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

In true San Francisco irony, smartphones were used this week to snap pictures of a historic phone that was used to make the first coast-to-coast phone call 100 years ago.

On Jan. 25, 1915, to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and to show that San Francisco had recovered from the 1906 earthquake and fire, 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.

"Thinking about the ability to transmit the human voice over 3,400 miles was considered absolutely impossible," said current AT&T California President Ken McNeely, who snapped a selfie with the old black handheld. "Fast forward to today when 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 as part of its "City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World Fair" exhibition that opens on Feb. 22.

That first call was made by Alexander Graham Bell in New York to 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 were President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, and Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone and Telegraph Co. in Georgia.

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

The call actually lasted about 3 1/2 hours as 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, which translates into about $500 in current dollars.

California Historical Society Executive Director Anthea Hartig said it took four years to create the infrastructure and 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, one-hundred years ago this weekend," she said.

Hartig said Bell was a visionary who 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. "I think he would be right there with us, texting and walking and hopefully not driving."

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

Assigned 12 times


COMMENTS (12)
  • Son_Of_Zeus
    2/02/2015 - 12:43 p.m.

    I think that it is very cool that the two original phones that made the first transcontinental are in display in San Fransisco. I wish I could go see that beacause that would be really cool to have a picture of that.

  • rm00pennie
    2/02/2015 - 01:32 p.m.

    the first call over telephone that was ever made and lasted over three and a half hours was from president Wilson to Theodore vail president of American telephone and telegraph co.

  • MaxG-4
    2/02/2015 - 10:39 p.m.

    This article is a great article because it talks about something that shapes civilization as we know it. Despite my negativity sometimes, I can't say that this is something useless. The article talks about the progression of phones, but with huge gaps. This article obviously was meant to be a technology article not a history article. This article did a decent job of explaining the difference between modern phones and the 1915 phones.

    I, as it is easy to tell, like this article. My favorite points are that the call was between New York and San Francisco. A majorly wrong depiction that many people see is that they were in the same house talking. Also i just like how the mention that Bell wanted phones to be answered by "Ahoy" instead of our "Hello" which is hilarious to a modern reader.

  • ShaniaWentz-Ste
    2/04/2015 - 10:36 a.m.

    It is amazing how much technology has changed over the years. Even within decades, technology has stepped up to the plate and transformed in exceptional ways. Being able to quickly and effectively communicate from coast to coast and even around the world is something that everyone should be happy and proud of. Not many countries have technology like this.

  • SantanaAntonio-DiB
    2/04/2015 - 10:46 a.m.

    The coast to coast call that was a 100 miles was a big impact in society itself not only did it let people take snapshots but it also lets you communicate from a great distance.

  • marisola-Orv
    2/05/2015 - 12:09 p.m.

    can you imagine a $7.000 telephone wire to connect and more than 5 millions pounds of material to build the coast to coast phone line and can you believe a coast to coast of a three minute call in 1915 costs about $20 which translates about $500in current dollars.

  • sebastiant-DiB
    2/06/2015 - 10:34 a.m.

    It has told that when they had made the anniversary of the panama canal of celebrating the way it told. It has told of comparing the phones and stuff happen back then,

  • EmmaBender
    2/09/2015 - 01:49 p.m.

    Our technology had increases dramatically over the years. It's only been 100 years since they have had phones to make calls but know with our most recent technology we can do so much with the invention of smart phones.

  • GavinCTurqois
    2/10/2015 - 11:59 a.m.

    This is pretty cool, and to think that just 100 years ago we were using things that you had to hold with 2 hands. It is just surprising how far we have come with technology.

  • AdenCBrown
    2/17/2015 - 11:59 a.m.

    Wow, a hundred years ago? That was a long time ago! I'm surprised that a three-minute telephone call could cost so much money! I'd assume that means if people were calling coast to coast, the messages would be really short. I am so glad that smartphones exist.

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