First Transcontinental Telephone Call Is Made Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Augustus Watson, inventors of the telephone, officially opened long-distance telephone service coast to coast across the United States.

Summary of Event

It would be difficult to dispute the assertion that the telephone is the single most important invention to come out of the nineteenth century. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Augustus Watson opened a new era in communications with their talking machine, making it possible for people to converse over long distances instantaneously for the first time. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) American Telephone and Telegraph continued to refine and upgrade telephone facilities, introducing such innovations as automatic dialing and long-distance service. Communications;telephone Telephone industry;long-distance service[long distance service] [kw]First Transcontinental Telephone Call Is Made (Jan. 25, 1915) [kw]Transcontinental Telephone Call Is Made, First (Jan. 25, 1915) [kw]Telephone Call Is Made, First Transcontinental (Jan. 25, 1915) Communications;telephone Telephone industry;long-distance service[long distance service] [g]United States;Jan. 25, 1915: First Transcontinental Telephone Call Is Made[03710] [c]Science and technology;Jan. 25, 1915: First Transcontinental Telephone Call Is Made[03710] [c]Inventions;Jan. 25, 1915: First Transcontinental Telephone Call Is Made[03710] [c]Communications and media;Jan. 25, 1915: First Transcontinental Telephone Call Is Made[03710] Bell, Alexander Graham Watson, Thomas Augustus De Forest, Lee

Alexander Graham Bell.

(Library of Congress)

One of the greatest challenges faced by AT&T engineers was to develop a way to maintain signal quality over long distances. Telephone wires were susceptible to interference from electrical storms and other naturally occurring phenomena, and electrical resistance and radiation caused a fairly rapid drop-off in signal strength, so that a long-distance telephone conversation was often barely audible and even more often unintelligible.

By 1900, AT&T engineers had discovered that they could improve signal strength somewhat by wrapping the main wire conductor with other, thinner wires, called loading coils, at prescribed intervals along the length of the cable. Using this procedure, AT&T extended long-distance service from New York to Denver, Colorado, then considered the farthest point accessible with acceptable and reliable quality. Still, the result was less than satisfactory, as the quality of the signal was unreliable. The company recognized a need for some form of amplification of the signal along the line to improve its quality.

A breakthrough came in 1906 when a young scientist, Lee de Forest, invented the audion Audions tube, a device capable of sending and, for the first time, amplifying radio waves. AT&T scientists immediately recognized the potential of the new device for improving long-distance telephone circuitry and began building repeaters, or amplifiers, to be placed strategically along the long-distance wire network.

Work progressed so quickly that by 1909, officials at AT&T were predicting that the first transcontinental long-distance service, between New York and San Francisco, was imminent. In that year, company president Theodore Newton Vail Vail, Theodore Newton went so far as to promise organizers of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Panama-Pacific International Exposition[Panama Pacific International Exposition] scheduled to open in San Francisco in 1914, that coast-to-coast telephone service would be available by that date and that AT&T would offer a demonstration at the exposition. Making such a promise was risky, because technical problems associated with sending a telephone signal over a wire almost 2,983 miles (4,800 kilometers) long had not been solved yet. De Forest’s audion was still a crude device, less capable of meeting the needs of long-distance amplification of telephone signals in the practical sense than in the theoretical sense. Nevertheless, progress was being made.

Two more breakthroughs came in 1912, when de Forest improved on his original concept and a Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer, Harold D. Arnold, Arnold, Harold D. improved on de Forest’s concept. AT&T bought the rights to de Forest’s vacuum tube patents in 1913 and completed construction of the New York-to-San Francisco circuit, using both loading coils and repeaters. The last connection was made at the Utah-Nevada border on June 17, 1914.

The network was tested successfully on June 29, 1914, but the official demonstration of it was postponed until January 25, 1915, to accommodate the Panama-Pacific Exposition, which also had been postponed. On that date, a circuit was established between Jekyll Island, Georgia, where Theodore Vail was recuperating from an illness, and New York City, where Alexander Graham Bell was standing by to talk to his former associate, Watson, in San Francisco. Once everything was in place, Bell spoke into the telephone. The following conversation took place. Bell: “Hoy! Hoy! Mr. Watson? Are you there? Do you hear me?” Watson: “Yes, Dr. Bell, I hear you perfectly. Do you hear me well?” Bell: “Yes, your voice is perfectly distinct. It is as clear as if you were here in New York.”

The first transcontinental telephone conversation over wire was followed quickly by another that was transmitted by radio. Although AT&T was slow to recognize the potential of radio wave amplification for “wireless” transmission of telephone conversations, by 1909 the company had made a significant commitment to research in radiotelephony. Radiotelephony On April 4, 1915, AT&T technicians transmitted a wireless signal from Montauk Point on Long Island to Wilmington, Delaware, a distance of approximately 199 air miles (320 air kilometers). Shortly thereafter, a similar test was conducted between New York and Brunswick, Georgia, via a relay station at Montauk Point. Total distance of the transmission was more than 994 miles (1,600 kilometers). Finally, in September, 1915, Vail placed a successful transcontinental radiotelephone call from his office in New York to Bell Laboratories engineering chief John J. Carty in San Francisco. The first transcontinental call of its kind, it represented the final event in the conquest of the continental United States by the builders of the nationwide telephone network.

Only a month later, the first telephone transmission across the Atlantic Ocean was accomplished by radio from Arlington, Virginia, to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The signal was detectable, but the quality was poor. It would be ten years before true transatlantic radiotelephone service would begin.

AT&T recognized that it could increase the total volume of telephone calls simply by increasing the number of destinations reachable from any one telephone station on the system through the creation of a nationwide long-distance network. As the network expanded, each subscriber would have more reason to use the telephone more often, resulting in enhanced revenue for the company. The strategy thus became one of tying local and regional networks together into one great system.

