The 100th Anniversary of the first Transcontinental Phone Call

on January 23, 2015

Those who have read my columns over the years know I am a serious student of technology history. I think it is partly because I was present at the birth of the PC revolution. My first project for Creative Strategies was working with the team at IBM that developed their first PC. Consequently, I saw the PC market develop from the beginning and how it begat laptops, tablets, smartphones, the internet, the servers of today, the cloud and has made it possible for us to move from the world of analog in the first half of the last century to the digital age that began in the second half of that century.

My office museum has technology that goes back to the early 1800s in the form of one of first portable typewriters and one of the first batteries — made in 1875. It includes many of the original PCs, tablets and even early cell phones the size of bricks that hit the market in the mid 1980s. In fact, in 2012 I spent part of my summer at Oxford studying the historical contributions British scientists made to the world of technology. I love to learn abut technology history and devour anything I can find on the subject.

This coming Sunday, we will celebrate one of the major milestones in our technology history. It was on January 25, 1915, the first transcontinental telephone call was made. At that time, Alexander Graham Bell placed a call from New York City to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

Here are some fun facts about the first phone call:

• Traveling east to west, the line stretched 390 miles from New York to Pittsburgh, 545 miles to Chicago, 500 miles to Omaha, 585 miles to Denver, 580 miles to Salt Lake City, and 770 miles to San Francisco – close to 3,400 miles in total.

• Transcontinental telephone service was officially opened to the public at 9:01 p.m. the evening of January 25, but long distance calls were available only to those able and willing to pay the hefty price of connection. A three minute coast-to-coast call was billed at $20.70 – that’s $483.99 in today’s money.

Speed of Transcontinental Travel

• 1849 – By stage coach, 5 months.

• 1859 – New York to San Francisco by sailing vessel around Cape Horn, 3 months.

• 1869 – By railway, 20 days.

• 1914 – By steamship through the Panama Canal, 16 days.

• 1915 – By railway, average time 90 hours.

• 1915 – By transcontinental telephone line, one-fifteenth of a second.

Construction Data

• Total weight of material used: 5,500,000 pounds

• Of this, 3,578,000 lbs were poles, 730,800 lbs were copper, and insulators, hardware, tools, etc., made up the rest.

• 47,700 cubic feet of earth was removed digging holes for poles and anchors. If piled in a vertical column one foot square, it would have been nine miles high.

Material used

• 13,900 poles

• 1800 miles of No. 8 copper

• 146 miles of No. 12 copper

• 14,000 crossarms

• 700 patent anchors

• 58,000 bolts

• 72,000 washers

• 56,000 insulators

• 90,000 insulator pins

Transportation/Equipment

• 34 wagons

• 116 horses

• 4 automobile trucks

• 1 caterpillar tractor

• 3 automobiles

Interestingly, AT&T had demonstrated they could make a call as far as Denver as early as 1911 but could not get enough boost in amplification until after Dr. Lee DeForest introduced his vacuum tubes, a central technology that made it possible to make calls from one side of the country to the other with any clarity.

Below are some fascinating pictures from ATT’s Archives of the workers who built the coast-to-coast telephone lines.

Workers1Workers2Workers3Workers4workers5

I had the privilege of attending a special media event on Thursday where folks from AT&T’s archives had the actual phones used by Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson when they made this historic call. During the call, they also patched in President Woodrow Wilson from the White House and Theodore Vail, President of AT&T who had injured his leg and could not travel to NYC. So they did the call from a lab near his home in Jekyll Island, GA.

The first image is of the two phones used by Watson and Bell.

BellWatson2VailWilson4
The second is of the four phones used in the call — the one on the far right was the one Woodrow Wilson used in Washington and next to it is the one ATT president Theodore Vail used in Jekyll Island, GA. The line up of phones is Watson, Bell, Vail and Wilson.

The next image is of Bell making the call from NYC and the last is Watson receiving the call in San Francisco.
BellWatson

“The first transcontinental phone call was not only a breakthrough for AT&T, it was a key milestone in
our nation’s rich history of innovation,” said Ken McNeely, President of AT&T California. “A hundred years ago, the world marveled as AT&T was able to send the human voice over 3,400 miles of wire from one coast to the other. Today, we can hold the whole of human knowledge in the palm of our hand.”

Mr. McNeely should probably have also mentioned we can now call anywhere in the world using our smart phones, something that Bell and Watson probably never even dreamed of.

As I stood looking at these phones in front of me, I found myself in a state of awe. Here were the actual devices Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson held to make this historic call.

I suppose this might sound childish but to me they were almost sacred. I tried to imagine what it would be like standing in that crowd in San Francisco witnessing this in person. I tried to think about the surroundings of the Palace of Fine Arts where this first call was made and where this Exposition/World’s Fair took place.

And how, during the year of the Pan-Pacific Exposition and World’s Fair, these phones were used to demo the concept of long distant communication by letting people listen to the water splashing against the shores of Rockaway Beach in N.Y. How they must have marveled to the sound of music or the reading of news being sent live from New York to SF over this long distance line. Imagine the wonder in these folks as they were witnessing a new era of communication.

It is amazing to me how much technology has advanced in just 100 years. Imagine what else technology may bring to us in the next 100 years.