On This Day

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New York Telephone Company/New York Public Library
Alexander Graham Bell (center) and several AT&T executives prepare to inaugurate transcontinental telephone service, Jan. 25, 1915.

On This Day: Alexander Graham Bell Demonstrates Transcontinental Telephone Line

January 25, 2012 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 25, 1915, AT&T unveiled its transcontinental telephone service with a demonstration that included Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson, who made the first ever telephone call in 1876.

The Transcontinental Telephone Line

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The telephone was invented in 1875 and by the early 20th century had been put into widespread use. Telephones could only be used over short distances, however, as the signals weakened as they traveled over the lines.

In 1908, Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), made developing a transcontinental telephone line a priority. The following year, though he had not yet discovered the technology for such as task, AT&T chief engineer John J. Carty pronounced that the company would have the line completed by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

The technology used to complete the line was developed outside of AT&T by inventor Lee De Forest. In 1907, he patented a three-element vacuum tube he called the “audion.” “He began to experiment with broadcasting speech and music and discovered that he could cause regenerative oscillation by feeding the output of the Audion back into its grid,” explains the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Global History Network. “This discovery allowed for more powerful and effective signal transmission.”

In 1912, says PBS, he “invented a version of the regenerative circuit, which greatly amplified the volume of radio—or, if one preferred—telephone signals.” The following year, facing charges of shareholder fraud and needing money to pay his legal bills, De Forest sold his patent to AT&T. Carty took the audion technology and used it to construct a telephone line stretching across the country.

The line was completed on June 17, 1914, but AT&T did not debut it right away, preferring to hold off until right before the San Francisco exposition. On Jan. 25, 1915, a few weeks before the opening of the exposition, AT&T staged its unveiling of the transcontinental telephone line. Teams of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson, were placed in the San Francisco fairgrounds, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Vail’s home of Jekyll Island, Ga.

The first call was made from New York by Alexander Graham Bell, the acknowledged inventor of the telephone, to Thomas Watson, his former assistant, in San Francisco. The two spoke with each other as the men positioned in other cities listened in, all hearing the conversation clearly.

Bell and Watson were asked to re-enact their first conversation from 1876. Back then, Watson was sitting in a room next to Bell when Bell asked over the phone, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” causing Watson ran into Bell’s room saying that he could hear him clearly. At the re-enactment, Watson quipped, “It would take me a week to get to you this time.”

Background: Alexander Graham Bell and the Telephone

Learn the story of how Bell created his telephone and the controversy over whether he should actually be credited as the inventor of the telephone.
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