The Film & More
David McCullough, Series Host:
Good evening and welcome to The American
Experience. I'm David McCullough.
We like to think -- we boast, we complain -- that we live in a time of
incredible technological change. And we do.
But consider what happened in that expansive American era of the late
nineteenth century, in the years after the Civil War. All at once, in a
great inventive surge came the light bulb, the refrigerator, electric street
cars, barbed wire, the typewriter, the elevator, skyscrapers, the horseless
carriage -- all in about thirty-five years, plus one other extremely important
contribution, that would change our whole way of talking to each other, the
telephone, which is our story tonight.
Two young men in their twenties working in Boston thought they were on to
something. Neither Alexander Graham Bell nor his assistant, Thomas Watson, was
a trained scientist or a practical electrician. But Bell, a Scottish
immigrant, knew a great deal about the phenomena of sound. Both were
exceptionally resourceful and bright and as important as anything was the
spirit of the times, the whole climate of invention in which they worked, one
new idea coming after another on all sides and nearly every good idea leading
to another. It was an exhilarating time to have been in the thick of it. The
telephone itself would inspire the phonograph, refine the radio, and pave the
way to talking pictures. The world was not to be the same again. One small
contrivance considered at first to be a toy became almost overnight universally
indispensable. The Telephone.
Narrator: Philadelphia, 1876. America turned one hundred and the grand
Centennial Exposition was its birthday party. The Liberty Bell welcomed
visitors, and the American public got its first glimpse of a statue destined
for New York Harbor. A Pittsburgh pickle merchant introduced a tomato sauce
that was 29% sugar, and a local pharmacist named Charles Hires took a friend's
advice and changed the name of his new "herb tea." A huge Corliss steam
engine powered the exhibits, which were lit by electric lights -- something
most people hadn't seen.
The Centennial boasted a wealth of extraordinary exhibits, but no one
anticipated the most extraordinary of them all.
STILLS: Exterior Centennial Main Building, Liberty Bell on railroad
car, Statue of Liberty Arm, Heinz Catsup Bottle, Hires Rootbeer ad, Corliss
steam engine, and Interior Centennial Main Building.
Narrator: It was a device called the "Harmonic Telegraph," and would
forever revolutionize the way the world communicates. Its name would have to
be changed, of course; it would become the more comfortable "telephone," from
the Greek, meaning "far speaking."
It was exhibited by a 29-year-old teacher from Boston who'd never invented
anything before. Three months earlier he had been issued a patent for his
device. A week later, he actually made it work. This inventive schoolteacher
was Alexander Graham Bell. He was the third generation of Bells to center his
life on the phenomenon of sound, with a passionate interest in the education of
Early on June 18, 1876, the tired, overworked Bell was convinced by his pupil
-- and wife-to-be -- to take the train to the Philadelphia Centennial.
STILLS: Diagram of an early telephone from Bell's notes, Telephone
Ad, Bell's patent drawing fig. 7, Bell portrait, and Mabel Bell
Robert Bruce, Bell Biographer: Well, as a matter of fact, he didn't
want to go. He had a lot of exams to correct -- he was teaching at Boston
University at the time. But his fiancé, Mabel Hubbard, who was a very
perceptive woman, could see the importance of getting this new device before
the public. She pulled out all the stops and persuaded him to go down there.
June 18th, 1876
Dear Mabel: There is no turning back now! [I] shall be in Philadelphia
tonight! I must confess, however, I don't see what good I can accomplish
Narrator: Hidden in a dark corner of a small upstairs gallery, Bell
readied his invention for the judges. The group was presided over by the
Centennial's most distinguished visitor -- Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil. The
Emperor held the peculiar "device" to his ear while the inventor, 500 feet
away, recited one of Hamlet's soliloquies into the "magneto" telephone.
Robert Bruce: When the Emperor tried it, he was galvanized, he was
startled. He claimed, "I hear, I hear!"
Barney Finn, Curator, Smithsonian Institution: This was a rather
startling thing, after all: to be able to talk into one thing, and then
hundreds of feet away, you hear something at the receiver. Scientists had
believed that this was basically impossible -- that the amount of energy that
you get from the voice, that you put into this device, would not be sufficient
to carry to the other end, and then get reproduced so you could hear it
Narrator: The astounded judges dropped all pretense at decorum, jostling
eagerly to be next in line to hear Bell's voice, cheering with delight after
each successful test. The excited scientists made so much fuss, exposition
police thought the building caught fire.
STILLS: Centennial Main building interior, Emperor Dom Pedro,
Drawing of Bell exhibiting his phone, and General Picture of Interior.
Narrator: Ironically, on the same day as Bell's triumph in Philadelphia,
a grimmer history was being made on a Montana hillside. General George
Armstrong Custer had been surrounded by an army of Sioux warriors. The country
had a hunger for news of Custer's celebrated campaigns, but informing the
nation of his defeat from this remote territory was slow and complex.
