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A Capsule History of the Bell System

 

Compiled and edited from previously published material by Kenneth P. Todd, Jr.
Copyrighted (c) by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T)


To download the (Zipped) Microsoft Word 97 document
of this publication, click here .

Table of Contents


Preface

This booklet provides background information about the history and performance of the Bell System for Public Relations Department people.

Editors and writers, advertising, film and press practitioners, radio and television people and men and women skilled in public and environmental affairs enter the Bell System with many talents and abilities, but without the background and corporate insight born of Bell System experience. This history has been written, then to show how, why, when and where the Bell System got the way it is.

It will illuminate other parts of the American business world as well. The scope of the Bell System being what it is today, this history touches the lives of two or three million people who work for the System directly or are employed by companies with whom this business contracts for work. In addition, many millions of Bell System customers are affected by the success or lack of success of this enterprise.

The Bell System, from its beginning, has been demonstrably willing to tell its own story. There have been, and are, books, booklets, films, magazines, radio and television programs and "commercials" and, today, audio and video tapes which do this job. Many of these are listed in the bibliography at the end of this document. So this history by no means stands alone. It differs from existing information, though, in that it is both a compilation and a condensation of the Bell System story. Its style is consciously contemporary, for the Bell System stands on the brink of some major institutional and philosophical changes during the 1980's. If it can contribute to a successful transition into these new times, then its value and its purpose will be complete. Return to Table of Contents


The Early Days of Mechanical Communication, or a Shout Is Not Enough

The Bell System's success is based upon what appears to be a very basic human need to communicate with other human beings. A Corporation dedicated to providing instant paths for communication between people ought to stand in a pretty good position. And so it does; the Bell System is engaged in supplying a necessity which, while perhaps not so important to the support of life as food, shelter and clothing, is not far behind. So long as the service provided is satisfactory, that is, responsive to the actual needs of those who use it, the Bell System-or any other communications-supplying organization should remain healthy and successful.

But, not surprisingly, communications has taken a good deal longer to achieve its recognition in the hierarchy of human needs than food, clothing or shelter. Not until the means for instant communications were readily available to everyone-not until the first quarter of the Twentieth Century-could recognition of communications as a satisfiable need be believed and generally accepted. Today, to say that man must communicate is so obvious a statement as to be unnecessary, but the fact remains that civilization depends upon communications and complex civilization depends upon complex communication.

At first, men talked to each other, beat on drums and drew pictures. Then they erected buildings and built roads. They walked from town to town and from city to city relating the latest news. They wrote letters, scrolls, books. They trained horses to carry them faster than they could walk and they built boats to carry them further than they could swim. And then, for several thousand years of civilized history, while literature, architecture, art, warfare. physics, chemistry, medicine and the whole multitude of human technological achievement advanced, retreated and advanced again, the techniques of communication remained static. A message moved only as fast as the fastest horse and carried only as far as the eye could see.

Then, in 1753, the barrier was broken. Unfortunately for the memory of the person who accomplished this, he will remain known to history only by the initials "C.M." with which he signed a letter written to the Scotch Times describing a wonderful idea. He described an electric telegraph based on static electricity. The movement of "electric balls attached to the ends of a set of wires corresponding to the letters of the alphabet" would, the writer felt, improve the sending of messages from place to place. C.M.'s letter was published and was followed by a 50-year silence.

The reason for the silence was that static electricity is too limited to be effective in telegraphy, a fact apparently recognized but not verbalized at the time. Not until people like Volta, Ampere, Oersted and Faraday came along to develop and demonstrate electrical theory could the telegraph be invented. At the time of C.M.'s letter, the only thing really known about electricity was that amber-and certain other materials called "electricals" from the Greek word for amber, elecktron - could be charged by rubbing it.
While Volta and his peers were at work unraveling the mysteries of electricity, another development appeared. This was the last flowering of the mechanical, or visual, telegraph. The visual telegraph traced its ancestry back to smoke signals and hilltop bonfires and the towers used by Egyptians and Romans to pass information along. Visual telegraphy reached its highest development in France during and following the French Revolution. A weakened France, surrounded by her enemies, was saved because the enemies - the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Germans and the Italians - could not communicate with each other. Within France, however, a series of visual telegraph towers, designed by Claude Chappe, was built between cities to carry news and unify the revolution-torn country. By 1852, when the electric telegraph finally caught up with and passed it, the Chappe system in France covered a total distance of more than 3,000 miles and used a total of 556 telegraph towers with various semaphore arms for complicated messages.

Visual telegraph systems were instituted in England and America as well when it was found how well they worked in France. Today in the United States there are still landmarks in or near towns, high hills often called Telegraph Hill, the last legacy of the visual telegraph.

The electric telegraph developed slowly between 1753 and 1838, when the first economically successful telegraph line was installed between Paddington and West Drayton in England, along 13 miles of railroad right-of-way. In 1844 a telegraph line was built between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, using Samuel F.B. Morse's recently redesigned telegraph key and receiver. First designed by Morse in 1835, it also used Morse's system of dots and dashes to transmit letters and numbers. During the next years, the growth and extension of electric telegraph progressed rapidly, with companies forming and dissolving frequently. Finally, all telegraph lines in the United States were amalgamated and the Western Union Telegraph Company was incorporated.

The first successful undersea cable was laid in September 1851, across the English Channel to France. The first successful transatlantic cable was laid in 1866. These were great times for the young telegraph industry. Western man was coming to understand that immediate communication between distant points was not only an interesting novelty it was economic necessity for a developing world. Western Union, eleven years after its formation had, by 1867, increased its capital by eleven thousand per cent. The young company was valued that year at $41,000,000. Western Union had become a highly influential corporation, with a virtual monopoly on the rapid transmission of information in (he United States. This included the news flowing to the nation's newspapers, for Western Union controlled the Associated Press.

The company became so powerful that in 1872 a new telegraph company was proposed and accepted by the government, backed by, among others, Andrew Carnegie and a man named Gardner G. Hubbard. Just over a year later Hubbard would become one of the two men who offered financial support to Alexander Graham Bell, deep in his early experiments to improve the message-bearing capacity of the electric telegraph.

From 1838 to 1872 was only 34 years, but man's ability to communicate over distances had changed markedly. The need for communication expanded as the ability to communicate expanded. Information sent by telegraph moved as fast as the speed of electricity. An unknown speed at the time, it was enough to be called instantaneous.
Development of the telegraph was rapid and its acceptance was nearly as fast. Some developments came along, in fact, before sufficient need was felt. In 1841, for instance, Charles Wheatstone, the English designer of the Paddington-to-West Drayton telegraph, came up with a telegraph instrument which would print letters. It would be many years, however, before Teletype machines would be in wide use.

The next logical step beyond the sending of non-vocal information in the form of mechanical codes over long distances, was, of course, the instantaneous transmission of man's words over wires. A word was already in existence to describe this development: the telephone.

"Telephone" was applied to any device used in sending sound over a distance. It had been a well-known fact for thousands of years that sounds could be sent through solid bodies of water, or through short speaking tubes. Some time after the first metal wire was manufactured it was discovered that sound could be carried along taut wires or through waxed cord. (This technique is still employed by children who speak to each other through tin cans tied together by short lengths of string.) Robert Hooke wrote, toward the end of the 17th Century, after conducting experiments with direct vocal transmission over taut wire, " 'Tis not impossible to hear a whisper a furlong's distance, it having already been done; and perhaps the nature of the thing would not make it more impossible though that furlong should be ten times multiplied." But Robert Hooke did not know how to generate electricity, nor did he even know what electricity was. His prophecy remained unfulfilled for two hundred years.

