Telephone History: First Transcontinental Phone Call | Documentary | 1940



there are two historical repositories in

New York City that reveal in fascinating

detail the application of the telephone

principle to the service of mankind in

one on lower Broadway are preserved the

records that tell the entire story of

the effort to introduce and carry on the

service of intercommunication by the

spoken word here are the reports and

correspondence of the pioneers whose

work and faith were the foundations of

today's great industry here are the

records that disclosed the early vision

of a unified system and of universal

service and that marked the progress

toward that ideal here among the

memories of an industrious birth are the

early directories with about a few dozen

names to illustrate the slow but growing

acceptance of the telephones age

delivery and here are two treasured

relics of appealing significance to the

men and women of the Bell System who

come like pilgrims to this eloquent room

one is the grant issued on March the 7th

1876 proclaiming Alexander Graham Bell

to be the inventor of the medium of

communication we call the telephone

though it was then officially designated

as an improvement in telegraphy

the other is a notebook of Belle's

assistant Thomas Watson with its

casually a pencil record of the first

complete sentence at human ear ever

heard over a wire Belle's sudden call on

March the 10th 1876 mr. Watson come here

I want you what an amazing circumstance

it is that the first of all telephone

call should have been I want you as

though to signify the reason for all the

calls to follow in the other repository

on West Street our exhibits of

corresponding significance it is a

museum that reveals the development of

the telephone art as expressed in

apparatus to begin this physical record

of scientific accomplishment or the

harmonic Telegraph instruments of Bell's

early experiments and the other

instruments that followed before the

telephone itself emerged from its first

laboratory you may see here a coil of

the actual wire over which passed those

historic words I want you

there is the great company of telephones

which progressively represent the

improving standards of service there are

switchboards which set the friendly

operators of another day reserved here

and appropriately labeled or historic

transmitters through its speech first

Road the radio waves across the seas and

others with which presidents have taught

for the heads and many nations in

dedicating new telephonic links to

distant lands here are sections of cable

to mark the development that brought

about today's technical and

manufacturing prompts with their amazing

capacity for circuits from a few dozen

wires to thousands is the progress that

this dated sequence tell here to is

another historical sequence of exhibits

to illustrate a story of intense

interest to every student of telephone

accomplishment the story of the search

for amplifying devices that would help

to send intelligible speech over longer

and longer spans of wire and here are

portraits of men scientists and

engineers of yesterday enough today

whose names are written large on the

honor roll of Communications developer

visitors from all parts of the world

have viewed these reminders of the

treasure hunt for knowledge from which

might come at the builders hands the

agency of service that now is in your

charge mutely they tell of the effort to

meet a challenge the challenge of social

need such historic and only the outline

here with non them a scene to suggest

the problems faced as a preface let us

mark an announcement of 1877 their first

published offering at instruments for a

wire conversation but only for distances

up to 20 miles and now let us

reconstruct from the record an incident

of 1880 remembering that the date is

only two years after the first

commercial switchboard began the service

of inter communication

the scene is a building on Washington

Street in Boston this is the telephone

office isn't it sure all the telephone

talk goes right through this room well

then perhaps you can help me you see I

have no telephone it's mostly the

business people who have that's why I'm

here and I want to talk with my son

about his father all right I guess we

can fix it for you the telephones right

here where is he he's in Chicago Chicago

oh but he's he's a contractor now and

he's doing very well I'm quite sure he

has a telephone huh I just must talk

with him you want to talk to him on a

wire thank you sir did you hear that

John here's a lady who wants to talk to

Chicago oh I'm sorry madam there are no

wires to Chicago we have a wire to Salem

that's 15 miles and 1/2 lower less 25

miles but you can't hear over them very

well they're always noisy we have the

Telegraph messages over the most of the

time the longest wire is to Worcester

that's 40 miles but it's no good for

talking I don't understand I saw all the

wires on the roof and I thought they

went many places and I did so want to

talk with my son I wish you could you

can someday I'm sure you can someday but

this is a new business

no one knows much about it yet here I

thought if I came here and there are no

wires well I do hadn't you better

Telegraph that's mighty quick oh yes I

know it's quick but it's not the same

thing oh I did so want to hear my son's

voice and I wanted to tell you something

myself and I wanted to hear his

answer myself well thank you young Jason

we're sorry we can't help you I hope

it's not bad news

no well someday there'll be a wire a

quiet wire and then you can talk with

each other I hope so

I'm very sorry we can't help you now

goodbye goodbye what was the use of all

that stuff about a wire to Chicago you

must have lost some of your buttons John

collee that's what I think it's going to

come someday Harry something tells me

it's coming it has to come what does it

have to come

we're busy enough now for the Boston

folk Learning Express companies and

banks and wholesale housing who wants to

talk to Chicago that's a thousand miles

who wants to talk to Chicago well that

lady does she expected to you know

Boston banks would talk to Chicago banks

if they could and Chicago people would

talk to Boston people there'll be a wire

someday because it's needed and to other

cities just as far away

something tells me huh something tells

you that's one of the little poker who's

been whispering to you it's coming Harry

it's got to come we're going to talk to

Chicago and father yet it's all a mr.

bells discovery that's complete

it's a principal someone will find out

how to use it better

something tells me something tells me


and now starting with this glimpse of a

period still within the memory of

millions of Americans

let us dip into the record that tells of

one of the great technological romances

of all time

the telephone art had yet to be

developed electrical engineering was not

yet a course of study in American

colleges there were only about 200

communities where a primitive service

had been introduced to a doubting public

in all America there were fewer

telephones and you will find today in

seven or eight new york office buildings

a telephone circuit was part wire and

part earth with a speech carried of

course at the mercy of any electrical

disturbance in earth or air a

thunderstorm would completely prevent

conversation not for many months was it

discovered that an all-metal circuit

would result in clearer speech


it was truly a daring experiment that

was completed in 1884 a 2 wire circuit

for speech between Boston and New York

but it led to an historic decision yes

oh as soon as possible mr. Cahill

oh yes yes they're all here and waiting

for you very well thank you mr. Cahill

will be here in a few minutes with the

certificate of incorporation ready for

our signatures this draft of it seems

alright to me and to me

well it certainly takes in a lot of

territory how do you mean of this

section here says that our lines will

connect one or more points in each and

every city town or place in the state of

New York with one or more points in each

in every other city town or place in

said state and in each and every other

of the United States yes it's pretty

inclusive but then they have been

talking about a vast system for years

with his ideas he's certainly the man to

be the new company's first president

this language makes me smile when I

think of the trouble my company has had

right here in New York City trying to

get subscribers it is rather optimistic

language of course some of these

electrical experts are mighty skeptical

I've been looking for a certain

editorial in the electrical world No

here it is it is probable that in the

near future business communications by

telephone between cities separated by

hundreds of miles will be an everyday

occurrence but it will be a luxury for

the fuel bearing the same relation to

telegraphy in general that traveling and

Pullman cars does to ordinary railroad

travel that may be the way it looks now

but the line to Boston is being used by

all sorts of people even though it isn't

very good we'll find ways of making the


Buhler well that's what the next line

down to Philadelphia will work better a

lot of my New York subscribers say they

need good morning gentlemen sorry I kept

you waiting that's perfectly all right

my lawyer well I've got the final draft

of any change has been made mr. Cahill

only one now if you gentlemen will turn

to page 3 where it says in each and

every other city town or place instead

state and in each and every other of the

United States and in Canada and Mexico

got it this is to be added and each and

every of said cities towns and places is

to be connected with each and every

other city town or place in said states

and countries and also by cable and

other appropriate means with the rest of

the known world the rest of the known

world sacred codfish well why not ten

years ago you couldn't talk by wire at

all it's a legal precaution gentlemen

mr. Forbes and mr. Vale field the new

company should not be limited in its

future activities whatever can be done

they want the company prepared to do the

rest of the known world may well

gentlemen we're certainly starting from

scratch will you sign first mr. Hall

gladly sign your name on the top line

please so it wasn't in February 1885

there came into existence the

organization you call the AT&T company

founded in the infancy of the telephone

to pioneer long-distance service but

destined 15 years later to become the

central company of your system

while transmitters receivers and

switching devices were being improved an

important development came from the

study and introduction of the principle

of transposition the application of this

interesting principle involved shifting

the current path by interchanging the

position of the two wires of the circuit

this exchange of a pin position of the

two wires at carefully determined

intervals helps to reduce the

interference brought to the circuit by

induction from parallel electrical

currents the parts of accuracy of

transposition is playing in the modern

art of transmission is evident to any

expert I had to scan the complex wire

facilities of today

thus with all wire circuits the

transposition principle an organized

laboratory investigation for every

department of telephone activity there

was encouragement to the effort to link

together the drawing telephone


yet when wires were made to talk a

thousand miles in 1892 the

accomplishment only emphasized the

character of obstacles still to be


good morning I'd like some information

about your service they're done thank


why don't you like to know we're on this

new service to Chicago he's going to be

very useful to it

our agents they have things though too

we usually can understand each other

fairly well if we speak carefully and

not too loud but how about the power

rest we have important dangers on the

Pacific coast

when can we telephone to them yeah I am

afraid that something nobody knows but

surely you're going to put up more wires

of course but a thousand miles is about

the limit we're talking what sir I don't

understand the wire is a wire we can

Telegraph to the Pacific Coast yes

oh where is a wire well the telephones

are given a telegraph circuit are

entirely different thing let me explain

it to you very simply

there's your telephone transmitter

there's a receiver here is the battery

that furnishes the electrical current

here is aware this is you about to talk

very good that does look like me when

you talk you're a transmitter diaphragm

vibrates correspondingly this produces

electric waves on the wire which conform

to the vibrations your voice has called

the electric current makes the receiver

diaphragm vibrate these vibrations are

similar to those of the transmitter


they are reconverted into sound and

that's what the man at the receiver

hears I understand all that it seems

very simple but if the electric waves

reach Chicago why not San Francisco they

will what the speech would not be

intelligible you see the electric waves

which represent your voice grow weak

with distance then they get smothered by

the other waves on the wire what other

way Oh electrical disturbances and other

things we call it noise when your speech

level gets down to the noise level the

man at the other end of the wire won't

hear it so that's it that's the

situation what we need is a device that

will take the electric current when it

becomes weak restore it to its original

strength and keep unchanged the wave

pattern that represents your speech

sounds like a fine idea oh we have the

idea but we haven't found the device

when we do we'll have better lines the

only alternative is to increase the size

of the wires and spaced them farther

apart well why not do that here's the

kind of wire used on the new circuit

ajikko what we call the number 8 size

this means eight hundred and seventy

pounds of copper to the mile the two

wires must be spaced about twelve inches

apart that's

and intervals they are transpose

transpose yes that helps to overcome

induction induction that's what causes

the noise I was telling you about now

we could string wires all the way across

the company but they'd have to be larger

than these number eights and with wider

spacing probably Oh 24 inch spacing

would do the job well if you can do it I

think you should do it I want to use

those while it's a matter of economics

er a circuit like that would need

thousands of pounds of copper per mile

to support the added weight more poles

would be needed or else heavier ones

with the wider spacing fewer wires could

be carried on the cross arms the

investment would be two minutes so you

can imagine what the rate would be maybe

100 dollars would you want to pay that

no of course not

there'll at times it might be worth more

than $100 well there's the fundamental

problem to make wires talk and to make

it worth your while to use them see now

I see well I guess you fellas know what

you're doing I saw mr. bells invention

at the centennial in 76 you've gone a

long way since then and I suppose I

should be grateful for what we have well

thank you very much goodbye said goodbye

I hope you'll recommend the service to

your friends I'm doing that all a while

I suppose someday you'll have a lot of

wires to Chicago and pack them in one of

those cables I see around town no cable

is Chicago I'm afraid you can talk

through cables less than a hundred miles

guess we all stick to these number

eights up on poles where we can watch

him then they say goodbye

no cable to Chicago thought the

engineers of 1892 there was no

scientific experience that could foresee

it but there is such a cable and in the

picture record of its completion is the

presence of some of those same engineers

watching the ceremony of the final

splice and this cable as we heard

foretold a moment ago is packed with

wire circuits so that the pulsing

interrelated life of great urban

communities may be expressed in speech

over the miles in the record too is a

still more significant reminder of

progress a type of cable with only four

conductors providing channels for

hundreds of simultaneous conversations

and while glancing at these exhibits of

development let us mark still another

achievement it is the grouping in a

single sheeting of four thousand two

hundred and forty two strands of

insulated wire that may be buried so

confidently beneath the city streets as

channels for the speech of its citizens

certainly an exciting transmission

problem that of making cable circuits

conform to the needs of changing times

yet it's intriguing histories but one of

a thousand chapters in the telephone

story each replete with the thrills of

discovery of technical application of

development and change to match progress

in a thousand directions it is a record

that reveals the astonishing

ramifications of scientific persistency

there's a half century of history for

you installers to read if you would know

about the hundred and more types of

transmitters and receivers preceding the

instruments that today you put to work

so skillfully and you with switching

mechanisms in your care a vast

literature awaits you if you would

retrace the path leading back to the

beginning of intercommunication

you men are the cables and open wires

who build the lines and keep them

efficient for the flying speech of this