It was two days before a scout could be sent on horseback to carry the dispatch
from the battlefield to Stillwater, Montana, 300 miles to the south. There a
newspaperman sent a rider to Salt Lake City, the closest link to the telegraph
lines of Western Union. Hours later in New York City, the 300-word dispatch
was transcribed in longhand and taken on foot to The New York Times. Unable
to contact Montana directly, the cautious Times editors waited for
confirmation. Finally, on July 7th -- twelve days after Custer's defeat --
Americans first learned the "news."
STILLS: Custer's last stand, Bluff on the big horn, Salt lake city
Telegraph office ext., Telegraph office int., NY Telegraph office int., Custer
newspaper headline, and Litho of people reading papers.
Narrator: Some of those witnessing the telephone in operation at the
Centennial may have sensed how the odd machine would bring revolutionary
changes to everyday life, but the idea of instant two-way communication from
coast-to-coast had not yet entered anyone's mind. Unlike a telegraph, a
telephone would directly link people cheaply and instantly. And no one had a
telegraph at home. Some, however, found it impossible to take the "device"
VO: Of what use is such an invention? Well there may be
occasions of state when it is necessary for officials who are far apart to talk
with each other. [...] Or some lover may wish to pop the question directly
into the ear of a lady and hear for himself her reply, though miles away. It
is not for us to guess how courtships will be carried on in the twentieth
The New York World, 1876
STILLS: Man and woman on phone, Woman on phone, Man holding
two receivers to his ears, people talking on phone, detail of center man,
detail of three men from Yonkers, Man on balcony, Woman on balcony, and Man and
woman on balcony with a phone wire between them.
It had all begun in Boston, 2 years before the Centennial,
when Alexander Graham Bell first met Thomas Watson at the Williams' Electrical
Susan Cheever, Author, Watson descendant: There was this great machine
shop in Boston where everybody came, and Thomas Edison came, and Moses Farmer,
and all these inventors -- and inventors then were kind of like rock stars. I
mean, it was when everybody thought that... it was the Age of Enlightenment, is
what it was. Everybody thought there was reason for everything, and that we
could figure it out, and that our problems were at an end. And Williams'
Machine Shop was this place where a lot of inventors came to work on these
devices that were going to solve all human ills.
Robert Bruce: Bell, who could be irrepressibly enthusiastic, was in the
shop and wanted something done in a hurry, and without going through channels,
through Williams and all that, he just went out and grabbed one of the young
men working there, who turned out to be Thomas Watson -- a remarkable find,
because Watson was a man of great talent.
Susan Cheever: And Bell was incredibly clumsy. I mean, he could not
pick something up without dropping it. He could not pick up a hammer without
hitting his thumb with it, and Watson was the opposite, and they were a perfect
Narrator: Watson was a young machinist who had been born above a
stable. Over dinner at Bell's boarding house, he earnestly tried to copy
Bell's every move with a tool he had never seen before -- a dinner fork. Later
Watson watched, stunned, as Bell played the piano in the parlor.
Susan Cheever: Bell was the gentleman, Bell had gone to school,
Bell came from a... from a good family, you know, he wore a suit, and Watson
was the rogue, he didn't have any education, he swore a lot. So Bell kind of
civilized Watson, and Watson sort of roughed up Bell.
Narrator: Initially, the telephone that was seen at the Centennial was
not Bell's goal. He wanted to develop a machine called the Harmonic Telegraph.
It would send a number of telegraph messages at the same time, each at its own
pitch. He believed such an invention would make him rich. It wasn't long
before his intense interest in sound began to lure him away from telegraphy to
wonder about something else.
Gil Grosvenor, Chairman, National Geographic Society, Bell descendant:
Bell came from a family dedicated to teaching the deaf, and it had a
profound influence on him throughout his life -- and may really have helped him
invent the telephone, because he had an interest in the inner workings of the
ear; he understood it medically, and I think that that influenced his
Narrator: Soon, Bell described a wonderful -- but perhaps impractical
-- idea to Watson:
VO: If I could make a current of electricity vary [...] precisely as
the air varies in density during the production of a sound, I should be able to
transmit speech telegraphically.
VO: He then sketched for me an instrument that he thought would be
able to do it, but it was too costly and the chances of its working too
uncertain to impress his financial backers... who were insisting that the
wisest thing for Bell to do was to perfect the multiple telegraph. Then he
would have money and leisure enough to build air castles like the
Susan Cheever: What kept them going I think was curiosity, which
they both had in abundance, and passion, and... and fun. But also they got a
little further every day. One afternoon, Watson was fooling around with the
telegraph and Bell was in the other room, and Watson screwed down one of the
vibrating reeds too tight, and made an electrical connection, which he hadn't
intended to do. And in the other room, Bell heard this "ping," the famous
"ping." And Bell, because he understood the nature of sound, both because he
was a scientist, and because he had worked with the deaf Bell knew that sound
had been carried through the wires.
