First phone call across the continent

The East Side of the United States (WHTM) The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was facing a challenge. Since its founding in 1885, it has been expanding its network of telephone lines, introducing more and more Americans to the marvels of the telephone.

In 1908 the company set out to build a transcontinental telephone line, linking the country from one end to the other. They wanted it done in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair to be held in Sanrancisco.

Building this line requires a lot more than just setting up telephone poles and stringing some wire. They needed to come up with a way to prevent the signal from degrading into noise while traveling more than 3,400 miles. Legendary inventor Lee deorest He helped develop electronic amplifiers, based on vacuum tubes, which made this possible.

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In addition to the technological challenges, there were the physical challenges of getting the wiring in place. The worst problem is getting the line from Denver over the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, where they encounter 20-foot snowdrifts, and finally to Sanrancisco.

But they got it done.

On January 25, 1915, AT&T made the first phone call across the continent. It was actually a four-way call. President Woodrow Wilson was on call from the White House, as was Theodore Vail, the head of AT&T, from Jekyll Island, Georgia. (A leg injury prevented him from going to AT&H headquarters in New York.)

But the honor of speaking went first to two members of the telecommunications kings—Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first telephone in 1876 (and co-founded AT&T in 1885), and his co-developer, Thomas Watson. Bill started the call from New York:

“Ahoy, Ahoy!” (Bell wanted “Ahoy” to be the standard telephone salutation, but “Hi” won out.) “Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?”

Watson replied: “Yes, Mr. Bell, I hear you well. Do you hear me well.”

At some point during the call, someone asked Bell to repeat the first words he said on the phone. ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,’ said Bell, in New York. ‘It’ll take a week now,’ answered Watson, in Sanrancisco.

And with that, the transcontinental phone call came into being. The loudspeakers invented for making the call work perfectly – Bill Watson remarked “We speak over 3,400 miles as easily and clearly as we spoke 2 miles away 38 years ago.”

Of course, making a cross-continental call was not as easy as it is today. or one thing, it took about 10 minutes to connect. The switchboard operator in each city along the way had to manually set up the call, before it moved on to the next city. It was also expensive—a three-minute call cost $20.70, or about $485 in today’s money.

Think about that the next time you make a call to your cell phone (and connect in less than five seconds) to chat for an hour with your cousin in California.