From 1915 to 2015: 100 Years of Long-Distance Phone Calls

Joel Goldstein - Thursday, May 28, 2015

The year 2015 marks the 100th year anniversary of the first transcontinental phone call which took place on January 25, 1915, between New York, Washington D.C., Jekyll Island, Ga, and San Francisco.

Up to that point many local phone exchanges existed throughout the US, but the technology to carry a phone call from coast to coast didn’t exist yet. In the early 1910’s Theodore Vail, the president of AT&T, took it upon himself to bring true connectivity across the United States from one end to the other.
It became known in the scientific community that AT&T will pay handsomely to anyone who can come up with a technological solution that’ll keep a voice intact over wires running thousands of miles.
The solution came through a man by the name of Dr. Lee de Forest. After showcasing his newly patented discovery AT&T bought the patent rights from him, and in the fall of 1913 AT&T started installing wooden poles, as many as 130,000, across the US, from New York to San Francisco. On June 17, 1914, the last pole was installed in Wendover, Utah.
For marketing reasons, the official ceremonies of the completed line was delayed until the next January to coincide with the opening of the Panama Pacific International Exposition and World's Fair which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and showcased San Francisco’s recovery from its devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.
In New York City was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, and on the other end in San Francisco was Thomas Watson, Bell’s one time assistant, surrounded by many onlookers and reporters. Two more people were taking part in the phone call – it was a four-way call. From Washington D.C. was President Woodrow Wilson, and from Jekyll Island, GA, was Theodore Vail, the President of AT&T, who because of a leg injury wasn’t able to make to New York, so he stayed in his posh club together with many of the richest people alive at that time. With him in the room was such personalities as William Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, Jr. Vail was also using a chrome finished telephone, although the other three phones were made of plastic.
On that day, January 25, 1915, at 4:00 pm, Bell placed the call. Around 1,500 workers were working across the US, along the line, ready to fix the wires should anything go wrong. But it wasn’t necessary. The call which lasted 23 minutes, and was mostly scripted by the phone company to promote their service, went on without a hitch. After Bell and Watson exchanged some pleasantries, the president chimed in from Washington DC, with a message of encouragement.
AT&T’s long distance service, connecting people from coast to coast, officially began commercial service that evening at 9:00 pm. It was expensive. A three minute phone call was priced at $20.70, which would translate in today’s money to around $500.
Still, it was a big day in the history of the telephone.
Hundred years later and humankind has progressed by leaps in bounds. What was unthinkable then is now boring. In your pocket, a device weighing a mere few ounces, can make phone calls to almost any place on earth, and for pennies.
One can only hope to see what the next 100 years will bring.
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