Narrator: Suddenly, Bell's idea was no longer "impractical." Watson
quickly constructed a new device, placing a lamb skin diaphragm opposite a
magnet in a transmitter, running a connecting wire through sulfuric acid,
causing the receiving membrane to vibrate. They tested this primitive system
the very next night.
STILLS: Boston street, Charles William's Electrical Shop ext., Bell
portrait, Watson portrait, Bell portrait, Harmonic Telephone diagram, Harp
telephone diagram, Bell and class of deaf children, Bell's notebook drawing of
a face, Bell portrait, Drawing of Bell's phone, Bell's workshop, Bell
portrait, Notes and diagrams, Watson portrait, notebook diagrams and notes, and
STOCK("Mr. Bell"): Bell speaks into the telephone; Watson hears
Susan Cheever: They thought they had a machine that would really work,
so they set it up and Bell went into the next room, and Watson could hear him.
The way I imagine is, it sounded like "raow-raow-raow," but it was a voice, I
mean, he couldn't hear him very well, but he could hear his voice.
STOCK ("Telephone Memories"):
I could recognize the sound of Bell's voice and could almost
understand some of his words. But my voice was not strong enough then to let
him hear a sound. He was disappointed...
Robert Bruce: Then he tried another arrangement, and on that try came
the famous first complete, intelligible sentence transmitted by telephone.
STOCK ("Telephone Memories"):
On the evening of March 10th, 1876, Bell sat in front of the new
transmitter and I went down the hall...
What actually my Grandpa Watson is the most famous for --
and this is a story all American school children have been told -- is that they
were there working on the telephone one afternoon, and Alexander Graham Bell
spilled battery acid on his hand, which is easy to believe, because he was
STOCK ("Mr. Bell"): Bell spills battery acid and cries out:BELL
Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!
Watson hears and runs into the next room.
He yelled out, involuntarily, "Watson, come here, I want
you," or "Come here, I need you." In different versions he says different
things, but the point is, he wasn't even trying to send voice through the
STOCK. ("Mr. Bell"):
I recognized your voice! You said, "Mr. Watson..."
BELL (joins in)
"...come here, I want you."
They laugh heartily.
And of course they forget all about the battery acid
when they realize that they've invented the telephone. In my
great-grandfather's autobiography, this story is told really very, very well.
My great-grandfather, when he sat down to write this book, really took a lot of
care in telling this story, so that it was the dramatic moment that should have
been attendant on the invention of a great thing. And both Bell and Watson
kept scrupulous logs on which they said everything that had happened, on every
day, and on the day when they had heard voice through the wire, there was
nothing about battery acid, there was nothing about an accident, there was
nothing about a cry for help.
Robert Bruce: If you believe Bell said, "Come here, Mr. Watson, I want
to see you," the acid spilling story doesn't make much sense. I know if I
spilled acid on my pants, I'd say something memorable but it wouldn't
be that. I wouldn't ask for a consultation.
Susan Cheever: I began to believe that when he sat down to write his
autobiography -- many years after the telephone had been invented -- that he
kind of gave the story the dramatic flare that it required, you know? But
instead of writing exactly what did happen, he kind of allowed himself
to write what should have happened. I think it's great that he didn't
just invent the telephone, he invented the story of the telephone.
STILLS: Page from Watson "come here I want you," and Watson
TALK IS NOT CHEAP
In the summer of 1876, Bell and Watson were convinced the
telephone could make money; they just didn't know how. To others, however, the
invention was more amusement than breakthrough, more toy than triumph.
Robert Bruce: Before the telephone was really a paying proposition,
they had to find ways of bringing in money. And they had some success at first
with the novelty aspect of the telephone. They gave public demonstrations of
it. Perhaps the most notable was from Salem to Boston, about 20-some miles
VO:Ladies and gentlemen: It gives me great pleasure to be able
to address you this evening, although I am in Boston, and you are in
STILLS: Bell and Watson in lab., ad for exhibition in church, Boston
street, and Salem to Boston trial.
Susan Cheever: They made it into a sort of dog and pony show. Mr.
Watson and Mr. Bell and their fabulous telephone.
STOCK.("Mr. Bell"): Alexander Graham Bell stands on stage with one
telephone; Thomas Watson stands in a small room with another.
Susan Cheever: Bell would get on stage with the telephone. Watson
would go to a location which would be verified by someone in the audience as
being far away, because everybody assumed that it was a trick.
STOCK ("Mr. Bell"): Watson speaks into his telephone:WATSON
I am the invisible Tom Watson! Everybody hears me! Nobody
The audience reacts with delight upon hearing Watson's voice coming
through Bell's telephone.
Watson would talk to Bell, and then he would
Ahoy! Ahoy, Mr. Watson! Will you oblige us with a
Watson launches into an off-key rendition of "Do Not Trust
Him Gentle Lady."
