliland, New Rochelle Pioneer, May 16, 1903, Vol. 45, No. 8, p. 8, col. 3.


Ezra Torrence Gilliland, age fifty-eight years, died at his home in Pelham Manor, West Chester county, New York, this morning.  He had been a sufferer from Bright's disease.  He began to fail four or five months ago and death was not unexpected.  He was born in New York State on June 17, 1845.  He was well-known in Indianapolis.

He opened the first telephone exchange in this city, and during his residence here he was married to Miss Lillian M. Johnson, the daughter of Captain Johnson, formerly of Madison.  At various times he has been interested in business ventures in Indianapolis, and socially he was well known.  The funeral arrangements have not yet been made.  He will probably be buried in New York or in Adrian, Mich.

Mr. Gilliland began life as a telegraph operator on the line of the Michigan Central or 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.

Inventor of Switchboard.

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 constructed 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.  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 one of the largest electrical 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 Havana Commercial Company, which has monopolized the business in Cuba.

Mr. Gilliland left a considerable fortune.  At times he has been worth over a million dollars.  He was affable, kindly and hospitable.  

Mrs. Danforth Brown, of Indianapolis, is a sister of Mrs. Gilliland, and has gone to the funeral."


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