Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS



American Telephone and Telegraph


American Telephone and Telegraph Company (or AT&T) began as Bell Telephone in 1877.  Bell Telephone was founded by Alexander Graham Bell a year after he'd invented the telephone. That year the company set up the first private phone line: between Boston and Somerville, Massachusetts. 

Slowly, the number of phone users began to grow, as phone lines began to connect more and more cities.  In 1879, everyone was assigned phone numbers to make it easier for the operators -- the company worried that customers might take offense at being reduced to a "number," but the transition went smoothly.  On June 17, 1914, AT&T (Bell Telephone had been renamed AT&T in 1885) raised the last telephone pole of the phone line that connected San Francisco to New York, and thus the first transcontinental phone line was complete.  The phone lines continued to improve throughout the century.  In the late 1940s, scientists at AT&T had invented the transistor and within a few years these were inserted into the phone system making it quicker and more efficient. 

In the 1880s, the company had set up an agreement with Western Electric that made Western Electric the sole manufacturer of telephone equipment.  In 1925, AT&T added another subdivision: Bell Laboratories, which focused on basic research to improve phone technology.  With control of phone service, phone manufacturing, and research, AT&T now had a solid monopoly. 

In the early 1900s, the public and the government began to watch the company for antitrust violations, and this dogged AT&T for the rest of the century. Over the years, AT&T was sometimes ordered to share its scientific findings, sell off stock of other companies it had acquired, and eventually, in 1984, to break up into one long distance company and a number of  local companies that handled regional calls.  AT&T kept Bell Labs and the long distance system, while the local companies all became separate entities.  Recently AT&T split up even further, deciding to focus exclusively on the phone system while a new research and development company called Lucent Technologies took over Bell Labs. 

-- AT&T 

 -- Lucent

Copyright 1999, ScienCentral, Inc, and The American Institute of Physics. No portion of this web site may be reproduced without written permission. All Rights Reserved.