Theodore Newton Vail
Carroll County, OH; 1845
Theodore Vail was one of AT&T's most far-sighted presidents. He oversaw the building of the first American coast to coast telephone system ,and it was his dedication to basic science that initiated a new research arm for AT&T: Bell Labs.
Vail was born on July 16, 1845 in Ohio. His first career was in the railway postal service, but in 1878 he was lured away to run Bell Telephone as its general manager. During his tenure, he helped set up the Western Electric Company, a division of the company which built telephone equipment. He also oversaw the first long distance system, from Boston, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1881.
Vail retired in 1889 -- only to come back again in 1907. In between, he spent time in Argentina making money in mining, waterpower plants and railway systems.
In 1907, Vail returned to what was essentially his previous job, though now the company was known as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, or AT&T. AT&T was in some trouble because its phone patents had expired and other small companies were getting into the business. Suddenly, AT&T had competition. Vail solved this problem in three ways. First, he decided AT&T must have the very best phone system available: he committed the company to building a long-distance system that would cross the entire US. To do this he knew he would have to invest in scientific research, and he encouraged the development of AT&Ts own laboratory, Bell Labs. Second, he cooperated with the competitors, leasing them the use of AT&T's phone lines. Third, he managed to convince the public and the government that the best possible phone system was one that could provide "universal service" around the country -- in essence, the best phone system would come from a monopoly like AT&T.
In 1914, the first transcontinental line across the US became operational. Vail sat in New York and made the first phone call all the way to San Francisco. A year later phone service was available to Europe as well.
Vail retired from AT&T for the second and final time in 1919. He died a year later on April 16.
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