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Aired February 3, 1997

The Telephone

Film Description

Thomas Edison called it an invention that "annihilated time and space and brought the human family in closer touch." President Rutherford B. Hayes deemed it "one of the greatest events since creation."

"The Telephone," is the story of an invention that forever changed the way the world interacts. From the earliest, most primitive instruments to the first coast-to-coast call, Academy Award-nominated producers Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon detail the wiring of America. Using never-before-seen still photographs and archival sound and film footage to evoke a sense of the nation at the turn of the twentieth century, "The Telephone" conveys the power of the invention and its overarching impact on American life. 

Alexander Graham Bell reluctantly presented his new device at America's Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He didn't believe the world would be interested in his invention until he witnessed the startled and astonished reactions of the Exposition scientists and judges, one of whom declared Bell's invention the most amazing thing he had seen in America. Within a year of the centennial exhibition, Bell had installed 230 phones and had established the Bell Telephone Company. Four years after its creation, there were 60,000 phones; by the turn of the century there were two million. Despite its novelty and its rudimentary audio quality, the telephone took a quick and fierce hold on American society, and soon became a necessity.

The first telephone operators were boys, who soon earned a reputation for being rude and abusive to each other as well as to the customers. The young women who replaced them did not swear and were said to be faster, and by 1910, New York Telephone had 6,000 women working on its switchboards. While the telephone joined teaching in finally bringing significant numbers of women into the workplace, there were rigid codes of dress and conduct the women had to follow. "You could only use certain phrases — 'Number please' and 'Thank you,'" recalls a former operator, 98-year-old Marie McGrath. "The customer could say anything they wanted to you, and you would say, 'Thank you.'"

By 1915, the wiring of America was complete. In an undertaking as monumental as the construction of the trans-American railroad, AT&T strung 14,000 miles of copper wire across the country. Thirty-nine years after the first demonstration of telephone, the 68-year-old Bell was summoned by AT&T to New York to recreate his first call — this time calling his friend and partner Thomas Watson in San Francisco.


Written, Produced and Directed by
Kirk Simon & Karen Goodman 

Bruce Shaw 

Buddy Squires 

Richard Einhorn 

Consulting Producer 
Morgan Wesson 

Associate Producers 
Elizabeth Westrate 
Nancy Graydon Roach 

Production Coordinator 
Lorri Leighton 

Post-Production Supervisor 
Joseph Borruso 

Additional Photography 
Greg Andracke 
Terry Hopkins 
Rick Miranda 
Jerry Pantzer 
Michael Spiller 
Kirk Simon

Rerecording Mixer 
Rick Dior 

Script Consultants 
Jim Butler 
Morgan Wesson 

Project Advisors 
Kenneth Lipartito 
Claude S. Fischer 

Narrated By 
Morley Safer 

Spalding Gray 
Julianne Moore 
Kurt Vonnegut 
Frank Whaley 

Special Thanks 
Sheldon Hochheiser 
Janet Gromigo 
Downtown Fairfax Coalition 
Mary Anne Stets 
Elliot Sivowitch 
Tom Hutchinson 
Marian Early 
Telephone Pioneers of America 
Cynthia L. Hadsell 
David Ludlow 
Wilmington & Western Railroad 
Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad 
Tony Minichillo 
Alderic Violette 
Beverly Zell 
Hancock Shaker Museum 
Georgia Agrirama 
Tommy Smith 
Alison Moore 
Herb Hackenberg 
Don Capehart 
Ric Burns 

Archival Material Courtesy of: 
AT&T Archives 
Bell Canada Telephone Historical Collection 
Bell Collection/National Geographic Image Collection 
The Boston Globe 
The Bostonian Society/Old State House 
Cadbury Schweppes Inc. 
3C Capehart Communications Collection
Frontier Corporation 
George Eastman House 
Georgia Rural Telephone Museum 
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center,
Fremont, Ohio 
H.J. Heinz Company 
Historical Society of Pennsylvania 
La Porte County Historical Society Museum 
Library of Congress 
Museum of the City of New York 
Museum of Independent Telephony 
Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., Rosenfeld Collection, Mystic, Connecticut 
National Archives 
New England Telephone Museum 
The New York Times 
Pacific Bell Archives 
Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia 
Smithsonian Institution 
Ellen Stern and Emily Gwathmey 
Telecommunications History Group 
Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut 
The Mark Twain Project, Bancroft Library 
Utah State Historical Society 

Stock Footage Courtesy of: 
John E. Allen, Inc. 
Archive Films
George Eastman House  
Film/Audio Services, Inc. 
Hot Shots Cool Cuts, Inc. 
Library of Congress 
National Archives 
Steeplechase Films 

Music Courtesy of: 
Associated Production Music 
H-Flat Records 
Richard Einhorn/ASCAP  


Post Production Supervisor

Post Production Assistant

Field Production

Series Designers

Title Animation
Wave, Inc.

On-line Editors

Series Theme

Series Theme Adaptation

Unit Manager

Project Administration 


Coordinating Producer

Series Editor

Executive Consultant

Executive Producer

A Simon & Goodman Picture Company production

WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved


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 the deaf.

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.

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 [there].


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 again.

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.

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." 

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" seriously.

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 century... 

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.


Narrator: It had all begun in Boston, 2 years before the Centennial, when Alexander Graham Bell first met Thomas Watson at the Williams' Electrical Shop.

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 match.

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 development.

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 telephone!

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.

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.


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.


On the evening of March 10th, 1876, Bell sat in front of the new transmitter and I went down the hall...

Susan Cheever: 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 clumsy.


Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!

Watson hears and runs into the next room.

Susan Cheever: 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 wires.


I recognized your voice! You said, "Mr. Watson..."

BELL (joins in)

"...come here, I want you."

They laugh heartily.

Susan Cheever: 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.


Narrator: 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 distant.

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 Salem!

Susan Cheever: They made it into a sort of dog and pony show. Mr. Watson and Mr. Bell and their fabulous telephone.

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.


I am the invisible Tom Watson! Everybody hears me! Nobody sees me!

The audience reacts with delight upon hearing Watson's voice coming through Bell's telephone. 

Susan Cheever: Watson would talk to Bell, and then he would sing. 


Ahoy! Ahoy, Mr. Watson! Will you oblige us with a song?

Watson launches into an off-key rendition of "Do Not Trust Him Gentle Lady."

Susan Cheever: 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 great show.

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 commerce.

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.

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 invention.

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. 


VO: The public was ready for the telephone long before we were ready for the public. 

Thomas Watson

Narrator: 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 quickly.

David was truly coming to negotiate with Goliath. The asking price was $100,000. Western Union's myopic president, William Orton, turned them down flat.

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 and forceful.-

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.

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 things.

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 clamoring for.  


Narrator: 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 switchboards.

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 you want?"

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.


VOIt 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!

Narrator: 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.

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 century.

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 unexpected assaults.

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. 

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. 

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 telephones?"

Charles Pleasance, Author: The Bell companies were very unhappy, of course, because they wanted to maintain their... their monopoly. They wantedall 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. 

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.

Narrator: By the turn of the century, there were more phones than bathtubs in America, and the "impractical toy" took center-stage in popular culture.

A light opera called Cupid's Telephone brought Bell's invention to Broadway — and the silent movies embraced the talking machine right from the beginning.

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.


Narrator: 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 of 1915.

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. 


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.

Narrator: 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.

Susan Cheever: 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 conversation.

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."

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.


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. 

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.

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