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The American Experience

People & Events

The Telephone Goes National

In 1915, when Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson were asked to re-enact their famous first phone conversation, they became part of a wider effort to demonstrate the emergence of a single telephone system spanning the entire United States. This system was the dream of AT&T president Theodore Vail. It was also a dream that was a long time in coming.

When the telephone first came into use, the signal quickly became distorted as the distance between points increased. A practical long-distance line, it was understood, would put an end to this problem, and in the process, open up immense financial vistas. As a measure of long-distance telephony's importance, AT&T was organized in 1885 as the parent company of Bell Telephone, rather than the other way around.

The search for a solution was already well underway by then. Following the theoretical groundwork laid by Oliver Heaviside in 1887, George Ashley Campbell, an AT&T employee, began developing the loading coils that would keep the signal clear as it traveled. Campbell succeeded in the last months of the 19th century. Unfortunately for him, so had another inventor, Michael Pupin. Hoping to avoid exorbitant fees of a legal battle, AT&T paid Pupin $435,000 for his patents and stopped the dispute in its tracks.

Long-distance telephony required more than loading coils, however, and the necessary innovations simply did not exist until Lee De Forest came along. A professed admirer of Bell, De Forest invented the three-element vacuum tube in 1907. In 1912, he went one further and invented a version of the regenerative circuit, which greatly amplified the volume of radio -- or, if one preferred -- telephone signals.

By this time, Theodore Vail had already announced his intention of creating a transcontinental telephone system, but nothing could be done without De Forest's patents, so John J. Carty, AT&T's chief engineer, arranged to buy them through an anonymous intermediary. De Forest was understandably bitter about this transaction. Then again, he was also facing stock fraud charges at the time, and so was perhaps not the ideal spokesman for the planned demonstration with Watson and Bell.

The necessary technology now in hand, AT&T leaped into action. In 1913 Carty dispatched teams of workers -- through blizzards, lightning, and untold rough terrain -- to string a continuous line of telephone wires between the coasts. The lines were joined at last on June 17, 1914, in Wendover, Utah. The longest link stretched 3,505 miles, with loading coils placed every eight miles along the way.

Vail, meanwhile, had been maneuvering through the business landscape just as deftly. He had offered the many independent telephone companies across the nation access to his long-distance lines in exchange for merging their local service into Bell Systems. These terms were too lucrative for most independent companies to resist. It being the age of trustbusting, Vail also courted the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels with a complex web of patent licenses to the Navy.

Come January 25, 1915, everything was ready, and Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson were summoned to re-enact their first telephone conversation. The old partners had been given a script, perhaps in case of a technical mishap, but they paid no attention to it. At 4:30 p.m., Bell picked up a telephone in New York and spoke to Watson at the Pan-American Exposition in San Francisco.

After a brief exchange, they hung up, spliced in replicas of their original 1875 telephone onto the line, and continued their lighthearted banter for another 23 minutes, much as they had 38 years earlier. Finally, after recounting the historic events of 1876, Bell uttered the famous phrase: "Watson, come here, I want you." To which Watson replied, "I would be glad to come, Mr. Bell, but it would take more than a week."

Several other famous speakers then took their turn, among them President Woodrow Wilson. The newspapers wrote glowing accounts, some printing the conversations verbatim. The Ziegfeld Follies capitalized on the excitement of the moment with "Hello, Frisco," the hit of the season on Broadway. Long-distance service became available immediately.

A moment of charm, to be sure. Yet life had changed a great deal since the invention of the telephone. Even as Bell and Watson celebrated their peak moment, the lone tinkerers who had followed them -- Michael Pupin, Lee de Forest -- were being overshadowed by a corporate-sponsored spectacle.

The transformation seemed nearly complete by September 1915, when Vail spoke into a telephone in New York and his voice traveled by telephone line to a wireless transmitter (built by AT&T) at a naval station in Arlington, Virginia, where it was then relayed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii -- some 4,600 miles distant.

Ma Bell was flexing her muscles, and a new era in American culture was on its way.

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written by David Lindsay, author of "Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise and Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors"