First Transcontinental Phone Call: A 100-Year Celebration - InformationWeek

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First Transcontinental Phone Call: A 100-Year Celebration

The first transcontinental phone call occurred on Jan. 25, 1915. We're celebrating with a walk down telephone memory lane.
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Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center.

Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center.

If you think you've got trouble connecting on a conference call today, imagine doing it 100 years ago. The first transcontinental phone call was made on Jan. 25, 1915, and has been a communication tool for businesses ever since.

The historical moment occurred with a four-way call between Alexander Graham Bell in New York; his assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco; President Woodrow Wilson in Washington; and Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone and Telegraph company (AT&T) in Jekyll Island, Ga. Fittingly, the first words spoken were, "Ahoy! Ahoy! Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?" And, except for the "Ahoy!" bit, that's pretty much what we all still say at the start of every conference call today.

The first transcontinental telephone call was really quite an achievement. Over 3,400 miles of wire on only three circuits were used to connect New York to San Francisco. There were 130,000 telephone poles and 2,500 tons of copper wire stretched from Bell's ear to Watson's. And this was in 1915, which means few roads and very little in the way of trucks or construction equipment was available to set up the infrastructure for this call. A lot of the work was done with horses and wagons, across sweltering desert, and through freezing winters.

The whole thing was greeted with a little less fanfare than the transcontinental railroad, but it might have actually meant more to the US. There were few things as transformative to society and businesses as the telephone.

[ So you say you're not a phone addict? Read We Literally Can't Live Without Our iPhones. ]

With smartphones and wireless networks, our devices and infrastructure may have changed dramatically, but the telephone's role in society keeps growing. You want more proof? This is what happened at the California Historical Society when the phones used for the call were unpacked for display:

Why didn't Bell think of that?

We're celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental call with images of phones through the years -- some of which you may even remember using (though you probably won't want to admit it).

Once you've scrolled through all the photos in this gallery, tell us which were your favorite and why. And if you're feeling nostalgic for a favorite phone design, we want to know about it. Because, let's face it, by now we're all addicted to these things.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio

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impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
1/30/2015 | 11:49:34 PM
The brick
Dave we could add one more picture remember the original cell phones from the 90s otherwise known as the brick. I had a Motorola brick with a battery life of about 5 minutes! You couldn't really make a call because you would run out of battery life by the time the person answered.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/27/2015 | 7:36:34 PM
Re: The Horse!
Reminds me of the first words spoken via telephone. Reis called his assistant and spoke the words (literally translated from German): The horse eats no cucumber salad. - And that years before Bell shamelessly copied that idea and claimed it as his own. Bell deserves recognition for his business smarts, but not for inventing the telephone. Likewise with Edison who ripped others off (mainly Tesla) and filed their invetions under his name.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/27/2015 | 3:02:31 PM
Re: The Horse!
@Gary_El- True. While solar is getting very efficient and cheaper, it isn't getting "more available." We need to store it better or round it out with other stuff. I guess my issue is that it feels like a consolation prize. I want someone to have the daring do of not worrying about the breakthrough of the lithium battery and just go for it. Maybe I'm asking for the wrong thing for a new century. Certainly that daring of the 19th century created some amazing monuments to mankind but crushed a lot of people in the process.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/27/2015 | 2:38:30 PM
Re: The Horse!
@Gary_El- I toyed with being a physics major, too. Then I ran into a level of calculus that cleared that up. :)

Not to belittle a new natural gas infrastructure but that sounds so 19th century. I thought that was how Rockefeller made his money before he moved into oil. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/26/2015 | 5:08:40 PM
Re: addiction & future
@Mak63- Yes, I think the thing that might replace the phone is still going to have "phone" qualities much like we call the smartphone a phone when really it is a handheld computer that allows voice communication. I'm thinking if anything kills the concept of a phone it will be something we no longer hold like a commbadge or a brain implant. We might finally stop calling these phones.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/26/2015 | 5:04:06 PM
Re: Also spawned the first hackers
@TerryB- Fascinating. I thought Phone Phreaks were the people who camped out all night for the new iPhone. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/26/2015 | 5:02:23 PM
Re: Where are the crank wall phones
@RockFix- What a cool story. The closest I can come to that is when I was mess around with the rotary dial to see what would happen if you moved the little finger stopper and accidentally called 911. :)

I'm addicted to old stories about the way technology used to work. I think it helps us (or could help us if we shared them more) do a better job of making it work today. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/26/2015 | 4:59:55 PM
Re: The end of the phone call?
@Pablo-We're heading that way. Though I think there will always be a place for voice. Video chat is catching on. Also, I think we need to give non-voice communication credit for getting more robust and multi-media and interesting. I can share a picture on a phone call. I can text it though. I lament the turning of the phone into a telegraph sometimes (as i did in the intro to this article) but I also believe in form following function. Certain communications are right for non-voice. I just hope we don't forget to talk to each other int he process.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/26/2015 | 4:53:51 PM
Re: The Horse!
@Gary_El- Seriously. I wish we would have a little more of that spirit today. Sure, the internet is a similarly ambitious project, and sending rovers to Mars is no small feat. But I'd like to see us try to do big things for us. Massive, giant, amazing world-changing feats.
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