The first transcontinental telephone call was put through on January 25, 1915 in New York City. Alexander Graham Bell called his former assistant, Thomas Augustus Watson, who was in San Francisco at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. Bell repeated the request to Watson that he had made 40 years earlier during the very first phone call (from one room to the next): “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” Bell demurred, saying it would take a week to travel cross-country. The body still had some limitations, but the voice suddenly less so.

Watson’s and Bell’s voices traveled 3,500 miles over 3000 tons of copper wire supported by 130,000 telephone poles. The American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) Company claimed their cross-country network cost twice as much to build as the Panama Canal. In a revealing article, Robert MacDougall says AT&T would not be profitable for many years as a result of this massive undertaking, but that this didn’t matter. The network was “instrumental in consolidating control of the Bell companies and the telephone industry in general and helping to convince Americans that the nation-spanning corporation was not an enemy but a friend.”

This was monopoly-building with a smiling face. They were in it for the long haul. Although announced with much fanfare (including a year-long publicity road show) in its first years of operation the coast-to-coast system averaged two calls a day. Twenty years later, less than 10% of revenues were coming from interstate phone traffic. Long-distance was still so exotic that at the 1939 World’s Fair, the long-distance demonstration was one of the highlights. People had to be taught the habit of long-distance calling.

And the price had to come down: in 1915, a 3-minute coast-to-coast call cost $20.70. That would be about $375 today. It also took an hour to set such connections up, at least from the major cities. Outside of those big cities, you initially had to apply in writing days in advance for a long distance call.

But, as MacDougall argues, none of this was the point. AT&T was actually building an organizational and political network that would have a much greater effect than the “long lines” it was based on. They were mapping something entirely new: the future.

 

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The Business History Review, Vol. 80, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 297-327
The President and Fellows of Harvard College