(WHTM) — The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was facing a challenge. Since its founding in 1885, it had been expanding its network of phone lines, introducing more and more Americans to the marvel of the telephone.
In 1908 the company set out to build a transcontinental telephone line and connect the country from end to end. They wanted to get it done in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a World’s Fair being held in San Francisco.
Building this line would involve a lot more than just setting up telephone poles and stringing some wires. They needed to come up with a way to keep the signal from degrading into noise while traveling over 3,400 miles. Legendary inventor Lee de Forest helped develop electronic amplifiers, based on vacuum tubes, that made it possible.
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In addition to the technological challenges, there were the physical challenges of getting the wires in place. The worst problem-getting the line from Denver over the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, where they faced 20-foot snow drifts, and finally to San Francisco.
But they got it done.
On January 25, 1915-AT&T conducted the very first transcontinental phone call. It was actually a four-way call. President Woodrow Wilson was on the call from the White House, as well as Theodore Vail, president of AT&T, from Jekyll Island, Georgia. (An leg injury kept him from going to AT& headquarters in New York.)
But the honor of speaking first went to two members of telecommunications royalty, Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first telephone in 1876 (and co-founded AT&T in 1885), and his assistant in developing the telephone, Thomas Watson. Bell initiated the call from New York:
“Ahoy, ahoy!” (Bell wanted “ahoy” to be the standard telephone greeting, but “hello” won out.) “Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?
Watson replied “Yes, Mr. Bell, I hear you perfectly. Do you hear me well?”
At one point during the call, someone asked Bell to repeat the first words he ever said over the telephone. Bell, in New York, said ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.’ Watson, in San Francisco, replied, ‘It would take me a week now.’
And with that, the transcontinental phone call came into being. The amplifiers invented to make the call worked perfectly-Bell remarked to Watson that “We are talking over 3,400 miles as easily and clearly as we talked two miles 38 years ago.”
Of course, placing a transcontinental call wasn’t as easy as it is today. For one thing, it took about 10 minutes to connect. A switchboard operator in each city along the way had to manually set up the call before it went 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 on your cell phone (and connect in less than five seconds) to chat for an hour with your cousin in California.