And Watson, although he was a many-talented man, wasn't
a great singer. But he loved to sing, and the audience just went nuts. Here
was this guy, you know five blocks away or, a town away sometimes, and they
could hear him singing out of this machine. Often he had to go through his
entire repertory two or three times to satisfy the audience. So, it was a
STOCK("Mr. Bell"): The audience breaks into applause as Watson
concludes; Bell takes a bow.
Narrator: With the success of the public demonstrations, the telephone
began its journey from novelty to necessity. Bell's first telephone
installation was for Watson's employer, Charles Williams, installed gratis.
They connected a "dedicated" line between his electrical shop and his home a
few miles away, erecting the first telephone pole in the process. Only one
person could speak at a time, but Williams became the first man to phone his
wife to let her know he was on his way home. News of the Williams line stirred
public interest. E.T. Holmes, who had just opened a burglar alarm company,
ordered a dozen of the devices for his central office. Within a year of the
Centennial exhibition, Bell had installed 230 instruments, and he and his
partners established the Bell Telephone Company. The device was slowly
catching on, but Bell and his backers knew they had only 17 years to exploit
his original patent. So they sought quick profits and charged exorbitant
rates, renting their magical instrument primarily as a tool of business and
Claude Fischer, Scholar: When a town got a telephone system, usually
the first to sign up would be the doctors, doctor or doctors in the town, and
the pharmacist. Often the call from the doctor to the pharmacy was one of the
most important calls that could be made.
Narrator: The technology did not exist for timing calls, so the Bell
Company charged a flat monthly rate. Since the public was fascinated with the
telephone, pharmacies let their customers use the phone for free. It wasn't
long before the telephone became synonymous with the corner drugstore.
STILLS: Ad. "Time and dist. overcome," Charles Williams house ext.,
Portrait of Williams, ET Holmes building, Bell co. Stock certificate, Diagram
from Bell's notes and Homeopathic drug store ext.
Narrator: In Hartford, Connecticut, an idiosyncratic writer became one
of the first Americans to get a telephone.
Robert Bruce: Mark Twain was very much into the latest technology.
Tom Sawyer was the first novel written on the typewriter. And so of
course Twain picked up on the telephone.
John Vincent Boyer, Mark Twain House: Twain was one of the first to
have a telephone in a private home, and its first direct line was to the
Hartford Courant. And he had an immediate attraction to it, but also a
profound repulsion. It was a wonderful love-hate relationship with this new
VO: The human voice carries entirely too far as it is. Here
we have been hollering 'Shut up' to our neighbors for centuries and now you
fellows come along and seek to complicate matters...
Narrator: Despite Twain's crankiness, the telephone began to be
marketed as a valuable addition to the homes of those wealthy enough to afford
it. In New Haven, a flyer advertised: "Your wife may order your dinner, a
hack, or your family physician without leaving the house." In 1879, President
Rutherford B. Hayes installed the first White House phone. He deemed it "one
of the greatest events since creation." His first call was to Bell, 13 miles
away. His first words: "Please speak more slowly." Bell, now a man with
prospects, proposed to his sweetheart, Mabel Hubbard, and offered his 30% share
of the company as a wedding gift. Life looked good for the young inventor.
STILLS: Mark Twain portrait, Mark Twain portrait, Woman ordering
groceries, Ext. White House, Hayes portrait, Bell and wife, Company stock
certificate, and Bell standing alone.
DAVID VS. GOLIATH
VO: The public was ready for the telephone long before we were ready
for the public.
Orders for phones began to pour in. Bell and his backers
conceived a plan to keep a firm hold on their invention: they would only lease
phones, never sell them. While this gave Bell the control he desired, it
didn't provide his tiny company with the huge sums they needed to manufacture
the instruments that had already been ordered. So Bell and his backers decided
to sell the whole company.
Bell packed his patent in a briefcase and went to see if the largest
corporation in America was interested. With its substantial network of
telegraph wires, Western Union could make widespread phone service a reality
David was truly coming to negotiate with Goliath. The asking price was
$100,000. Western Union's myopic president, William Orton, turned them down
Louis Galambos, Historian: After the fact it looks unbelievably stupid.
You just can't believe... it may be... it's often given as one of the worst
business decisions in the history of the United States. Here he had in hand
the biggest corporation in America -- why should they take the risk? They
didn't think the telephone would make it.
Narrator: Having made the decision, Western Union quickly came to
regret it, and formed its own rival company. They hired inventors Thomas
Edison and Elisha Gray to develop a new phone system. Suddenly Bell and
Edison, legendary inventors, were on opposing sides in a battle to wire
America. The two rivals even differed on the proper way to answer the phone:
Bell thought "Hoy, hoy" best, while Edison championed "Hello". The competition
between the two companies sparked innovation: Western Union opened the first
crude switchboard in New Haven, Connecticut in early 1878. Three weeks later
they published the world's first telephone directory. It was a single page of
fifty names -- no numbers were needed. With its huge customer base, and
endless resources, Western Union connected 30,000 phones in less than a year.