modern day look in the record if you

would know what went before the writing

of your present manuals of technique and

your guardians of the amplifiers that

helped to make a whisper recognizable

around the world there is historic drama


the record of engineering and laboratory

adventuring that gave you your tools of

today deduct from the telephone art what

the search of this record will disclose

and you have left as you all know

nothing but the first crude instrument

the temptation to explore that record

here is strong indeed but there is time

to pause it but a few of the pages that

refer to this anniversary story our

narrative is still in the early 90s

there were 300,000 telephones in the

nation from all important population

centers the lines were spreading to

suburban areas a system of long distance

lines was growing but his limited range

is revealed in a special directory of

that day a book listing all the

telephones in America that were

connected with this system by all mental

circuits it was called in national

directory yet the telephones it listed

were only 14 states and a thousand miles

was still the limit for talking but men

were thinking men were experimenting and

at the beginning of the century there

came two telephone engineers a device

that wouldn't preserve weakened energy

or long circuits it was the loading coil

to understand the loading principle we

can think of energy being applied at one

end of a rope a wave pattern is created

but it soon disappears because of the

ropes resistance but if the rope is

loaded with weights at proper intervals

the initial energy is not so quickly


thus the wave pattern is maintained for

a longer distance there was another

development of the period that bears

upon this anniversary resume this was

the possibility of arranging two

circuits in such a way that a third

circuit for conversation would be

created this third circuit is what you

call a phantom circuit the engineers who

planned for these invisible carriers of

speech know best the millions of miles

of copper wire that the phantom

principle has saved as experience was

gained in the scientific loading of

circuits hundreds of miles were added to

the range of the spoken word historic

advertisements told that an unlimited

range was the hope but limits still

remain and from the circuit map came the

challenge of the gap yet to be bridged


by wires but by wires that would talk



excuse me the door was open so I walked

in all right won't you sit down

thank you I'm after some information

about your service I'm rather a large

user in fact my firm uses several of

your private wires you probably should

talk with the commercial manager I'm an

engineer now that reminds me sir I

talked with one of your engineers nearly

20 years ago

he said something about waves said you

needed something that would make the

long distance wires talk father he must

have meant a repeating device or an

amplifier something of that sort how

that was it I'm glad you found it all

we've been developing repeaters for

several years but we haven't solved the

problem by any means I thought you had

why don't the office we often talk to

st. Louis omaha service is pretty good

too and now this statement by your

president in the morning paper says we

soon have service to the coast oh he

doesn't say soon does he no he just

believes that universal service is on

the way well I I'm afraid I read it

hastily Oh what is the difficulty you

say you have those repeated things

yes but they've got to be better much

better we're in a peculiar position we

know definitely what we need and it

doesn't even exist that puts it right of

thirst doesn't I just can't grasp the

problem the problem is to get the

telephone ways to the distant end with

volume enough without distortion and

without picking up a lot of noise now

the lines we're using are loaded with

loaded with what well loading in

telephony is rather difficult to explain

to the layman but it means that coils of

wire like this wound on iron cores are

introduced in the line every few miles

they don't add additional energy but

they do conserve what we have they make

the entire length of telephone line more

efficient what are these thingamajigs

you call repeaters

they are also devices which are

introduced into line but much farther

apart the loading coil they actually

introduce new energy into the line to

restore the electrical current when it

becomes weakened Oh can't you use your

coils and your repeaters together now

you've named one of the most tantalizing

problems in our engineering here's the

most important element and the repeaters

we are using today if we put a repeater

employing one of these elements on a

loaded circuit the result is fairly good

up to a certain distance well if one of

them helps why not use a lot of them it

can't be done if we use more than one on

the circuit there's distortion and other

troubles too there's no point in

transmitting badly distorted speeches

there then Denver is the limit from here

it really is a little bit more than the

limit we aren't very proud of that

circuit it's all very confusing you've

improved your line still you need a


use a couple of repeaters and right away

you hurt your line I never dreamed it

was such a such a scientific manner let

me put it briefly there are three

considerations to this problem of

getting your remarks in New York over a

wire - well at a say San Francisco first

the best possible amplifying devices

