On Jan. 25, 1915, New York City officials, prominent businessmen and the directors of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) all surrounded Alexander Graham Bell as he sat by his invention, the telephone, on the 15th floor of New York’s Telephone Building. Across the continent in San Francisco, Thomas A. Watson also waited, similarly flanked by business executives and politicians.
At 4:30 p.m. (EST), Dr. Bell picked up the telephone receiver in front of him and said, “Mr. Watson, are you there?” Watson pressed the receiver to his ear, assured his erstwhile boss that, yes, he had heard the question clearly. Bell then repeated the words he had spoken in 1876, when he and Watson had conducted the world’s first telephone conservation, between two floors of a Boston boardinghouse, “Mr. Watson,” he said, “come here I want you.” From 2,572 miles away came Watson’s response: “It would take me a week to get to you this time.” Thus was transcontinental telephone communication established.
The telephone line that allowed Watson and Bell to speak across the continent weighed nearly 3,000 tons and was suspended from 130,000 telephone poles. The line had spurs running to Jekyll Island, Ga., and Washington, D.C., and operated as one large party line, allowing hundreds of people to listen in on a conversation between two principals in any of the four cities.
As Bell and Watson conversed, Theodore Vail, president of AT&T, interrupted from Jekyll Island to offer his congratulations. Later, President Woodrow Wilson broke in from Washington, declaring, “It appeals to the imagination to speak across the continent.”
By March, commercial operation of the transcontinental line had begun. A New York-to-San Francisco call cost $20.70 for the first three minutes and $6.75 for each additional minute.
Bells were ringing in 1915 from a limited number of telephone instruments installed on walls or on a table with a wire connection from the wall. Almost one hundred years later, we hear them ring, without any wire connections, from pockets or purses of the average person-on-the-street. We hear people conversing on them as they are walking on the street, shopping in a store, dining in a restaurant, driving a car, riding a bus, watching a movie, ballet or opera — even as they “do their business” in a public washroom.
Did any of those men in that New York office in 1915 even dream of the technology to come? Maybe so.