100 years ago, calling coast-to-coast was costly These two phones were used on the first transcontinental call. At left, Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California, takes a photo of himself while posing with the phone used by President Woodrow Wilson (AP photos)
100 years ago, calling coast-to-coast was costly
Lexile

The first coast-to-coast phone call was made 100 years ago this week.

And oh, how far we have come! This time, smartphones were used to snap pictures of the phone that was used to make that first call.

The historic phone call came on Jan. 25, 1915. It was part of a celebration. The Panama Canal had just been completed. And the city of San Francisco had finally recovered from the 1906 earthquake and fire. So the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. conducted a call between the city and New York. It was made just before the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and World's Fair in San Francisco.

Transmitting the human voice over 3,400 miles had been considered impossible. That's according to current AT&T California President Ken McNeely. He snapped a selfie with the old black handheld telephone.

"Fast forward to today. We hold all knowledge of human kind in the palm of our hands with smartphones. We've come a long way."

The original phones will be on display at the California Historical Society. They're part of its "City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World Fair" exhibition. It opens on Feb. 22.

That first call was made by Alexander Graham Bell in New York. He called his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was attending the World's Fair in San Francisco. Bell had invented the phone a few decades earlier.

Listening in was President Woodrow Wilson in Washington. Theodore Vail, then president of American Telephone and Telegraph Co. in Georgia listened in too.

According to the transcript of that call, Bell's first words were "Ahoy! Ahoy! Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?"

Watson replied, "Yes, Mr. Bell, I hear you perfectly."

The call lasted about 3 1/2 hours. They kept the line open for a series of conversations. And unlike today, there was no such thing as unlimited talk time for a set price.

The cost of a three-minute, coast-to-coast call in 1915 was about $20. That is about $500 in current dollars.

California Historical Society Executive Director Anthea Hartig described the coast-to-coast achievement. She said it took four years to create the infrastructure. It also took more than 5 million pounds of material to build the coast-to-coast phone line.

Actually, it represented almost 7,000 miles of telephone wire to connect these places. We think we're so modern. We participate in conference calls but they were doing that in 1915," she said.

Hartig said Bell was a visionary. He wanted to push technology as far as possible.

"I think that he would be delighted and amazed to think that we have the world in our palms," she said.

Critical thinking challenge: Why did this first transcontinental call last for over three hours?

Assigned 27 times


COMMENTS (12)
  • KadenJohnson-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:44 a.m.

    They were on the phone for 3 hours because they were talking about series of things.

  • BrysonFarley-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:44 a.m.

    Because the phone was small and it was not like the one we have now.

  • TraceBramlett-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:47 a.m.

    Because they kept the line open series of conversion.

  • CharleyAtha-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:50 a.m.

    It was so long because it was the first ever phone call.

  • OksanaGoroshka-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:51 a.m.

    The first transcontinental call lasted three hours because unlike today they had to pay for a call to somebody.

  • GageHedrick-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:54 a.m.

    It is smaller than the ones we have today . they are much smaller

  • JaggerKertesz-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:57 a.m.

    because they talked that long and it was mabey boy

  • BenHinkle-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:57 a.m.

    Because they a serous time for a nice conversation.

  • JeremyP-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:58 a.m.

    Because they had to talk for a really really long I have never saw somebody talk on phone that long.

  • LynleeH-Hay
    2/02/2015 - 10:59 a.m.

    I think it was because they wanted to make sure the phone was working so they could make more
    lynlee

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