The First Transcontinental Call

StampLast week I highlighted a number of events in the history of telecom and over the next few months I am going to look at a few of them in more detail. One of the best stories in the industry’s history is about the completion of the first transcontinental phone call.

AT&T and a few other phone companies had begun building long copper routes between cities as early as 1885. For example, the route between New York and Chicago was completed in 1892. In the early days of the copper technology calls could be extended for some distance using load coils, a technology still in use today on rural copper networks. But that technology had a distance limitation of about 900 miles for a given call.

In 1908 Theodore Vail, the president of AT&T made it a company priority to have transcontinental calling even though the technology didn’t exist to make it work. The stakes were made higher in the following year when John J. Carty, the chief engineer at AT&T announced that AT&T would have the ability to make transcontinental calls in time for the 1915 exposition planned in San Francisco to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.

So the race was now on. AT&T announced that they would pay well to anyone who could bring them a technology that would help them extend calls farther. In 1912, inventor Dr. Lee de Forest brought an audion to AT&T’s engineering department. This was a three element vacuum tube that amplified the telephone signal enough to get AT&T’s attention. So AT&T bought the patent for the technology. By the following year in 2013 Dr. Harold Arnold, a physicist employed by AT&T perfected the invention by increasing the amount of vacuum and other tweaks, and the audion became a practical amplifier.

Now AT&T needed to build the copper routes to connect east and west and construction began in earnest. One June 17, 1914 the company completed the last connecting pole in Wendover, Utah that made the east-west connection. That event is commemorated by the US stamp shown above. The connection was made six months before the opening of the San Francisco exposition and so AT&T waited until January 15, 1915 to make the first official call on the network. (Obviously they tested it first!)

The first official call was completed at the opening of the Exposition. A large loop was created from Jekyl Island Georgia, the location of Theodore Vail, the president of AT&T, through Washington DC, New York, Boston, and on to San Francisco. Anybody at each of these sites could hear whoever was talking on the line. The first speakers on the call were Alexander Graham Bell in New York City and Thomas A. Watson, his former assistant in San Francisco. Dr. Bell repeated the same words he had first spoken over the telephone, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” To which Mr. Watson replied, “It would take me a week now.” They were then joined on the line by Theodore Vail, President Woodrow Wilson, the Mayors of New York and San Francisco and others like J.P. Morgan.

The network involved in coast-to-coast calls was impressive. One call involved two physical and one phantom circuit and each circuit consisted of two wires, so it required six wires to complete and carry a call. And this was heavy gauge wire that used 870 pounds of copper per circuit mile. In those days, before the invention of multiplexing, only one call could be handled at a time over a given set of circuits. In the main line between coasts there were 130,000 poles. It was estimated at the time that one call tied up $2 million dollars of network investment.

After the first call the service was opened to the public. But calling was not cheap and a long distance call from New York to San Francisco cost $20.70 for the first three minutes and $6.75 for each subsequent minute. To put that in perspective, in today’s dollars that is equivalent to  $488 for the first three minutes and $159 per minute after. It generally took around ten minutes for operators to arrange a coast-to-coast call.

The aggressive extensions of the backbone networks connected more and more parts of the country to each other over time. Long distance in those early days was quite expensive and there was a lot more demand for use of the lines than the technology could handle. It wasn’t until well into the 1920s when rudimentary telephone switches, rotary dial telephones and multiplexing dropped the cost of long distance calls from the stratosphere to just reasonably expensive. And we all know where it went from there.

2 thoughts on “The First Transcontinental Call

  1. Doug – Thanks, I did not know about how after they purchased the patent for the technology that bell labs worked on it for a year to perfect the invention into a working amplifier outside the lab.

    Wow at 870 pounds of copper per circuit mile at today’s spot price $3.2260 per pound is $2,806.62. This is just for the copper once it is spun into wire and coated with plastic you can times that by 4 at $11,200.00 per mile. Hmm… isn’t that about the price per mile for aerial fiber?

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  2. Yes, but there has been a bit of inflation in all of the costs. I found that the cost of copper in 1915 was about $19.88 per pound. But adjusted for inflation it was more expensive then than it is today and that equates to $458 per pound in today’s dollars. In 1915 dollars they spent a lot of money to built the intercity copper routes. One can only imagine the challenges they faces in parts of the west of inserting power into the transmissions periodically. This was a pretty impressive engineering feat.

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