The first apparent transmission of modulated, or varying sound of which there is any record, was accomplished in Frankfort-Am-Main in 1861 by J. Philip Reis. Reis appears to have been able to transmit musical notes over a wire, but his accomplishment was so far from intelligible speech that no one went any further with it. His invention was to remain just another of the many scientific toys developed during that time to demonstrate recently discovered scientific principles.

The modulated properties of most sounds presented the biggest problem. Telegraph systems transmitted sounds with single frequencies; it didn't matter what frequency. What mattered in telegraphy was the interpretation of symbols produced by a series of spaced bursts of electricity. Sending modulated sounds-and the human voice is one of the most complex of these-was much more difficult.

Another 15 years of experimentation were to pass after Reis' success, before a workable electric telephone was to be invented. But, before examining the invention, it would be well to take a good look at the man who came up with it, for the man who invented the telephone was most influential in setting the life-style of the corporation which later carried his name. Return to Table of Contents


Alexander Graham Bell and the Invention of the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell's grandfather, the first Alexander Bell, started his business career in Protestant Scotland as a shoemaker, but his interests and talents soon led him onto the Shakespearean stage. The stage was, however, no place for a property brought-up young Scotsman, and Alexander soon left it to become what was then known as a "reader." He stood upon the stage and declaimed passages from Shakespeare in a noble voice to elevated audiences. It was a much more respectable occupation than performing the actual plays. From these successful histrionics, Alexander Bell proceeded into the teaching of elocution. This started a family tradition which was to culminate two generations later in the invention of the telephone. It was not a scientific road, but an educative one.

The first Alexander Bell proclaimed himself a professor of elocution and moved on to London where he opened and directed his own elocution school. It was a successful one, not only assisting people in overcoming stammering and lisping problems, but also teaching cockney girls to talk like ladies and foreign gentlemen to speak well enough to fit into English society. Bell's school continued after his death and Bernard Shaw used it, many years later, as the model for his play Pygmalion.

The tradition of elocution teaching led Melville Bell, Alexander's son, further into the field. Melville wrote textbooks on correct speech and invented a code of symbols which he termed "Visual Speech." This remarkable code indicated the exact positions and actions of the throat, tongue and lips during the process of speech. Melville's idea was that Visible Speech could be used by diplomatic and business people as a, key to the pronunciation of words in many different languages; and it has been successfully used as such. But it was also discovered that the symbols were a very reliable guide for training deaf people to speak intelligibly. This was poignantly important in the Bell household, where Melville's wife, Eliza, began to lose her hearing when Alexander Graham Bell, one of Melville's three sons, was 12 years old.

Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh. He grew up deeply involved in the study of speech. He was also a talented musician able to play by ear from a very early age, and, had he not been more interested in what his father was doing to help people speak, he might have ended up as a professional musician. He and his two brothers, an inventive trio, once built a model human skull and filled it with a good enough reproduction of the human vocal apparatus, which was worked with a bellows, so that it was reputed to be able to say, "Ma-ma."

When Graham, as he preferred to be called, was 15 he joined his brothers in assisting their father's public demonstrations of Visible Speech in Edinburgh. The boys would leave the stage and the audience would call out the hardest words or sounds they could come up with. Melville translated these sounds into Visible Speech on a blackboard, whereupon Graham and his brothers would return to simulate the sound of a kiss or a complex word in Serbian to the audience's amusement and amazement. It was, no doubt, a good act.

Graham enrolled as a "student teacher" at Weston House, a boys' school near Edinburgh. at about this time, where he taught music and elocution and. in return, studied other subjects. He later attended the University of Edinburgh and, for several varying periods of time, also attended the University of London, where he used Visible Speech in teaching deaf children to talk.

This was the childhood and early manhood of the man who would invent the telephone, a man who would add impetus to the budding technological revolution. A. G. Bell was, by nature and training, a humanist and, more, a humanitarian. He was a teacher who cared deeply about people, and he liked what he did.

From this point on, Graham Bell's story starts to take on the quality of a motion picture scenario. In 1866, when Bell was still a teacher at Weston House, he started a series of experiments on the changing resonancies within the human vocal cavities as the tongue moves in producing vowel sounds. He showed a report of his findings to his father. His father showed the report to his colleagues. One of these, a learned scientist in London, told Graham about Hermann von Helmhoiz, a German also working in the field of speech theory. Helmhoiz, in his book, Sensations of Tone, had told about his experiments with electrically-driven tuning forks and about how he had been able to produce vowel sounds mechanically with them.

Bell didn't read German very well and he got the mistaken impression that Helmholz had, somehow telegraphed these mechanical vowel sounds over a wire. Although Bell was soon aware of his mistake he couldn't seem to get rid of the idea. And that simple misunderstanding started the train of events which led the humanist inexorably into the field of pragmatic electrical experimentation. Bell became interested in electricity, a subject until that time totally outside his interests.

And then tragedy hit the Bell family. Both of Graham Bell's brothers died of tuberculosis and Graham himself was threatened. Melville Bell, at the advice of doctors, cave up his career in London and moved his family to Brantford, Ontario, where Graham soon recovered his health.

Melville's fame and the fame of his Visible Speech had preceded him to Canada and the United States. In the course of this drama's development, in 1871, he was asked by Sarah Fuller, who ran a deaf school in Boston, to show her teachers how to use Visible Speech. Melville sent Graham instead, and Graham was a great hit, not only at Sarah Fuller's school but also at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northhampton and the American Asylum in Hartford.

Graham Bell's success led him to become deeply involved in revolutionizing the teaching of the deaf. Until this time, people had believed it was impossible to teach deaf children to talk and the best thing to do with a deaf child was to shut him away with other deaf people. It was one more manifestation of the Victorian proclivity to hide social problems so they would go away.

Graham Bell disagreed entirely. So did Gardiner Green Hubbard, whose daughter, Mabel, had been deaf since she suffered a scarlet fever attack when she was four. Bell taught Mabel how to talk and later married her. Hubbard was president of the Clarke School where Bell happened to be teaching. He grew interested in Bell's work and Bell and he became close friends.

Bell's success as a teacher led him to open his own school in Boston to train teachers in "Vocal Physiology and the Mechanics of Speech." Bell trained teachers, but he continued to train deaf children to talk both for his demonstration purposes and because he believed it to be his primary duty. The next year Bell was appointed Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University, continuing his work to bring deaf children into society to give them the opportunity to live full and complete lives. One of these children was the five year old son of a successful leather merchant from Salem named Thomas Sanders. Sanders also became a friend and admirer of Bell and his work.

By this time, Bell's interest in electricity had led him to set up a little laboratory where he worked at night, trying to find a way to send several messages over a single telegraph wire simultaneously. Hubbard and Sanders offered to support Bell in his experiments. Bell agreed to this, for he was running out of funds. In addition, he agreed that all three would form a company and share in whatever profits-however unlikely the possibility-came of it all. The first thing they did was apply for two patents-which were granted-for improvements in telegraphy.

Bell, by this time, had moved his experiments to Charles Williams' electrical shop in Boston where Williams assigned young Thomas Watson to assist Bell in his work. Bell was still working with what had developed from his mistaken interpretation of Helmholz' tuning forks. He was attempting to activate several different electrically produced tones on several different tuning forks at one end of a wire at the same time to be received by several similar tuning forks at the other end. Bell intended to call the result a "harmonic telegraph." It was the device for which his first patents were issued, but he was never able to make it work.

He kept at it, however, substituting metal organ reeds for tuning forks when he decided that the forks were hopeless. Then, suddenly, there came the breakthrough: The reeds could possibly, Bell reasoned, be made to vibrate sympathetically, like the strings of a piano, in response to a human voice. This vibration could cause a current to flow in a wire and this current could reproduce the voice on other reeds at the other end.

At this point, Bell used his knowledge of the anatomy of the ear. He attached one end of his reed to a diaphragm which he had deduced from the analogy of the eardrum. As the reed vibrated in response to a modulated tone it should cause a current to flow, and that current must vary in intensity.

This was late in 1874, and shortly thereafter, in February, 1875, while he was in Washington, D.C., Bell, depressed by tack of progress, talked to Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, describing his idea and complaining that he had too little knowledge of electricity, being at heart a speech teacher. Joseph Henry, responding like the pragmatic man of science he was, answered, "Go get it!"

So Bell returned to Watson, who had been assigned the job of building all experimental equipment which Bell needed. One day in June, 1875, after many weeks of unproductive experimentation with vibration reeds, Thomas Watson made the happy mistake of connecting one of the reeds too tightly. When he plucked at it to free it, another moment of scientific truth arrived. That plucking twanged along the wire to be heard distinctly by Bell at the other end of the wire who just happened to be holding another reed pressed tightly against his ear. Bell rushed into the room and demanded that Watson move nothing. When they believed they knew exactly what happened, Bell had Watson reproduce the situation exactly and then left for the evening, no doubt rubbing his hands and thinking, that it had been a most successful day. It had been. Watson's twanging message must stand as the first Bell telephone.

Refinement followed refinement, through the summer and fall of 1875. On February 14, 1876, Bell filed specifications in Washington, D.C., of the set-up he and Watson were working on, applying for his first patent just three hours before Elisha Gray filed a caveat for a patent on a similar device. That particular application's timing must stand as one of the great narrow squeaks and coincidences of technological history. It was such a coincidence, in fact, that Bell and Gray entered into considerable correspondence about it.

Bell's first patent was issued on March 7, 1876, four days after his 29th birthday. Three days later, when he dropped a Liquid Transmitter, spilling acid upon his trousers, Bell called out, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" Watson heard him over the wire and ran.

That was the first working telephone, sending the first understandable message consisting of human words along a wire, and, interestingly enough, doing a useful communications job right from the start. Perhaps even more appropriate, Bell, the humanist, a man dedicated to helping disadvantaged and often discarded deaf children lead normal lives, had produced an invention which would, when applied to human society, produce enormous changes and Improvements in the life-style of the world's peoples.
Bell was a dreamer, it is true, and he continued dreaming and inventing long after he had invented the telephone. His dreams and his personality do not pass entirely out of this history, however, but continue to color the corporation that his interest in hearing and speech had started.

The story of that corporation and its early days makes just as exciting a scenario as does the story of the invention of the telephone. Better, perhaps, because it is less well known. Return to Table of Contents


The Corporation Is Born

The real birth of the Bell System has, of course, already been recorded here. When Thomas Sanders made his first verbal offer of partnership to Alexander Graham Bell, which he is said to have followed with further blandishments until Bell agreed to go along with him, the first "company" was born. For a company in its most basic form is nothing more than two or more people joined together in some enterprise.

Shortly after Bell and Sanders reached agreement, Gardiner G. Hubbard made Bell a similar offer and the three of them then got together. They finally put it in writing in the form of an agreement dated February 27, 1875.

The terms of this agreement were simple and straightforward. Sanders and Hubbard were each to furnish half the money for Bell to continue his experimentation and perfection of his ideas about the multiple telegraph. Bell was to do the work. Bell also had the responsibility to apply for and maintain patents on his inventions. His first patent was No. 161,739 for "Improvements in Transmitters and Receivers for Electric Telegraph." This patent, when it was issued, was the first of the tangible assets of what had come to be called the "Bell Patent Association." The Bell Patent Association was the first formalized expression of what was to be the Bell System.

Since both Sanders and Hubbard thought the multiple telegraph would be the real money-maker, no mention of the telephone was made in the agreement. But when Bell's February 14, 1876, patent application was granted on March 7 of that year for an "Improvement in Telegraphy" but which was, in fact for the speaking telephone itself, the old agreement had to be brought up-to-date. The number of Bell's second patent was No. 174,465 and has been called, with good reason, "the most valuable patent ever issued."

Bell, it seems, had thought that all his "telegraph" experiments and patents were covered by the agreement but Hubbard, especially, thought that only multiple telegraph patents were covered. He even went so far as to urge Bell to pay more attention to the matter at hand and to stop fooling around with that speaking telephone nonsense. Bell, fortunately, like many other creative geniuses, paid little attention to the voice of practicality, and persevered. His interpretation of the Bell Patent Association's coverage was agreed upon finally. That interpretation made the three-way agreement the first legal instrument of corporate telephone ownership and organization. A far cry from today's giant institution, but there were no rules at the time for forming nationwide telephone networks.

By January, 1877, Bell had applied for and been issued two further patents. Both were also nominally based upon improvements in telegraphy, but taken together with his first two patents, they acted as the technological foundation of the early telephone development of the Bell System, just as the Bell Patent Association formed the base of future Bell System organizational development. It would be interesting to know whether any of these three men ever had an inkling of what was to follow.

If they did not foresee the Bell System, at least they foresaw the value of the speaking telephone itself. They also saw the difficulty of making anyone believe in what Bell had invented. Even Hubbard, only six months before, had believed firmly that spoken words could never be carried over a wire.

Publicity was needed, although it was not called publicity at the time. Hubbard urged Bell to demonstrate his new instrument as well as the further improvements Thomas Watson had produced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition that summer: Bell thought not, and here's where Bell's love for Mabel Hubbard firmly intrudes into Bell System corporate history. Thomas Watson had worked weeks polishing up his telephones and Mabel Hubbard thought that a trip to Philadelphia to display and demonstrate them was a certainty. Further, she thought that Bell was going to go with her and her father and her uncle to do this. Bell went down to the station to see them off, fully intending to return to the Boston Deaf School to continue working. But when Mabel discovered that Bell was not going, she burst into tears. And Bell, a true if impulsive lover, jumped aboard what one hopes for dramatic context was a moving train, and arrived in Philadelphia without baggage of any kind.

What happened at the Philadelphia Centennial was colorful, but also vital to the success of Bell's invention. The real drama occurred on June 25, 1876. It was hot and muggy in Philadelphia and not many people were attracted to Dr. Bell and his complex scientific experiment setup. This disinterest extended to the group of distinguished persons moving slowly through the steaming hall, judging exhibits. But the party happened to include Dom Pedro do Alcontara, the Emperor of Brazil, whom Bell had met several weeks before at the School of the Deaf in Boston. The emperor recognized Bell and, apparently, was delighted to see an old friend, for he stopped the entire judging group and lured them over to Bell's exhibit just as the group was disbanding for the day. This was most fortunate - another moment of truth in the history of the telephone - for Bell was on the point of returning to his real work with the deaf in Boston and would not have been on hand to demonstrate his invention the next day when the judges planned to return.

The judges listened in amazement as Bell recited all of Hamlet's soliloquy, and Dom Pedro exclaimed in wonder, "My God! it talks!"

And it was, in truth, a wonder. This demonstration caused a surge of interest in the telephone. It also rekindled the enthusiasm of Bell, Hubbard and Sanders. That successful exhibition also showed the Bell Patent Association a new way to attract needed operating capital. Sanders, who had put up more than $100.000, was running out of money, and people back home in Hartford were beginning to call the telephone "Sanders' Folly." The answer was public demonstrations with paid audiences.

