Making a phone call from New York to California doesn’t count as an extraordinary feat these days.

But pretend it’s 1915. A verbal conversation spanning the continent was a remarkable — almost unbelievable — achievement in technology.

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of what is often called the first transcontinental phone call, made by iconic communications inventor Alexander Graham Bell, in New York, to his assistant Thomas Watson, all the way out in San Francisco. The phone call also included President Woodrow Wilson, who was in the White House, and AT&T president Theodore Vail in Georgia.

The first official transcontinental phone line opened on Jan. 25, 1915. Of course, the actual first transcontinental phone call probably took place the year before, historians agree, after the phone line was completed for testing. The 1915 call was part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that year — a celebration of the Panama Canal’s completion and a showcase of the newly revitalized San Francisco, which had been decimated by a 1906 earthquake and fire.

It was a heavily scripted conversation, one designed to bring in publicity for the achievement, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The only genuine moment came when Bell first asked Watson, “Are you there? Do you hear me?”

AT&T built the coast-to-coast telephone system, which included 130,000 telephone poles and 2,500 tons of copper wire that spanned 3,400 miles, according to the company. All that for a four-way conference call — quite a long way from being able to FaceTime using iPhones. Read more…




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