Before there was a Bell System, AT&T, Western Electric Co., or Graybar, there was the partnership of Gray & Barton.

In this article we present the first of two articles on the life of Enos Barton, the man who helped translate Elisha Gray’s inventions – as well as those of Alexander Graham Bell – into commercial success.

Barton’s name is not well known outside of Graybar. Yet it was Barton who made it possible for the Western Electric Company, Graybar’s parent, to grow into the largest manufacturer and distributor of electrical and telephone supplies in the world.

Enos M. Barton, the man who would be identified so closely with the manufacture of telephones, was born at the dawn of the age of the telegraph. Enos was just over a year old when, in the spring of 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, succeeded in transmitting the first telegram.

In those days, the telegraph was a technological marvel. Within a decade it had become a booming industry.

The Bartons lived in Lorraine, New York, a rural town in upstate Jefferson County. In elementary school, Enos was a good student with a gift for mathematics.

At age 11, with his father in failing health and increasingly unable to support the family, Enos left home to go to work in nearby Watertown. He worked first in a grocery store, then got a job as a messenger in the Western Union telegraph office there.

His father died when Enos was 12. You may recall that Elisha Gray also lost his father at that age.

Although Enos had to leave school, he was determined to continue his education. At the Western Union office in Watertown, he progressed from messenger to telegraph operator, dividing his time between work and studying arithmetic, algebra and Latin after hours.

The following year, Barton was laid off from Western Union in Watertown, and he spent the next two years at several jobs. He worked as a telegraph operator in the upstate towns of Adams and Oswego, worked in the Watertown post office, and then taught one winter in a country school in Sackett’s Harbor, New York.

The telegraph business most appealed to Enos, however, and he wanted to get back into it. He moved to Syracuse, New York, and got a job there as a telegraph operator with the New York Central Railroad. He then transferred to the company’s Rochester office, working full time as a telegraph operator and continuing his studies part time. In 1860, he was accepted as a freshman at the University of Rochester. He became a full-time student, working evenings as a telegraph operator. 

After a year, Barton moved to New York City and attended the City University of New York for one year. During the first two years of the Civil War, he stayed in New York, working as a night operator sending press dispatches to newspapers.

In 1863, Barton returned to Rochester, age 20, with several years’ experience as a telegrapher. His skills earned him the position of chief operator of Western Union’s Rochester office. He also managed to earn the affections of a lovely young Rochester resident named Kitty Richardson, and the two became engaged.

At the time, Western Union operated four manufacturing shops in different cities around the country, and the one nearest Rochester was in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1867, Western Union decided to close the Cleveland shop and move the work elsewhere. George Shawk, the Cleveland superintendent, found himself out of a job. He bought some of the tools from Western Union and began to operate the shop on his own.

Elisha Gray was one of Shawk’s best customers, as well as his most exasperating. Gray had moved to Cleveland at the invitation of Anson Stager, Western Union’s general superintendent, to pursue his telegraph inventions. Western Union had already patented several of Gray’s improvements, and the inventor’s name was becoming well known in the industry. Gray hired Shawk to build, and rebuild, his models. George Shawk was a superb craftsman and a competent foreman, but he was a poor businessman. Within months, the dispirited entrepreneur was looking for a cash partner. Professor Gray offered to go into business with him, but Shawk turned him down.

Back in Rochester, Enos Barton had already entertained the idea of starting his own business. At the age of 25, he had more than a dozen years of experience in telegraphy. He knew the service side, the product side and he had been well educated in the technical and theoretical aspects of electricity.

Enos Barton realized that Elisha Gray needed more than a model builder. He needed a business manager. Barton watched as Shawk’s plight worsened. Early in 1869, Barton approached Shawk, and the two men came to terms on a partnership.

On March 21, in Jefferson County, New York, Enos Barton’s mother mortgaged the family farm and loaned her son several hundred dollars. With that money, plus another loan from a family friend and his own savings, Enos bought an interest in Shawk’s business and formed the partnership of Shawk & Barton.

Kitty and Enos Barton, newly married, left Rochester to begin their new life in Cleveland, moving into the same rooming house as Professor and Mrs. Gray.

Barton quickly brought order to the disorganized shop. He made it known in the Cleveland telegraph community that Shawk & Barton was a reliable supplier of high-quality components. In the meantime, he encouraged Elisha Gray. The inventor was close to a breakthrough on a device that could translate the electrical impulses on a telegraph circuit into printed characters on a paper tape.

George Shawk, however, found he’d had enough of the pressures of owning a business. In the fall of 1869, he sold his interest in the partnership to Elisha Gray, and the new manufacturing business of Gray & Bartonwas formed. The firm’s principal products were electric burglar and fire alarms, Morse telegraph instruments, railroad safety signals, and Gray’s electric annunciator – a buzzer system used in hotels and offices. The company employed several workmen and a shop foreman named Charles Lewis.

Years later Mr. Lewis would recall his first impressions of Enos Barton: “He bore all of the elements of a regular telegraph operator and did not, in the beginning, impress any of us as being very smart. He was tall and slim, and to say the least was very plainly clad. I recall that he wore a very much out-of-date Scotch cap, at which all of the fellows laughed. He had a fine sense of humor, although it was quiet and undemonstrative.”

“We had in our employ a man by the name of Farrar, who had charge of the fire alarm installation and annunciator repair work. One day he had occasion to go into Mr. Barton’s office and went in smoking a cigar. Mr. Barton was sitting at his desk eating an apple.”

“Mr. Barton told Mr. Farrar he did not consider it a very dignified thing for a man to come into another’s office smoking a cigar. Mr. Farrar replied that he did not think it was a very dignified thing for a man in Mr. Barton’s position to sit at his desk munching an apple. Mr. Barton laughed, said the joke was on him, and threw his apple away. Mr. Farrar kept his cigar.”

Barton’s comfortable way with the people he worked with would characterize his entire career.

Read Part 2 of the Enos Barton series here.

This article was republished from the Winter 1994 Graybar Outlook magazine.