Several factors were involved in the implementation of this strategy. In the early days of long-distance telephony, AT&T refused to grant many independent telephone companies access to its long-distance network, in some cases forcing those operators to deploy their own long-distance lines from city to city. Eventually, company officials began to recognize the possibility that their own refusal to grant long-distance access to competing companies might encourage serious long-distance competition. The company reversed itself and offered to lease long-distance lines to all telephone companies, including the independents. The result was an immediate upsurge in the volume of calls and a stronger relationship between AT&T and the independent companies.

The political climate of the time also encouraged the company to rethink its policies. Growing antitrust sentiment included calls in Congress for the breakup of the near monopoly, and company officials sought a way to appease critics who said that AT&T was growing too big, too fast. Some said the issue was not the amount of the growth but the methods used to accomplish it. In the early years of the twentieth century, AT&T gained a reputation for ruthlessness in the acquisition of independent telephone companies. During that period, the company was owned primarily by the famous financier J. P. Morgan, who, critics said, often forced independent telephone companies to sell out to AT&T at low prices by cutting off their financing.

Eventually, Congress became alarmed at the possibility that nationwide telephone service might soon be controlled by a monopoly capable of setting its own rates without concern for the public welfare. The decision by AT&T to make its long-distance facilities available to independent telephone companies saved it from a government-mandated restructuring that might have been similar in impact to the 1982 consent decree that eventually broke up AT&T. The decision to open the long-distance network to all comers proved to be a boon to both the company and all telephone subscribers.

Significance

Just as the railroads had interconnected centers of commerce, industry, and agriculture all across the continental United States in the nineteenth century, the telephone promised to bring a new kind of interconnection to the country in the twentieth century: instantaneous voice communication. During the first quarter century after the invention of the telephone and during its subsequent commercialization, the emphasis by telephone companies was to set up central-office switches that would provide interconnection among subscribers within fairly limited geographic areas. Large cities were wired quickly, and by the beginning of the twentieth century most were served by telephone switches that could accommodate thousands of subscribers.

Long-distance services, through interconnections among central offices, developed less quickly and almost exclusively under the aegis of AT&T. Many independent local telephone companies were operating, but few provided long-distance service to subscribers. Over time, as telephone service providers and subscribers became increasingly sophisticated in the use of telephone technology, demand for long-distance service increased. Many independent companies sought access to AT&T long-distance lines to provide that service but were rebuffed by the company. At the same time, AT&T was gaining a reputation as a ruthless competitor, intent on taking over independent telephone companies by pressuring their bankers to squeeze them financially, then buying them out at bargain-basement prices.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the U.S. government began to question whether AT&T was becoming an undesirable monopoly that should be regulated. The company, feeling threatened, agreed to open its long-distance network to independent companies, in part to protect itself from antitrust litigation. Ironically, the company soon learned that providing long-distance network access to outside companies was good business, as it resulted in significantly increased revenues brought on by the increase in the volume of long-distance traffic.

Still, long distance was fairly regional in 1910. Major cities in the East and the Midwest were interconnected, but loading coil and repeater amplification technology was not yet refined. Also, some regions were still isolated from one another by the lack of workable long-distance circuitry. Once the issue of access was solved, AT&T engineers began to seek aggressive ways to amplify telephone signals so that they could be transmitted over great distances. With the invention by de Forest of the audion tube and advances in the conductivity of wire, it was merely a matter of time before the first transcontinental telephone conversation would occur in 1915.

This event became a milestone in the evolution of telephony for two reasons: First, it was a practical demonstration of the almost limitless application of this innovative technology. Second, for the first time in its brief history, the telephone network took on a national character. It was clear that large central-office networks, even in big cities such as New York, Chicago, and Baltimore, were but relatively small parts of a much larger, universally accessible communication network that spanned a continent. The next step would be to look abroad, to Europe and beyond, as instantaneous communication became a reality around the world. Communications;telephone Telephone industry;long-distance service[long distance service]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, John. Telephone: The First Hundred Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. An excellent corporate history of the AT&T system. Includes many anecdotes and colorful stories about the early years of telephony, giving life and context to what could otherwise be described as a highly technical description of the birth and development of one of the world’s most remarkable companies. Includes illustrations and a partial transcript of the conversation between Bell and Watson during their transcontinental telephone call.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Casson, Herbert. The History of the Telephone. 1913. Reprint. Austin, Tex.: 1st World Library, 2004. A rare glimpse into the early days of telephony as described by many of the innovators who participated in the development of the nationwide telephone network.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Danielian, Noorbar R. AT&T: The Story of Industrial Conquest. 1939. 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 understanding how and why decisions were made regarding the adoption of technical innovations at AT&T through the years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fagen, M. D., ed. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: The Early Years (1875-1925). New York: Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1975. A large work prepared by members of the technical staff at the Bell Telephone Laboratories as part of a multivolume set tracing the corporate and technical history of the company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMaster, Susan E. The Telecommunications Industry. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. A concise history of the development of telephony and the growth of telecommunications technology into a billion-dollar industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhodes, Frederick Leland. Beginnings of Telephony. 1929. Reprint. New York: Ayer, 1974. Describes many of the key developments in the evolution of the telephone and related technology, much of it gleaned from interviews with individuals who were there at the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society: A History—From the Telegraph to the Internet. New York: Routledge, 1998. Examines the history of communication technologies from the printing press to the Internet. Emphasizes the influences of social necessity and suppression of potential societal disruption in the development of new media and discusses the roles played by particular individuals in the introduction of new technologies. Includes references and index.

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