The Bell Company was furious that their rival's phone was virtually identical
to theirs, and they sued Western Union for patent infringement. Western Union
claimed fraud, citing their Elisha Gray -- who had filed an intent to patent
only three hours after Bell -- as the true inventor of the telephone.
Robert Bruce: The remarkable coincidence, as it seemed, of Elisha
Gray's caveat being entered on the same day that Bell's patent application was,
has raised a debate that still continues, and I think altogether unnecessarily.
Because Gray had never mentioned to anybody between the date he claimed he had
thought of it and the date of the caveat -- or made any record of it. However,
Western Union took him up and pushed the claim, and bit by bit Gray began to
accept the Western Union theory that he really was the inventor, and that
somehow or other he had been robbed.
Narrator: In the courtroom, Bell was an ideal witness: literate, poised
Louis Galambos: Well, he brought believability. He was a person who
was serious about what he did, who had clearly done it all himself.
Susan Cheever: In fact, Bell's real contribution may not have been the
telephone but the telephone patent, because he wrote such a good patent that
nobody could challenge it.
Narrator: In the face of Bell's incontrovertible evidence, Western
Union accepted its fate, and late in 1879 gave up the patent suit. Overnight,
Bell Telephone stock rose from $300 to $1000 a share.
STILLS: San Fran street, phone order from, Bell portrait, Western
Union office, William Orton portrait, Elisha Gray portrait, Tom Edison
portrait, table top switchboard, New haven phone directory, man standing on
phone pole, Edison's phone improvement patent, Elisha Gray portrait, Newspaper
article, Gray's caveat, Newspaper article, Gray portrait, and Bell stock
Narrator: Throughout the 1880s, anyone who had ever tinkered with the
telephone decided to sue. Bell was forced to defend his patent in over 600
court battles. Worn out by constant courtroom appearances, Bell drifted away
from telephony to his family's retreat in Canada.
Gil Grosvenor: Once the telephone worked, once he proved his point, he
lost interest in it. It was a done thing. He just wanted to get on to other
Narrator: Bell was an enormously wealthy man when he gracefully
withdrew from the company that bore his name. He immersed himself in a world
of invention, designing fanciful flying machines and even dreaming of wireless
communication. At his Canadian retreat, after putting his two daughters to
bed, he would retire to a canoe to smoke a cigar and stare at the moon.
Meanwhile, with a patent that would shut everybody else out for another 13
years, the Bell Company had become a massive monopoly. Now they just had to
find a way to handle the ever-increasing number of calls that customers were
STILLS: Newspaper article, Bell in study, Bell's family portrait,
Tet. Kite, Tri-plane, Two men with photophone, Bell's patent, and Installing
By March of 1880 -- just four years after the Centennial
demonstration -- the newly organized American Bell Telephone Company was in
control of 60,000 American telephones. They were connected in every city with
a population over 10,000. Improvements in switchboard technology allowed
operators to handle not tens of calls, but hundreds. The first operators were
boys, who earned a reputation for being rude and abusive. The necessity of
running from one board to another made for chaos in the telephone exchanges.
Peg Chronister, Museum of Independent Telephony: I usually say, you
tell me what it was like when you were a boy, and you get 12 of them together,
what's going to happen? It happened. Pure bedlam. We had wrestling matches,
bean shooters, spit wads, rubber bands, running, yelling... oops, I'm afraid
even some cussing.
Venus Green, Scholar: You have to understand that the equipment now is
really, really in its primitive state. There's all kinds of crackling, a lot
of noise on the telephone system at this time, so, for two people to actually
conduct a conversation, you needed an operator to transmit in a friendly way
and make it less worrisome to the subscriber, less annoying. And the young boy
operators were not temperamentally suited for this.
Narrator: The young men were soon replaced by young women, who did not
swear or trade insults with frustrated customers, and were said to be faster
than the men they replaced. American women, until then largely consigned to
the schoolhouse and home, took over the day-to-day management of the
Judith Moyer, Scholar: Certainly there's nothing about the telephone as
a technology that says a woman must work at the switchboard and does a better
job than a man. But in the 19th century women were expected to be more docile,
more amenable to rules. Men or boys, if they were put under these extreme
rules that women had to work under as operators, and didn't like it, they could
vote with their feet and leave and go find another job that paid as well or
better. Whereas women having fewer options were more constrained, more likely
to stay in that job and take it and work for less.
Narrator: These women worked twelve-hour shifts, processing hundreds of
calls each hour, working the board with both hands at once. They were expected
to follow a strict code of dress and behavior; the company actually kept a
"deportment card" to record transgressions.
Marie McGrath, Former Operator: Very, very strict at the board. No
talking. Don't dare look around. If you moved your head you'd have
five supervisors at your position. Somebody would come along and say, "What do
VO: A high class service in an operating room is the fruit of good
discipline. The selection of girls for operators is the first important step.