second the best possible lines made

suitable for those devices third the

best possible circuit arrangements for

combining the two oh I suppose that

sounds pretty technical yes don't tell

me anymore I'm mixed up enough already

what I mean is everything must be

engineered to work together when we get

the amplifier we're after we may have to

make adjustments in the loading or else

the amplifier won't operate the circuit

Arrangements may have to be changed we

don't know that yet every improvement

effects everything we've got already

that's telephony well good luck to you I

hope you'll find what you're after we

expect it all it's our job to do it we

have a splendid scientific organization

some brilliant men have been assigned to

this particular problem we're not going

to give up when you hear that we have a

line to the coast a line that talks

you'll know that I'm

has given something mighty important in

the world it certainly will be important

well thank you sir goodbye goodbye


just what was the job they wouldn't give

up it was the same as yours today to get

the message through but the vital

challenge then was the men of science

and the message was to be the first


across the continent of North America

how that challenge was met how telephone

men from coast-to-coast teamed up to

translate the accomplishment into an

agency of service is one of the great

chapters of telephone history the

details of the story are legion

they involve the activities of an army

led by foresight and faith and inspired

by a compelling sense of high purpose in

an adventure of exciting significance to

the Western telephone organizations was

to come a pioneering building assignment

that demanded the utmost in enthusiasm

in skill and devotion in the record is

the name of every man who helped in that

construction task every surveyor

teamster cook line man ground man

foremen superintendent engineer and the

men of the long lines at headquarters

end along their circuits all the way to

the Rockies have coordinating

responsibilities of the most exacting

character that call for equal devotion

and skill it was an Army that moved it

was an army that achieved of its

activities on a wide and changing front

there can be but the merest hint in this

anniversary tribute build that line to

California we'll make it work

we must develop another type of repeater

New York wants a report on our lines

west of Denver New York's talking about

a phantom group clear across the country



this mercury-arc repeater still seems

too erotic let's see what the labs can

do with this vacuum tube will meet the

Pacific men at the Nevada line there's

got to be a better vacuum start out the

surveyors put transcontinental estimates

in the budget


keep up the mathematical research

rebuild and repair to Salt Lake

then 130 miles west all new present

construction to the Reno area then 400

miles east all new set up 3500 miles of

artificial line for testing


make sure divisions 1 4 & 5 already 500

men can do it let's get organized

we'll use 14,000 poles crossing Nevada

this new tube design might work with

better lines remeasure loading and

transpose e New York to Denver it must

be accurate


the boss says 23,000 transpositions

including phantoms

the temperature still 130


look out for rattlesnakes

some job this loading every eight miles

across the country repeaters ready for

the first test already three coins



well the jobs about done boys there's

the last poll




more than 30,000 of today's telephone

forces were in Bell System service on

that January day of 1915 when greetings

between east and west

spend 3400 miles and dedication

ceremonies to these thousands the

developments of succeeding years must

indeed make a story of vivid

reminiscence on that day there was a

single overland route a so-called

phantom group of three circuits only a

voice Highway hailed as a miracle and

now there are four great modern

communication arteries crossing the

plains and stealing the western

mountains each with a multitude of

channels along which may flow the words

that bind together all sections of our

country the historic amplifiers of the

first transcontinental test are

treasured as ancestors of nearly a

half-million that today give their

restoring impulses to the currents

coursing through them at a thousand

strategic centres a frequency range

about nine hundred cycles represented

the first speech that United East and

West today there is three times at

pioneer range to bring about the clarity

that distinguishes nationwide

transmission and three times three does

not tell the extent to its special


fifty thousand miles of them can bring

two radio stations the overtones of

Symphony and song storm proof cables now

spanned distances of unbelievable

magnitude to the engineers at that first

transcontinental highway

direct circuits to faraway cities

radiates from busy centers that

switching may be minimized and the time

gets shortened between your call please

and ready with Atlanta and tennis dot

the coasts to take from the wires The

Voice of America and heard it to the

telephones of six continents and two

ships at sea while others lift their

alert insensitive wires to catch the

waves that hold the answering words

truly today right has no limit to human

speech because of science and because of

the men and women who guard and guide

what science has revealed




someone will find out how to use it


something tells me something