In the pre-television and movie world, readings, lectures and scientific demonstrations were high in the lists of public amusements suitable for both ladies and gentlemen, and Bell's telephone proved to be among the better attractions. Bell would appear upon one stage and Thomas Watson and a man named Fred Gower who was hired briefly as their business manager would appear on two other stages, each with its paid audience. Then they would talk and sing to each other. Occasionally, Watson would be at home rather than on stage. It was in the course of one of these demonstrations that Watson built the first telephone booth, constructed of blankets and barrel hoops, to protect the tender ears of his fellow-tenants from his amateur trumpet-playing and singing.

Alexander Graham Bell married Mabel Hubbard on July 11, 1877 and shortly afterward passed out of the telephonic picture, other than to place a few demonstration calls on important occasions. Bell's interests moved onward. He and Mabel went to Europe on their honeymoon, and while there Bell showed off the telephone to more audiences, all enchanted with its uniqueness. One of these audiences was with Queen Victoria and she, it is said, was impressed by the new instrument. Bell also continued his work with the deaf while in Europe and returned from the trip fully convinced that he must spend the rest of his life scrimping and saving on the salary of a poor teacher and lecture-demonstrator.

One major reason for Bell's depression stemmed from the fact that, although the public was both bemused and amused by the telephone during the first year of its public life, it was not inflamed by its economic possibilities. Nevertheless, just before Mr. and Mrs. Bell left for Europe, on August 4, 1877, the three members of the patent agreement met to form the Bell Telephone Company to look after the telephone's interests, with Hubbard as Trustee. This company had one full-time employee, Thomas Watson, who was paid $3.00 a day in wages, and, somewhat more importantly, was given a one-tenth interest in all the patents the company owned. While Bell sailed to Europe to promote his invention and work with the deaf, Watson stayed at home. His was the honor of being the first research and development arm of the Bell System-forerunner of the vaunted Bell Telephone Laboratories.

As Watson improved and improvised the art of telephony, Hubbard and Sanders went about tying to make it pay.

Gardiner G. Hubbard had been for some time the attorney for the Gordon-McKay Shoe Machinery Company, a firm which manufactured shoemaking machines. That firm had the policy of not selling its machines, but leasing them instead, retaining title and collecting a royalty on each pair of shoes produced. This was not a unique policy, but it convinced Hubbard that here was the best way to make Bell's invention pay off. Hubbard stuck by his conviction in the face of great pressures, both economic and familial, for even Mabel wanted her father to make some money quickly by selling instruments. Mabel's pressure was not entirely familial, for her husband had assigned to her his stock in the Bell Telephone Company as soon as it was issued. The first 5,000 shares of stock were distributed among the company in this manner: ten shares for Mr. Bell; 1,497 shares for Mrs. Bell; 1,387 to Gardiner Hubbard; 100 shares to Mrs. Hubbard; 1,497 shares to Thomas Sanders; 499 shares to Thomas Watson, and ten shares to Hubbard's brother, C. E. Hubbard. On August 10, R. W. Devonshire was hired to do the bookkeeping, becoming the second full-time employee of the corporation and the first commercial manager.

Shortly after Bell left for Europe, and soon after the company was formed, Hubbard's spirits dipped, and the Bell System almost stopped before it started. Hubbard offered to sell all the Bell patents to William Orton, president of the powerful and rich Western Union Company, for just $100,000. This was less than Sanders' investment, but at least it was something.

Western Union would have none of the "electrical toy," seeing no possibility of the telephone's aiding Western Union. That decision must stand as one of the greatest corporate blunders of all time, even outshining Hubbard's decision to try to sell. His offer rejected, Hubbard held firmly to his policy of not selling telephones. That proved as wise a decision as Orton's was unwise.

Both are examples of business decisions made relatively quickly, but which have had great impact on millions of people over many decades. Corporate decisions frequently prove to be as important to the world at large as they are to the corporation. But since they are made by human beings they possess the potential for human fallibility. Thus, Orton, chose wrong and Hubbard chose right, and the Bell System's history continued.

Another critical corporate decision was made at this time -- to organize still another corporation to operate Bell's telephones locally. When the Bell Telephone Company was formed on August 1, 1877, there were only 778 telephones in operation, and more money was needed for operating them and adding to their number. This time it was Sanders' decision that made the difference. He convinced a number of men from Massachusetts and Rhode Island to put their money into a firm dedicated to development of the telephone in New England. And so the New England Telephone Company was formed. There is no direct connection between this firm and the present New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, but, still, this firm, incorporated February 12, 1878 -- two days less than two years after Bell's first telephone patent application -- was, in fact, the forerunner of Bell System's operating telephone companies.

The articles of incorporation committed the new company to follow Hubbard's stated policy of leasing rather than selling and also required it to buy its telephone instruments from the Bell Telephone Company only, at a price of $3.00 for telephones and $10 for "magneto calls."

As telephonic jargon begins to pile up now, it may help to pause for a closer look at what Watson had created from what Bell had invented, and to find out how the telephone worked. Had Bell's telephone not worked successfully, or successfully for its day, the next installments could never have followed. Return to Table of Contents


Sound Waves and the Early Telephone

Once one understands what Bell caused to happen when he invented the telephone, one wonders why it took him so long to get around to it. And not only Bell, but Elisha Gray, or Thomas Edison, or any of the other many men of science who were inventing technological wonders during, the Nineteenth Century.

The reasoning behind the telephone was simple enough. The first step toward it, the telegraph, was simplicity itself, since it consisted only of breaking an electrical circuit between two telegraph instruments in a pre-decided manner, thus allowing it to be translated into words. As soon as men had demonstrated that current flows along a wire, long before they had demonstrated why it does so, it was a simple step to make it stop flowing. The next step was much more difficult. Bell, and all the other people who cared to consider it, knew that the voice -- and, for that matter, all sounds -- were carried to the ear through varying sound waves which vibrated the eardrum. The eardrum vibrated other small bones until a nerve picked up the vibration, and sent the result off to the brain where it was translated into intelligence. But a voice, Bell knew, vibrates everything around it as well as ear drums. The vibration is slight, but with sensitive equipment it could be picked up. The question was, how could this vibration be picked up and superimposed upon a current flowing along a wire and then be picked up again at the other end?

Bell reasoned that any sensitive diaphragm could act like the eardrum. He and Watson, after months of frustrating experiments, discovered that these vibrations could be transmitted. On the evening of June 2, 1875, that point was proved, although, as already told, it was proved by accident. The result was that Bell then knew that when he fastened a thin magnetic reed to a small drumhead and placed a battery-powered electromagnet behind it, the reed vibrated back and forth in response. First it had vibrated at the twang of a reed, and later to the sound of his voice. The reed vibrated first toward the magnet and then away, causing a current to flow in the coil around the magnet, first in one direction and then in another. A wire connected to the coil of the electromagnet on one end and to a similar device on the other end carried these vibrations and caused, finally, a second reed to vibrate identically with the one at the sending end.

Bell and Watson revised and refined for nearly a year until, on March 10, 1876, the first intelligible words were transmitted. Watson kept on working, to improve the instrument, but always it worked on the same principles. A telephone user held the instrument to his mouth when speaking and quickly placed it to his car to listen. Volume was controlled solely by vocal power.

One of the early instructions to customers published by the New York Telephone Company just a few years later, stated, "After speaking, transfer the telephone from the mouth to the ear very promptly. When replying to a communication from another, do not speak too promptly, give your correspondent time to transfer, as much trouble is caused from both parties speaking at the same time. When you are not speaking, you should be listening." Good advice!

Telephones worked for 13 more years before Sir J. J. Thompson, an English physicist, isolated the electron and scientists finally understood why electrical current flows and, therefore, why the telephone worked. Very simply, electrons "flow" along a wire, almost analogously to water flowing in a pipe. The flow of electrons can be varied by using one or a number of devices, like valves in a water system. The telephone instrument is, of course, one variety of electrical valve. The English still call radio and television tubes, valves, which, in fact, they are.

One early advertisement reads thus: "Oh! no, the telephone wires are not hollow; the voice is transmitted by waves of electricity." And, as a matter of general interest, the ad continues, "Telephones are rented only to persons of good breeding and refinement. There is nothing to be feared from your conversation being overheard. Our subscribers are too well-bred to listen to other people's conversations".

Thomas Watson remarks in his memoirs, apropos of the next step in the development of telephony, "It began to dawn on us that people engaged in getting their living on the ordinary walks of life couldn't be expected to keep telephones at their ear all the time while waiting for a call, especially as it weighed about ten pounds then and was as big as a small packing case, so it devolved on me to get up some sort of a call signal. We used to call by thumping the diaphragm, through the mouthpiece with the butt of a lead pencil. If there was someone close to the telephone at the other end, and it was very still, it did pretty well, but it seriously damaged the vitals of the machine and therefore I decided it wasn't really practical for the general public; besides, we might have to supply a pencil with every telephone and that would be expensive. Then I rigged a little hammer inside the box with a button on the outside. When the button was thumped the hammer would hit the side of the diaphragm where it could not be damaged, the usual electrical transformation took place, and a much more modest but still unmistakable thump would issue from the telephone at the other end.

"...But the exacting public wanted something better, and I devised the Watson 'Buzzer" -- the only practical use we ever made of the harmonic telegraph relics. Many of these were sent out. It was a vast improvement on the Watson 'thumper' but it still didn't take the popular fancy. ... It brought me only a fleeting fame for I soon superseded it by a magneto-electric call bell that solved the problem, and was destined to make a long-suffering public turn cranks for the next 15 years or so."

The crank generated a current which made an indicator flop at the central office, or, if two telephones were simply connected together, rang at the other telephone. And that explains the reference to a $10 charge for the mysterious magneto call mentioned earlier.

And now we come to a new term, "central office." Obviously, the value of the telephone network to the user increases in direct proportion to the number of telephones connected to it, and only two telephones connected don't make much of a network. Therefore, the central office, or exchange, as it was called during the early days, was opened. Here, all locally installed telephones were terminated on a switch, very simple at first, but growing increasingly complex as more and more telephones were connected. This switch, grown large, became a switchboard.

Five days after agreement had been reached to form the New England Telephone Company and more than two weeks before its legal incorporation, the first telephone exchange opened on January 28, 1878, in New Haven, Connecticut.

The persons employed to operate the switchboards were quickly dubbed operators. A New York paper's editorial declared, "Telephones will throw the messengers and errand boys out of their jobs!" Then it asked, "And what will all the poor widowed mothers do then?" The answer was obvious when these boys were hired as the first operators. Their usually unrefined, uneducated voices slashed upon the "well-bred" ears of the telephone customers. Great relief was felt when young ladies began to replace the boys at the switchboards and speak with cultured tones to the customers. The first female operator, hired September 1, 1878, was Miss Emma M. Nutt, and she was a big hit.

By 1881, to skip ahead a bit, a telephone company report stated, only nine cities of more than 10,000 inhabitants in the United States and one of more than 15,000 are without a telephone exchange."

In short, the telephone, though still not without its detractors, was a success. It worked and was found to be very useful, indeed. It was also found to be vulnerable. For it was only a few months after Hubbard had offered the whole thing to Western Union for $100,000 that Western Union people came to realize what a truly unwise decision they had made. And this opened the door for the next major drama in the corporate development of the Bell System. The scene is reminiscent of the battle between David and Goliath. And, hard as it is to imagine, the Bell System played the part of David. Return to Table of Contents


Western Union Reacts Vigorously

By 1878, Western Union, then at its greatest peak of success and power, had grown accustomed to absorbing smaller telegraph-related companies voraciously. One of these was called the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company and operated the device which was the direct ancestor of the stock ticker. When Western Union bought it in 1871, the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company operated 729 instruments. Western Union increased the number yearly until 1878 when, to its alarm, the company discovered that stockbrokers preferred two-way conversations over the telephone to one-way stock tickers and were, therefore, busily ordering telephones installed.

Western Union, aware finally that the telephone might have some use after all, immediately organized the American Speaking Telephone Company as a subsidiary of the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. Western Union bought Elisha Gray's patents and commissioned Thomas A. Edison to get busy and invent some better telephones.

There are many historians who firmly believe that Gray, and not Bell, invented the telephone. Gray certainly thought he had invented it.

As was noted earlier, Elisha Gray filed a caveat at the Patent Office in Washington only a few hours after Alexander Graham Bell applied for his patent. A caveat was a declaration by an inventor that he was working on an invention which he has not yet perfected. Caveats are no longer permitted at the Patent Office, but at that time they counted as a patent. Since, in truth, neither Bell nor Gray had actually produced a device to "transmit the tones of the human voice," as Gray's caveat read, those few hours were very important to Bell and to the Bell Patent Association.

Gray and Bell later corresponded with understandable heat on the subject of which one of them had actually invented the telephone, and perhaps Gray conceded to Bell. Whether one believes that he did so depends upon what connotation one places on the words Gray wrote to Bell on March 5, 1877:

"Of course you have no means of knowing what
I have done in transmitting musical sounds.
When, however, you see the specification you
will see that the fundamental principles are
contained therein. I do not, however, claim even
the credit of inventing it, as I do not believe a
mere description that has never been reduced
to practice in the strict sense of the phrase
should be dignified by the name 'invention.'"

Elisha Gray's story did not end with this defeat, incidentally. By the time he filed his caveat he had already invented a superior telegraph repeater and earlier, in 1869, he had established with Enos Barton, the firm of Gray and Barton, Electrical Appliance Manufacturers. Shortly thereafter, General Anson Stager, vice president and general manager of Western Union, became a silent partner. Stager, who had been Lincoln's communications officer in the Civil War, had Gray and Barton move their firm from Cleveland to Chicago in December 1869. In 1872, Stager worked out a merger with a Western Union instrument shop in Ottawa, Illinois. Under the reorganization the company became the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. General Stager was principal stockholder but Western Union also had an interest. Later, the Western Electric Manufacturing Company became Western Union's sole source of supply for instruments.

The first thing Thomas Edison did for Western Union was to invent a telephone transmitter that was far better than anything in use by the Bell Companies; and it was a hard blow to take, as can well be imagined. It was also a very good selling point for Western Union's American Speaking Telephone Company. Not only did Western Union offer better equipment, it also offered a great network of existing wires, a very strong financial position and a huge reputation with a loyal following. The outlook looked dim indeed for the Bell people, who had, at the time, none of the above advantages. Western Union even went so far as to buy a controlling interest in several local Bell exchanges, particularly in the Middle West.

What the struggling Bell organization needed was a man to move mountains. And Gardiner Hubbard knew one -- a young railroad mail superintendent down in Washington, D.C. named Theodore Newton Vail. Hubbard hired Vail away from the Post Office and brought him up to Boston and into the telephone business to serve as general manager, organizer and promoter of a company newly formed to provide telephone service outside of New England. The new corporation was called the Bell Telephone Company after its predecessor and was incorporated on July 30, 1878 in Massachusetts, as the other two Bell companies had been. Vail's job was gigantic, but he swung into action with a will. Vail's previous employer, the Assistant Postmaster General, incidentally, was not pleased and wondered publicly why a man of "Vail's sound judgment" should throw up a good job with the Post Office "for a damned old Yankee notion (a piece of wire with two Texas steer horns attached to the ends, with an arrangement to make the concern bleat like a calf) called a telephone."

The first thing Vail did was to send a copy of Bell's patent to every Bell agent in the country, along with a fighting letter asking them to hold the fort against all attacks. "We have the original telephone patents," he stated. "We have organized and introduced the business and do not propose to have it taken from us by any corporation." In another letter he wrote, "We must organize companies with sufficient vitality to carry on a fight, as it is simply useless to get a company started that will succumb to the first bit of opposition it may encounter."

About five months after Vail arrived, the Bell Telephone Company was at its lowest ebb. The Bell treasury -- as well as Sanders' pocketbook -- was empty and many salaries had to go unpaid. Bell himself returned discouraged, tired and sick from his trip to Europe and was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital. And then Francis Blake invented, and Emile Berliner improved upon, a transmitter which they offered to the Bell interests. The Blake transmitter was at least equal to, if not better than Edison's transmitter. Shortly afterward another instrument was developed for the Bell companies and made available to Bell subscribers which had its transmitter and its receiver separate so the user no longer had to be a juggler to carry on a conversation. With new blood in its veins, the Bell enterprise was back in the battle.

In the spring of 1879 the New England Telephone Company was merged with the new Bell Telephone Company to form the National Bell Telephone Company, with Vail as the general manager.

And then, just when things were looking up, Western Union struck back by attacking what had been considered a Bell stronghold, Massachusetts. So Vail returned the fire with a suit for infringement of patents against the Massachusetts Western Union agent.

Thus did David face Goliath in a showdown: a relatively small ($450,000) corporation with little more than great faith in its ability to do the best job, with little history, prestige, power or influence arrayed against a giant ($41,000,000) firm controlled by two of the biggest financial tycoons in the United States, William H. and Cornelius Vanderbilt. It looked bad for Bell, but the tide of battle turned when Jay Gould attacked the other flank in an attempt to gain control of Western Union. Gould, like the Vanderbilts, was one of the financial giants of the day and those giants delighted in attacking one another. Gould did finally gain control of Western Union, but not for several years after the Western Union-Bell fray.

Western Union leadership looked at the odds, at its problems, at its priorities and weighed the advantages and disadvantages of a court battle with Bell to decide if Bell was to get what Western Union considered a minor segment of its total business. Western Union retreated before a court decision was reached, agreeing to sell all its telephones and systems-about 56,000 telephones in 55 cities-and leave the telephone business alone from that time on. Return to Table of Contents


The Corporation Grows:
The First Few Years with Vail

A. G. Bell's inventive genius and basic involvement in people's problems, Thomas Watson's Yankee ingenuity, Gardiner Hubbard's organizational abilities and Thomas Sanders' business acumen had joined to bring the Bell organization through its first hard months, the formative ones. The time had now come for the Bell Company to achieve organization, to make its first tentative moves toward attaining the corporate heights it was to reach after the turn of the century. A new mentality was needed to bring this about, a new kind of man; for successful corporations, unlike successful inventions, are never the result of pure serendipity. They are the result of planning and thought, judgment and action by men, and usually by one man leading others.

In Theodore Newton Vail, the Bell Company found its leader. Vail was at heart a Westerner, willing to fight hard for what he believed and not adverse to applying a little unconventionality in making his point when he knew he was right. His authority, wisdom, and far-sightedness changed the Bell organization from a struggling little firm. Boston-based and New England oriented, to a vital, huge, nation-wide System. But Vail didn't do all this at once. He did it in two bites. He worked to build the Bell companies from 1878 to 1887, then, finding the old guard too deeply entrenched to use him adequately, left the business. He returned in 1907 to lead the enterprise through another period of drastic change. Both times he was invited to join by men on the inside looking for help.

Theodore Newton Vail was born in Carroll County, Ohio, near the town of Minerva, but his parents moved to Morristown, New Jersey, when he was a small boy. He grew up in Morristown and worked in the local drugstore during the early years of the Civil War. Vail's parents, it seems, installed their bright son in the drugstore with the intention of interesting him in medicine so that he might pursue a successful career as a doctor. Vail, on the other hand, was fascinated instead with the telegraph sending and receiving office located in the drugstore. He spent much of his time studying it, learning how it operated and, finally, operating the instrument.

This state of affairs came to an end when Vail's parents advised him they had decided his career should be medicine. Strong-minded in early life as well as later, Vail advised them, in turn, that he would have none of medicine, wanted to work in telegraph and that if they didn't like it, he would leave home. His parents, it turned out, didn't like it; so Theodore Vail stormed off to New York City where he got a job as a telegrapher with Western Union.

A year or so later, Vail and his parents, having patched up their quarrel, moved out west to Waterloo, Iowa. Little is known of Vail's life in Waterloo, except that while he was there he organized a baseball team. The records show that on at least one afternoon, Vail's future organizational abilities were apparent. That memorable day Waterloo beat Cedar Rapids 84 to 30, with 33 runs being scored in one inning alone. Such success had to be a harbinger of future greatness.

Later, Vail got a job further west, in Wyoming, again as a telegrapher. Then, with a boost from a locally influential uncle, he moved up to the post of mail clerk. Vail found that nothing he had done so far in life, including baseball, was as interesting and all-consuming as solving the organizational problems of mail scheduling. Vail introduced new concepts, developed new charts and systems of scheduling. He made such a name for himself, in fact, that he was brought back to Washington, D.C. where he rose to the post of Chief of the United States Railway Mail Service. As has already been disclosed, that is where Gardiner Hubbard met him and became highly impressed with Vail's management abilities.

In May, 1878, Vail agreed to take charge of the small telephone company up in Boston. He gave up a secure, $5,000 a year job in Washington to take on a $3,500 a year job with a highly uncertain new firm. Congressman "Uncle Joe" Cannon, then a young member of Congress, wrote to friends that he was very sorry that the upstart telephone backers had "got hold of a nice fellow like Vail." It was, had Cannon realized the truth, closer to say that Vail had got hold of the telephone business. And he continued to manage it for the next nine years in the name of various groups of Boston-based financiers.

Vail's biggest problem initially as general manager of the telephone company was, of course, money. Where to get it, when the whole world knew that within months, maybe days, Western Union was going to take over? Hubbard had tried to raise money, but had not raised enough. Exhausted and discouraged, he was on the verge of relinquishing his control of the firm. In an attempt to build national business, he had given away telephone franchises in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Vail discovered almost immediately that the New York franchise holders had done little more than open offices. Sales and service were next to nothing. Vail's idea then was to sell stock in the New York Company, with a percentage to be held by the Bell Company in Boston as payment for the franchise. Once the local company was in operation, further income would be realized through dividends paid from income derived from local rental charges.

Vail extended this practice to other franchise companies, setting a pattern which, when refined and broadened, would result in the present Bell System associated company organization.

Vail's second major triumph occurred during the bargaining with Western Union after the patent infringement case had been instituted in 1879. Rather than give up the telephone business entirely, Western Union first agreed to accept the proposition that Bell and not Elisha Gray had invented the telephone. Then Western Union proposed to share the nation's telephone business with the Bell Company on a 50-50 basis. Vail, with the rest of the Bell Company management's agreement, refused the offer. Then Western Union offered to leave the local business to the Bell telephone companies, but suggested that because of its own wire network stretching across the country, Western Union should connect the local exchanges with long distance service.

The proposal seemed to make sense and some Bell company managers urged that it be accepted. But Vail hesitated. He saw only too well the logic of Western Union's offer, but he also foresaw that long distance toll service would eventually be highly profitable. Vail also reasoned that if the thousands of Bell exchanges around the country were cut off from each other, then the Bell organization would be weakened to the point of becoming powerless. It would be a communication company without internal communications. In the end, Vail's objection and reasoning prevailed. Western Union's bargainers came to understand that the businessmen and company directors in Boston were the financiers, but Vail was the operating head with whom they must do business.

The final agreement which was reached -- almost entirely of Vail's forming -- was that Western Union would get out of the telephone business and stay out, that it would let the Bell companies have access to all the patents Western Union had developed and owned dealing with the telephone, and that Western Union would pay 20 per cent of all the costs of any new telephone patents developed. In return for this one-sided agreement, Western Union would receive 20 per cent of all rentals or royalties of the Bell Company. Vail also committed the Bell Company to staying out of the telegraph business entirely, and the Western Union people thought they had really pulled one off.

There can be no doubt that Vail was a shrewd and hard bargainer; but there can also be no doubt that he was either very lucky or was equipped with an ability to see into the future which none of his peers possessed. For example, Vail seemed to understand the future importance and potential of the nationwide telephone network only two years after Bell invented the telephone. Vail must also have foreseen that the telephone was bound to eclipse the telegraph in importance and size after it had been further developed and perfected. Finally, Vail must have known that the development of a holding company with its resulting stock sales and dividend payments would ultimately supersede the current Bell Company policy of rentals and royalties. Such policy was then the primary means by which local telephone companies fulfilled their financial obligations to the holder of Bell's patents and licenses. When that policy changed, the 20 per cent royalty payment to Western Union soon approached the minimal. This displeased the folks at the telegraph company, who came to see that once again they had made the wrong decision.

On all three of these points, Vail was proved right and Western Union wrong. Vail later admitted, in 1912, that he and his fellow Bell managers knew that the status of Bell's patents was "somewhat uncertain: What we wanted to do was to get possession of the field in such a way that, patent or no patent, we could control it. No exchange could exist without being tied up with every other exchange."

One wonders why the Western Union people did not realize the same thing. For, as soon as Western Union gave up its telephone patent rights to Bell, the last uncertainty disappeared until 1893 and 1894 when the patents were due to expire. Meanwhile, the Bell companies had a clear field for more than ten years, long enough to establish a well-based national system.

The immediate result of all this success at the bargaining table was that the National Bell Telephone Company no longer had a large enough capitalization to operate the business. Demand for new telephones, plus the addition of 56,000 Western Union telephones, increased immensely the firm's need for money. It was then that the Bell management went to the Massachusetts legislature and asked it to pass a legislative act allowing the incorporation of the American Bell Telephone Company, capitalized at $10 million. The legislation was necessary because Massachusetts law limited the capitalization of incorporated entities to below what was needed to operate the Bell companies as they stood in 1880. W. H. Forbes and R. S. Fay, both Boston financiers and leaders of the old National Bell Telephone Company, were named trustees of the new company. It was formed on April 17, 1880, for "the purpose of owning, operating and licensing electric-speaking telephones and other apparatus and appliances pertaining to the transmission of intelligence by electricity."

The American Bell Telephone Company was granted one more thing by the Massachusetts legislature, and that was the power to own stock in its licensees and in other companies as well. Such ownership was not to exceed 30 per cent of the capital stock of a corporation doing business in Massachusetts.

Theodore N. Vail was still there, running the new company, for he was retained as General Manager. His old mentor, Gardiner Hubbard had stepped down to become a director, no longer involved in active leadership of the Bell companies.

Vail, operating head of a new, bigger organization, proceeded with his plans to strengthen it still further. He saw beyond 1894 when Bell's original patents ran out and the corporation's legal protection from competition disappeared. Somehow, Theodore Vail, in 1880, was able to see the far-future potential of the telephone, a potential seemingly limited only by the growth of the American population. Today's great population growth is one thing Vail did not foresee, however, and the problems coincident with that growth cause difficulties as serious to today's managers as those of Vail's time were to him. Return to Table of Contents


A Little Engineering...

Vail understood the problems of growth even before the construction of the first successful "long line" was completed and in use between Boston and New York City in 1884. The definition of a "long line," for the purpose of history is any long distance telephone line connecting points within different operating telephone companies.

This would appear to be an excellent spot to pause briefly in order to inspect a most basic point in telephone engineering. It's a simple point, but easy to overlook. Alexander Graham Bell, for example, overlooked it when he dreamed of the day when all Americans would sing The Star-Spangled Banner together, over the telephone, across the breadth of the land.

It does not work like that, because: It takes one line to interconnect two telephones. It takes three lines to interconnect three telephones; it takes six lines to interconnect four telephones; it takes ten lines to interconnect five telephones; it takes 15 lines to interconnect six telephones; it takes 21 lines to interconnect seven telephones; it takes 27 to interconnect eight telephones; and that's how it keeps on going and growing.

When there are more lines required than it is economically or physically possible to interconnect directly, another answer must be found: the central office. Each telephone is interconnected through a switching system of some kind in the central office with all other telephones working out of the central office. Central offices can, in turn, be interconnected, just as telephones, but the same sort of engineering progression occurs. This makes it necessary, finally, to develop "central offices for central offices" in densely populated areas and, for that matter, central offices even for those central offices. It follows then, that the more interconnections are added, the more expensive the installation, it's the opposite of "cheaper by the dozen."

All this was far in the future, of course, but Vail became increasingly aware that future success would force greater expenses as the system grew during the 1880's. Telephone systems today are engineered to be able to handle service requirements during the busiest hour of the day. But even during that busiest hour, not nearly all the telephones in a central office are in use at a given instant of time. If everyone in the United State picked up his phone simultaneously in order to sing the National Anthem, as Bell dreamed, none of the phones would work, for all the central offices across the country would be busy. It would be economically impossible to allow for that moment of absolutely total use to come about through the telephone system because all of that extra equipment would have to sit idle after the song was done. Even on a more realistic level. it would be economically unreasonable to engineer telephone systems beyond the needs of what telephone operating and engineering people call "busy hour." Fortunately, there are other answers available today to satisfy nation-wide instantaneous communication for the entire population: radio and television.

Vail and his fellow telephone people discovered, as the 1880's continued and more and more telephones were installed, that more and more equipment became necessary if telephone service was to continue its growth and high quality service was to endure and improve. This fact led to some basic policy discussion and disagreement in 1885. But first let's review an event that occurred in 1881 -- a direct result of the Massachusetts legislature's allowing the American Bell Telephone Company to acquire other firms-an event which would forever change the face of the fledgling communications company. Return to Table of Contents


Research, Manufacture and Western Electric

The first period of Bell System research and development could be said to have taken place in Alexander Graham Bell's head -- as well as in the heads of Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison, who were also hard at work on the problem of how to make the human voice carry over long distances. But when Bell moved into his attic to work and later, with the backing of Hubbard and Sanders, when he moved into larger quarters at the Charles Williams, Jr., electric factory and shop in Boston, the long Bell System tradition of research and development commenced. The Bell System has, by its very nature, always operated on the theory that a better way is possible through research and development and that from this approach will come better communications. Bell worked on his invention to this end, and the Bell Telephone Laboratories work toward this end today.

It would be an impossible task to separate the concept of good service from the concept of technological experimentation and innovation within the Bell System. There were a few years, notably from 1887 to 1907 when Bell's (and Vail's) point of view was submerged by corporate financing. In fact, the prevailing attitude held by most businessmen during the last half of the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century was one of profitability first. This attitude has changed today. American commerce has become much more consumer-oriented as enlightened corporate self-interest, consumer advocate groups, and governmental supervision and regulation have resulted in a more aware and enlightened consumer body.

