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  • The First Transcontinental Telephone Call

    Posted by David Foster on January 24th, 2015 (All posts by )

    …was made 100 years ago, on January 25, 1915. (Well, actually, that was the first official transcontinental phone call; the line had actually been completed and tested by July of 1914, but the big PR event was timed to coincide with something called the Panama-Pacific exposition.) Alexander Graham Bell was in New York City and repeated his famous request “Mr Watson, come here, I want you” into the phone, Mr Watson then being in San Francisco.

    Long-distance calls from the East Coast had previously reached only as far as Denver; it was the use of vacuum-tube amplifiers to boost weak signals that made possible true transcontinental calling.

    Here’s the NYT story that marked the occasion. Note that the price announced for NYC-SF calling was $20.75 for the first three minutes and $6.75 for each minute thereafter. According to the CPI inflation calculator, these numbers equate to $486.38 and $158.21 in today’s money.


    7 Responses to “The First Transcontinental Telephone Call”

    1. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      I look at an iPhone, old guy that I am now, and I think there’s not a whole of difference between that and the communicator used in Star Trek. The biggest difference being the iPhone is far more capable and advanced. Good example of how difficult it can be to predict the future of technology or of anything.

      On a related subject, I read a book 10-12 years ago called Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jones. Absolutely fascinating if you’re interested in the history of science. Here’s the Booknotes interview Brian Lamb did with Jill.

    2. David Foster Says:

      I read the Jill Jones book some years ago, and thought it was very interesting. It’s from that book that I got the George Westinghouse storythat I used in my Leadership Vignettes series.

    3. David Foster Says:

      Steve Ballmer apparently failed to see the importance of smartphones…a pretty expensive omission in his thinking, from the standpoint of Microsoft shareholders.

      Note this article, in which he refers to phones as “form factors”…suggesting a certain narrowness in his thinking:,2817,2424631,00.asp

    4. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      As Max Smart would say about MS, Missed it by *that* much! :P

      Another example… If you’ve read the Foundation books written in the 1950’s by Isaac Asimov, you’ll remember several references to a hand held calculator, essentially a hand held digital computer. This at a time when a digital computer was a UNIVAC. He even described it having a red light display. Amazing piece of prescient thinking. All he missed was the timescale. He portrayed them many thousands of years into the future. I always smiled to myself when thinking of his reaction to being able buy one commercially for a few tens of dollars only 25 years later.

    5. newrouter Says:

      > the communicator used in Star Trek<

      a flip phone

    6. Joe Wooten Says:

      I look at an iPhone, old guy that I am now, and I think there’s not a whole of difference between that and the communicator used in Star Trek.

      Michael, a better analogy would be the hand computer used by the characters in Jerry Pournelle’s/Larry Niven’s Mote in God’s Eye. There, everyone had a networked hand held computer. That was written in the late 1970’s, long before the iphone/tablets were even a dream in Steve Job’s head…..

    7. David Foster Says:

      Computerworld has an article on the opening of transcontinental phone service:

      The statement that there was “a single copper circuit that could carry exactly one call at a time” appears to be wrong. According to the fairly-detailed NYT article that I liked above, there were 2 copper circuits and one “phantom circuit” (using electrical trickery to provide an additional speaking path), providing the ability to handle 3 calls at a time.