First Transcontinental Phone Call Took Place 100 Years Ago Today

Bell System Western Electric Model 302 dial telephone, ca. 1936

By Paul Riegler on 25 January 2015
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The first transcontinental phone call took place one hundred years ago today, on January 25, 1915.

The historic call was placed by three parties, Alexander Graham Bell in New York, Theodore Vail, the president of AT&T in Jekyll Island, Georgia, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in the White House, to Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco.

In the call, Bell repeated into the phone his famous sentence, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” which was heard by Dr. Watson, who was 3,400 miles (5,471 kilometers) distant. Watson replied, “It will take me five days to get there now!”

The call was purely ceremonial, as construction of the transcontinental telephone line had been completed on June 27 of the previous year, and the first test call was made the following month by Vail.

The occasion was timed to precede the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair held in San Francisco from February 20 through December 4 that year that was intended to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal. It was also meant to call attention to San Francisco’s rebirth following the 1906 earthquake and the fires that destroyed almost 80% of the city.

AT&T still has the original telephone instruments used to place the call and has placed the objects on display at the California Historical Society as part of its PPIE 100 “City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World Fair” exhibition. The exhibit officially opens on February 21 at 678 Mission Street.

Later in 1915, the first voice call across the Atlantic Ocean by radiotelephone was made from Arlington, Virginia to Paris, France.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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