Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins

The first overseas calls using direct distance dialing were made between North America and Europe in 1971. Once this technology became available, the convenience of making overseas calls led to more of them, which increased system usage and drove down the cost of making such calls.

Summary of Event

Direct dialing for local calls that pass through a single exchange became available in the 1920’s, but overseas toll calls continued to be handled manually by overseas operators until 1963. Once direct distance dialing technology was available for overseas telephone calls, those operators used the dial system until it became available to the general public in 1971. In fact, all toll calls required operator assistance until the 1950’s. By 1960, direct distance dialing was available to 54 percent of Bell Telephone customers. Telecommunications;direct distance dialing
Direct distance dialing
Telephone technology
[kw]Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins (1971)
[kw]Transoceanic Dialing Begins, Direct (1971)
[kw]Dialing Begins, Direct Transoceanic (1971)
Telecommunications;direct distance dialing
Direct distance dialing
Telephone technology
[g]North America;1971: Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins[00070]
[g]Europe;1971: Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins[00070]
[g]United States;1971: Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins[00070]
[c]Communications and media;1971: Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins[00070]
[c]Science and technology;1971: Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins[00070]
[c]Inventions;1971: Direct Transoceanic Dialing Begins[00070]
Strowger, Almon Brown

Until 1930, placing an overseas call was a time-consuming undertaking, requiring that the caller place a request with the overseas operator, then hang up to wait for the call to be put through. Once a circuit was available and a connection had been established, the operator would call back, ensure that both parties were on the line, then hang up. Over the years, as the number of available circuits increased, the amount of time required to make a connection decreased, and most calls could be placed while the caller remained on the line. The Bell Company showcased this improved service in a popular exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

Some direct toll dialing was available prior to World War II, but deployment of the technology was interrupted by the war, and it was not until 1951 that direct distance toll dialing began in the continental United States. Touch-tone dialing was introduced in 1963. By 1969, the entire telephone network of the United States was operating on automatic systems, with only a few, mostly rural, exchanges still using manual operators for toll calling.

Overseas telephone service took years to develop. While the first undersea telegraph cable had been laid and put into service in 1858, the first transatlantic telephone cable was not put into service until 1956, nearly one hundred years later. Part of the reason was the effort by American Telephone and Telegraph American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) to develop radiotelephony as a cost-effective alternative to cable for overseas calls. Eventually, radiotelephony was all but abandoned, as it proved to be unreliable. Transoceanic radio telephone conversations were sent via shortwave, which was susceptible to interference and noise resulting from constantly changing weather patterns. Also, shortwave had other disadvantages: Each conversation required two frequencies—one for the caller, the other for the receiver. This was a major problem because of the growing demand for access to the overseas telephone network. In order to provide enough circuit capacity, hundreds of shortwave frequencies would have to be used. Unlike cable, the electromagnetic spectrum over which shortwave is broadcast is finite, and demand for access to the shortwave band was increasing as more and more countries sought to establish their own shortwave services during the first half of the twentieth century.

One reason that direct overseas toll dialing took so long to develop, therefore, was the limited availability of circuits. The first transatlantic submarine telephone cable had only sixty-four voice circuits, which limited simultaneous calls to that number. If direct distance dialing had been available in 1956, chances are that demand would have continually outstripped supply, and telephone customers would have quickly become frustrated by busy signals. Overseas operators were able to circumvent that problem by taking requests, then calling back once the connection was made. In effect, overseas operators were hand holders, taking the bother out of standing in line for overseas circuit access. Soon after the first undersea telephone cable was placed in operation, another submarine cable with 128 circuits was deployed. During the 1960’s, several more cables added circuit capacity. By 1971, the year customers began overseas direct distance toll dialing, another cable was put in place with forty-two hundred voice circuits adding to those already in service.

Another telephone delivery system that first made its appearance in 1962 added to circuit capacity. Communication satellites were placed in orbit with increasing frequency during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The first was the famed AT&T satellite Telstar. Telstar 1 It received telephone calls from ground stations, amplified them, then relayed them back to ground stations on the opposite side of the ocean over the equivalent of six hundred voice circuits. Eventually, the number of satellite circuits numbered in the hundreds of thousands. As the number of circuits increased, cost per call decreased substantially, thus encouraging more growth in the volume of voice traffic. In the 1990’s, communications satellites made it possible for callers from the continental United States to place calls to any location in the world, even those areas of the world with poor telecommunication infrastructure. In fact, some countries established domestic telephone services using satellites as the primary means of distribution, as the laying of cable was too costly or geographically prohibitive.


Direct distance dialing offered convenience to telephone customers everywhere. In 1901, the inventor of the automatic dial telephone, Almon Brown Strowger, sought to eliminate the telephone operator from the connection process for security reasons, but users soon discovered another advantage. Direct dialing was faster, especially during times of peak usage. Still, the number of long-distance circuits was fairly small in relation to the number of circuits running through the central exchange in even the smallest communities. Until 1970, the number of overseas circuits was even smaller. Once direct distance dialing became available, the convenience of making overseas calls led to more of them, which increased system usage and drove down the cost of making an overseas call. In the years after the first direct toll calls were made, overseas voice traffic increased exponentially. Developing technology also made it possible for the technical quality of circuitry to be improved significantly, which proved to be a critical factor when demand for digital transmission began to grow in the 1970’s.

Most direct distance transoceanic dialing originated in the United States. More telephone calls are made within the New York City area than in all of England and France combined in any given year. Increasing globalization of industry and commerce had a positive impact on the volume of overseas calling, and improvements in technology expanded the capability of circuitry to transmit new forms of data that required high capacity and fast transmission speeds. With the advent of Internet technology in the 1990’s, vast amounts of information could be transmitted and accessed throughout the world via the World Wide Web, and electronic mail (e-mail) evolved from an alternative mode of communication to a dominant one. New telephone and computer technologies also permitted video conferencing. Telecommunications;direct distance dialing
Direct distance dialing
Telephone technology

Further Reading

  • Brooks, John. Telephone: The First Hundred Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Excellent corporate history of the Bell system includes many anecdotes and colorful stories about the early years of telephony, giving life and context to a highly technical description of the birth and development of one of the world’s most remarkable companies. Includes discussion of the evolution of transoceanic services offered by AT&T.
  • Danielian, N. R. AT&T: The Story of Industrial Conquest. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1974. A good look at some of the personalities involved in the development of the world’s largest telephone network. Provides a strong backdrop for gaining an understanding of how and why decisions were made regarding the adoption of technical innovations at AT&T through the years.
  • Fischer, Claude S. America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Analyzes the role the telephone played in the lives of average Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century. Well researched, with detailed appendixes.
  • Millman, S., ed. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Communications Sciences, 1925-1980. New York: AT&T Bell Laboratories, 1984. Discusses the various foundations of applied physics in communications technology, including television, radio, lightwave transmission, and digital communications. Index.
  • _______. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Physical Sciences, 1925-1980. New York: AT&T Bell Laboratories, 1983. Contains a good overview of the problems (and solutions) encountered in the construction of the first cables designed for transoceanic service. Discusses the theory of electronic switching and digital transmission. Index.
  • O’Neill, E. F., ed. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Transmission Technology, 1925-1975. Indianapolis: AT&T Bell Laboratories, 1985. This large volume contains a good discussion of the development of direct distance dialing by the Bell System and its deployment throughout the United States and eventually in its overseas operation.
  • Ress, Etta Schneider. Signals to Satellites in Today’s World. Mankato, Minn.: Creative Educational Society, 1965. Heavily illustrated volume provides a layperson’s overview of the evolution of communication technology up to the mid-1960’s. Includes a good discussion of the history of transoceanic cable from the middle of the nineteenth century to the deployment of the first telephone cable in 1956.

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