Great care should be taken to know positively that they are of good character.
The training of the voice to become soft, low, melodious and to carry well is
the most difficult lesson an operator has to learn... Operators are to be
trained daily on certain phrases and are allowed to use no others in their
dealings with subscribers.
Marie McGrath: You could only use certain phrases: "Number please," and
"Thank you." The customer could say anything they wanted to you, and
you would say "Thank you." You're a stinker. "Thank you." You'd like
to... you'd say something to yourself, but you wouldn't dare... that's the time
they'd be observing on your line.
Narrator: The operator was not allowed to cross her legs. She was
forbidden to blow her nose or wipe her brow without permission. Those who
married were often discharged. Nevertheless, by 1910, New York Telephone alone
had over 6000 women working its switchboards.
Claude Fischer: It is said that if it hadn't been for some of the
technological breakthroughs that simplified switchboard operation, the demand
for operators would have gone up so rapidly that by the middle of the 20th
Century, virtually every young woman in the United States would have to be
employed as a telephone operator in order to run the system.
STILLS: Boy operator, Boy operators at switchboards, litho of boy
operators, boy alone at switchboard, boy alone at switchboard from back, Woman
operators, Women operators in a row, traffic operators seated at table, Woman
at switchboard alone, Woman at switchboard with one looking at camera, Woman
standing at board, backs of women at board in a row, Women at board with men
standing over them, operators school manual cover, Women being measured, Woman
in voice class, classroom with teacher at board, Women operators at board in a
row facing camera, lone woman sitting at board, Operator's rules, large board
with operators and women supervisors, and a group photo.
THE TELEPHONE TAKES OVER
: It is my heart-warming and world-embracing Christmas hope
and aspiration that all of us - the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the
admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage - may
eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and
bliss -- except the inventor of the telephone!
Now connected to his local switchboard, and listed in the
tiny Hartford directory under "Samuel Clemens," Mark Twain suffered from what
would come to be known across America as "telephone troubles." The transmitter
in his phone was too weak to overcome the static that exploded on the line.
Twain, like the rest of his countrymen, had to yell to be heard on the phone.
John Vincent Boyer: Twain was generally a man with a pretty short fuse.
And when he engaged this new technology, which had a lot of flaws, it wouldn't
keep him from getting upset. In fact, he once said that he used the telephone
to practice cursing.
Narrator: The complaints and frustrations of individuals like Twain
helped shape the evolving and still crude telephone system.
STILLS: Mark Twain lighting cigar, Hartford Directory, Clemens
listing, Twain portrait, and Cartoon of two men yelling over phone.
STOCK: Fulton Fish Market and a Mass. street scene.
Narrator: In New York City, Fulton Fish Market vendors demanded that
Bell open phone lines at 5 A.M. instead of 8. They also protested the 6 P.M.
closing, beginning the movement to 24-hour service. A doctor in Lowell,
Massachusetts, who had become totally dependent on the telephone, began to
worry what would happen to phone service as a yellow fever epidemic raged into
town. Should all four of the town's operators get sick at once, their
replacements couldn't possibly memorize the names of the town's 200 customers.
He suggested that names be replaced by numbers .
As the telephone proliferated, the country's forests were being ravaged. In
1885, Vermont witnessed the cutting down of 45,000 of their best pine trees to
be carted away for phone use. The new poles and lines invaded and cluttered
the American landscape.
Claude Fischer: In those years you basically needed a whole line, a
whole wire for every conversation, and in some towns telephone poles would be
carrying hundreds of wires, and it got to be so that this became a real issue
for many towns. It was an issue of safety in some cases. And other places it
was simply a matter of what was considered to be urban blight of the late 19th
Narrator: The maze of wires grew worse and worse as electric light,
power, and trolley lines appeared, creating a cacophony of interference on
telephone lines. When callers did manage to get through, telephone crosstalk
created a ghostly phone environment. Parts of conversations jumped from line
to line. Bell executives endlessly found themselves facing new crises and
STILLS: Operators at board, trees in forest, men on train with
poles, phone poles in a row, tall tel. poles, Article "Poles and wires,"
Traffic jam, NYC street, Pratt, KS street, and Man standing on square rigged
VO: It started at about midnight. [...] Suddenly the whole city
seemed to tremble as the storm swept down upon it with a grandeur and power
that are indescribable. [...] Signboards were torn from the fronts of
buildings, roofs were stripped, [and] windows blown out.
The New York Herald
Narrator: The winter of 1888 had been one of New York City's mildest,
but overnight, on March 12, pedestrians and horses were frozen to death in the
city streets by a giant snowstorm. The country's telephone system was torn by
the teeth of the blizzard. Overloaded poles were twisted mercilessly by the
wind; loose wires whistled through the air like whiplash. The Blizzard of '88
inspired a frantic effort to perfect underground cable. Later that year,
America's largest cities watched as telephone poles magically disappeared from
the busiest streets. The Bell Company had finally managed to solve most of its
technical problems, but its patent would soon expire.
