Evolution of the Telephone Part 4

Continuing on from part 3, we take a look at how the telephone network expanded in the USA in the early 1900's. 

Universal Service had well and truly kicked off after Theodore Vail had surged forward with his intention of providing every American with access to a telephone, when he re-joined Bell in 1907 as the company’s CEO. He was at the peak of his power in the early 1900s as he embarked on a mission to build the first coast to coast telephone line, starting work in 1908.

The line was completed in 1915 ran 3,400 miles from New York to San Francisco and was the start of a further control, changing the market and committing the company to providing the best telephone service possible. Vail essentially spared The American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) from near ruin, with expired patents and smaller, independent companies expanding rapidly, providing more competition. He focused on the long-distance system, spanning the US and steered the company towards a more scientific approach, researching and developing his ideas in Bell Laboratories.

Vail trialled the line in July 1914 with success however this wasn’t celebrated until the Panama Canal completion in January the following year. Bell and Watson recreated their first ever telephone call on the 25th of January 1915, with Bell summoning Watson to New York and Watson allegedly replying from San Francisco...

"It will take me five days to get there now!"

Vail had begun construction on the long distance line a year after he re-joined Bell, taking 6 years to complete, but creating a connection across the country that took just 1/15th of a second, a lot easier than a 16 day canal journey to have a chinwag! The price of a call was reportedly around $400 for three minutes. It wouldn’t be until 1956 that the UK and USA connected wires.

Coming to the rescue one last time, after the US Federal Government took over the telephone service in the US in 1918, Vail organised contracts meaning private control and power was soon resumed to the Bell System. After all he’d done for Bell and technology as we know it today, Vail died in 1920 aged 74, but did so having inspired huge ambitions in the telephone industry.

The 1920s were a period of experimenting and the Bell System invested in a dial service which had already been available from many of the independent competitors. The first ‘step by step’ switch was installed in Dallas in 1921 by Bell Telephone Company. By December that year Dallas was the first city to have all dial phones. These were commonly known as ‘French telephones’ and the rates of calls also decreased during this time. The 1920s were a period of prosperity for the US, with technological developments in machinery, mass production and a boom in the electricity industry. Telephone sales had grown from 10 million in 1915 to 20 million in 1930.

The UK and USA had been connected by telegraph for some time but the first time the two countries were connected via telephone was in 1927 from the Post Office long wave wireless station in Rugby. A unified telephone system had been available to UK citizens since 1912, operated by the Pot Office, by 1913 they were one of only 3 providers of a telephone service in the UK. 1924 also marked the year the public telephone box was designed by competition winner Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the bright red kiosks were then introduced in 1927.

With the looming depression for the US came a hit for Western Electric and the Bell System, employment rates and the use of phones decreased locally and long distance and the company began to look to other means of communication such as telegraphs. The Government was about to step in and have it’s say in the monopoly that Bell and Veil had created.


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