STILLS: Child in front of awning downed, NYC street crowd poses for
pix in snow, Row of poles against buildings, Poles and wires downed everywhere
in street, and Laying underground cable.
VO: To-morrow is quite an event in the history of that
marvelous discovery, the telephone. On that day [Bell's] patent [...]
expires. [...] This naturally starts the world to thinking and there will be
many companies to enter the field. [...] From Maine to California, [...]
competition will meet one grand monopoly, entrenched at every point.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1893
Narrator: The expiration of Bell's patent in 1893 subjected the
monopoly to assaults from all sides. Thousands of people who had not been able
to afford the Bell system now had local entrepreneurs racing to sell them
cheap phones. The new competitors advertised themselves as the "home team,"
overthrowing an intrusive outside monopoly. Communities were soon divided on
class lines. Typically, wealthy professionals, out of habit, continued to
lease Bell phones, and middle-class users chose cheaper independent phones
which -- unlike Bell's instruments -- could be purchased.
STILLS: Article "Hello," Horse cart full of men, Article
telephone trust, Parade float, Rich people at dinner table, Ad for private
phone, and Indp. Phone company.
STOCK: Charlie Chaplan like man going crazy with many phones, Takes
them all and goes to other man who yells at him.
Narrator: Bell refused to interconnect with these other companies. St.
Louis had two separate exchanges, Cleveland four. If a business wanted to
prosper, all lines were needed. Telephone salesmen brushed off the problem:
"We have two ears," one said, "why not therefore have two
Charles Pleasance, Author: The Bell companies were very unhappy, of
course, because they wanted to maintain their... their monopoly. They wanted
all of the business in town, and they fought the independent companies
in various ways. One was by lowering the rates so low that the independent
company might have to go out of business.
Narrator: The independents then fought back by offering cheap party
line service. Multiple households would share a single wire...and private
lives would become a little more public.
Claude Fischer: Party lines were very controversial an issue during the
time. Many people look back on it with nostalgia, but it really was a mixed
blessing for the people who had party lines. There are many accounts of people
who enjoyed picking up the telephone, and seeing what was going on on the line,
and who was talking to who, and what the gossip of the town was.
Mary Booth, Historian: You had no secrets, you never told any secrets
over the telephone; they never remained secrets. I really didn't do it too
often -- I was too busy -- but there were people who had very little else to
do, and that was their... that was their indoor sports.
Narrator: The People's Telephone Company of Detroit tripled its
business by taking advantage of the rural subscriber's apparent eagerness to
eavesdrop. They offered party lines shared by as many as twenty homes. It was
an enormous success, subscribers delighted in eavesdropping and even got
together to listen to banjo-playing on the line.
STILLS: Five cent service, Party line card woman on phone, Liptman on
phone, Bearded man with pipe on phone, Store operator on phone, and housewife
Narrator: All across America, customers continued to adapt the
telephone to fit their own needs. An unexpected leap was made by a Kansas City
undertaker, Almon Brown Strowger.
Venus Green: Evidently one of his friends died, and he did not get the
business. So he assumed it was because an operator had diverted the business
to a competitor, and this induced him to invent a machine that would eliminate
operators from the telephone service.
Narrator: Strowger invented not only the dial telephone, but went so
far as to perfect an automatic switchboard to go with it. He then opened his
own exchange in his home town of LaPorte, Indiana. It needed no operators.
With innovations like the dial telephone, usage grew that much faster.
STILLS: Strowger and man, Stowgers exchange int., and Home telephone
Narrator: By the turn of the century, there were more phones than
bathtubs in America, and the "impractical toy" took center-stage in popular
A light opera called Cupid's Telephone brought Bell's invention to
Broadway -- and the silent movies embraced the talking machine right from the
STILLS: Man with umbrella, Woman on phone, and Havana cast
STOCK: Various men woman and children on the phone, silent movie
drama and comedy.
Narrator: As the telephone began to reach the masses, grand quandaries
concerning social etiquette were born. Was it, for instance, appropriate to
extend invitations to one's friends via telephone instead of letter? Some
wondered if this graceless device might not encourage questionable contact
between unsupervised women and unscrupulous men.
While usage continued to expand, the independent companies got the bulk of the
business, and Bell now owned less than one-half of the phones in America. It
seemed the more service grew, the more ground Bell lost. Something had to be
done, but again it would take massive amounts of capital. J.P. Morgan, one of
the richest men in the world, had for years had his eye on the Bell Company --
now called AT&T. The stage was now set for his entrance.
Louis Galambos: That's when J.P. Morgan moved in. He had access to
the capital markets, and he had a plan for the reformulation of the Bell
enterprise. He wanted to drive the Bell system toward the point where everyone
would have access to a telephone, and it would be a Bell telephone.
Narrator: He seized control of the company. Morgan's ruthless approach
to business was simply to buy his competitors or crush them. By the time of
Morgan's death in 1913, the independent movement was over. The company was
well on its way to becoming a monopoly once more.CAN YOU HEAR ME, WATSON?
STILLS: J.P. Morgan Portrait, J.P. Morgan Portrait, J.P. Morgan with
cane, and Advertisement "Implement of a Nation."
The public clamored for long-distance service, but the
challenge had frustrated inventors and businessmen for 39 years. The science
required to send the human voice clear across the United States simply did not
exist. The first breakthrough occurred with the invention of a signal
amplifier, allowing Bell's New York lines to reach Chicago, 600 miles away.
So, in 1892, Alexander Graham Bell, then 45, was summoned from his Canadian
retreat to place the first New York-to-Chicago call. Bell was so taken with
the event that it became the only time in his life that he allowed himself to
be photographed speaking into his invention.
The wiring of America was well on its way, and "Hello, Operator, give me
long-distance" entered the language. The Bell Company set long-distance phone
rates at about one-fifth the price of a railroad ticket. In 1910 the New
York-to-Philadelphia train fare was $4.50; a call was 80 cents. Demands that
the phone reach further and further continued to grow, and finally -- by
adapting a vacuum tube that was originally invented for radio -- AT&T had
the equipment. A line from New York to San Francisco was promised for January
As with the railroad and telegraph that had come before, connecting the two
coasts would be an enormous task. An army of workers, mostly on foot or
horseback, invaded the mountains and deserts, braving rain, cold, and
blizzards. The mammoth project took over a year. 14,000 miles of copper wire
and 130,000 telephone poles were needed to link the country.
AT&T's management knew how risky a public coast-to-coast call could be.
They hired 15,000 men -- 5 men for every mile -- spaced out across the country,
to be on the ready to fix any problems on the line.
Once again, Alexander Graham Bell was lured out of retirement. To insure the
success of the event, Bell -- now considered by telephone executives to be a
senile deaf old man was asked to read a prepared script. Thomas Watson would
be in San Francisco to take his call.
STILLS: Lone man in center of street, Ad. for 100o miles, Bell on
phone, Parade float, Man on phone nest to train, Man with vacuum tube, Merger
of East and West ad, raising a pole in the desert, man and dog by pole buried
in snow, Pole being loaded off wagon, Final pole on the line, transcontinental
poles in desert with lone man in road, portrait of Bell with glasses and pipe,
Bell on his porch sitting, and Watson Portrait.
STOCK ("Telephone Memories"):
There is one of the marvels of telephone achievement [...] that
must always hold first place in my memory. [...] That was the transmission of
speech for the first time from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
On January 25, 1915, in New York, Alexander Graham Bell made
a 23-minute call to San Francisco. Listening in from his exclusive retreat over
a specially constructed line was AT&T's President, Theodore Vail.
: The AT&T guys -- the men in suits who ran AT&T
and Bell by this point -- were not at all like Watson and Bell, and they were
very worried that these two old geezers were going to get on the phone, and not
be able to talk, or drop the telephones, and just somehow mess up, so they
wrote a script. So these two old friends got on the phone, and Bell of course
says, "Hoy, Hoy, Watson," and Watson said, "Hoy," and they threw away the
script, and just started having a conversation, a coast-to-coast
Narrator: Then, in a stunt that turned back the clock, Bell continued
the call on a duplicate of his original Centennial Telephone -- the same device
used in Philadelphia almost four decades earlier.
Robert Bruce: So when the time came, Bell said, "Mr. Watson, come here,
I want to see you." And Watson replied, "Mr. Bell, I will, but it would take
me a week now."
STILLS: Bell sits in the middle of table, AT&T executive listen
in, Bell portrait, Watson portrait, Bell portrait, and Watson portrait.
STOCK: NYC Wall street, San Fran, streets.
Narrator: The transcontinental call was such a great success, it was
commemorated by the Ziegfield Follies' "Hello, Frisco," became the most
popular tune of 1915.
STILLS: Ziegfield follies, and Watson on phone.
It was a thrilling moment to me when I realized that Bell's first
crude telephone and that first wire were again bringing his voice to me across
the continent with that first sentence ever transmitted by electricity. And
fate decreed those words should be the last he ever spoke to me.
STOCK: Man on poles, operators, and phones.
Narrator: The wiring of America was complete. It had taken only 39
years to go from a single telephone in Boston to 11 million nationwide. Thomas
Edison observed that the invention had "annihilated time and space, and brought
the human family in closer touch."
When he turned 70, Bell stated that "recognition for my work with the deaf has
always been more pleasing than the recognition of my work with the telephone."
But it was the telephone that had transformed America. As a final tribute to
Bell, upon his death in 1922 at age 75, the nation's telephones all stopped
ringing for one full minute.
STILL: Bell looking out window.