No doubt Thomas Watson's strongest motive to improve the basic instrument Bell had invented was to come up with a telephone instrument which worked well enough for people to want or rent it. When that goal had been reached, the company's next motive for improvement was to find a transmitter which could be patented and which would be as good or better than the one Thomas Edison had invented for Western Union. The Bell company motive to continue to improve technologically was a combination of scientific curiosity and a corporate objective outlined by Theodore Vail's previously quoted remark: to progress in the field of telephony in such a way that when Bell's original patent ran out the Bell companies would retain the leading role in providing communications in America.

Of course, the best way to ensure success was to search for more and better means of transmitting and receiving the human voice -- a search which combined both motives -- and then to patent them, after which they could be made available to the public at a price which would return a profit and one which the public would be willing to pay. To this end, Thomas Watson worked as did his first assistant, Emile Berliner, the man who had adapted the Blake transmitter for public use, thereby letting the Bell companies catch up with Western Union's technology. Berliner was joined by George L. Anders. Watson left the telephone business after two years, and these two men, Berliner and Anders, were joined by others to continue the work at the Boston electrical factory. This was the small beginning of the Bell Laboratories of today. The group's name was changed, in 1883, to the Mechanical Department when development rather than patents became of primary importance.

The first telephones were made in the Charles Williams, Jr. factory but demand quickly outgrew his capacity. In the spring of 1879 the Bell Company licensed Ezra T. Gilliland of Indianapolis among other firms to manufacture the telephones and telephone-related equipment which Watson and his associates designed. Then, in November, 1881, the Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago, the firm which Western Union had built out of Gray's original electrical company, shortened its name to Western Electric and was reorganized, still under the laws of Illinois. This name change was suggested by the management of the American Bell Telephone Company, possibly by Vail. American Bell was able to direct this change because it had recently acquired the controlling stock previously held in Western Electric by Western Union and Anson Stager.

At this time also, the manufacturing licenses held by Gilliland in Indianapolis and by Charles Williams, Jr., in Boston were transferred to Western Electric. Western Electric became, at that time, the only manufacturer of Bell equipment. Several other licenses issued earlier by the Bell Company to smaller firms had already expired.

Two months later, on February 6, 1882, an agreement was signed by both the American Bell Company and Western Electric formalizing the relationship. This affiliation had continued fundamentally unchanged since then. Today, Western Electric continues to manufacture Bell System equipment, although its operations have expanded far beyond that. There is no longer a written agreement limiting the Bell Companies to buy only from Western Electric, nor is Western Electric restricted today to sell to the Bell System exclusively.

Western Electric has assumed other important roles in the provision of communication service. In 1901 Western Electric signed a contract with the Bell Telephone Company of Philadelphia under which it undertook to buy and warehouse all telephone and office supplies for that operating company. This contract formalized Western Electric's supply activities which it had been carrying on for some time and led to the formation of an organization which now encompasses distribution centers all across the country. Western Electric also installs new telephone equipment in central offices as it is needed and as new offices are opened, and is a major government contractor.

In 1907 Western Electric formed a new engineering division by a consolidation of Western's own engineering staff, engaged in normal manufacturing problems and the central engineering staff of AT&T. The latter was the direct successor of the original Alexander Graham Bell laboratory.

The formation of this new and stronger division was a policy pronouncement of importance. It stated that the Bell System regarded itself as a technologically based industry. It also implied a tacit commitment by the Bell System to supply its own technology, if necessary, without waiting for haphazard contributions from the outside. The newly formed organization would in time become the Bell Laboratories.

The 1907 consolidation brought in close contact the engineering groups specifying new apparatus with those of Western Electric charged with its manufacture. The use of scientists to help solve industrial problems was not quite unprecedented in 1907. There had been a few scientists in the predecessor telephone laboratories, and use of scientific method was well established. Nevertheless, technological progress had, on the whole, very little contact with pure science. It was largely in the hands of the individual inventor or "engineer" whose primary training was likely to have been in drafting and shop processes. As a result, technological progress often lagged advances in pure science by many decades. Return to Table of Contents


AT&T (Long Lines) Appears and Mr. Vail Exits

Between the years 1880 and 1884 a project had been underway which became more important and more complex each year. This was the construction and use of the first long distance telephone line to operate on a commercially acceptable level. This long line was a project particularly dear to Theodore Vail. The line was first built from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, 45 miles away. This section was opened on January 12, 1881. It was then run across Connecticut, through New Haven and then, finally, down into New York City, 292 miles away. Theodore Vail and Emile Berliner were present there to talk to a group in Boston at opening ceremonies on March 27, 1884.

This long distance line worked fine -- for an hour and a half -- before it went bad, knocked out by a cable failure at a river crossing in Connecticut. But it proved beyond a doubt that commercial long distance telephony was possible. The line was repaired within two months and was finally opened for commercial public use on September 4, 1884. Prices were $2 for use in the daytime and $1 at night.

Theodore Vail had come to believe more and more firmly that long distance lines were of prime importance to the Bell Company's success, but long distance lines crossed the territory of licensed telephone companies and had to use poles belonging to them. This caused bookkeeping confusion and cost money. To solve the problem, Vail and the other managers of the American Bell Telephone Company organized a subsidiary corporation to render toll telephone service. This special company was called the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and was incorporated with an initial capitalization of $100,000 on March 3, 1885. The date is unique, and appears again and again throughout Bell System history, for it is Alexander Graham Bell's birthday.

The new company's charter stated that it had been organized with the intent of "constructing, buying, owning, leasing or otherwise obtaining, lines of electric telegraph partly within and partly beyond the limits of the State of New York, and of equipping, using, operating or otherwise maintaining, the same." The term telegraph was used interchangeably with telephone for several years after the telephone's invention.

Vail's strong hand can be seen most firmly behind another statement in the new company's charter: ". . . the lines of this association . . . will connect one or more points in each and every city, town or place, in the State of New York with one or more points in each and every other city, town or place in said State, and in the rest of the United States, Canada and Mexico, and also by cable and other appropriate means with the rest of the known world as may hereafter become necessary or desirable in conducting the business of the association."

And there was Vail's dream in black and white. But it was still just a dream. Reality would follow in time.

Surprisingly, Theodore Vail was not a happy man at this time. His displeasure stemmed from a basic disagreement between him and the Boston financiers who ran the company, especially between Vail and Forbes, the American Bell president. Forbes was a money man and he deemed dividends to be the most important output of a corporation. Vail, on the other hand, said that expanded service was the way to success and that the corporation's surplus money should be spent toward that end and not distributed, nearly exclusively, among the corporate stockholders. Vail's attitude was unique in its day. To believe that service was more important than dividends just didn't set well. It made the men in Boston uncomfortable, for they shared the generally held attitude in the 1880's and 1890's that the primary business of business was to make money, and that the job of paying corporate bills should be reserved for the customers and certainly not be undertaken by the capitalists who owned the shares. Vail felt that bill-paying was a joint responsibility, but he was in the minority. Rather than compromise his ideals he resigned, in 1887, for "ill health" and immediately bought a yachts an ostrich farm and an interest in a centralized steam heating company recently formed to supply heat to downtown office buildings in New York.

Thus the man who designed the organization which was to become the Bell System felt compelled to resign because he was ahead of his time. He will reappear in 1907 when the polities of Forbes and those who followed him in the presidency of the American Bell Telephone Company of Boston proved to be outdated. This is not to intimate that nothing positive happened in telephony during the intervening years. The Mechanical Department, for example, staffed by a group of energetic and curiosity-ridden young men, started building the awesome image of Bell Telephone Laboratories.

The phantom circuit was proposed in 1886 and later perfected and patented. Phantom circuits were created by an arrangement of wires and coils, the result of which was to make it possible to use four wires to carry three telephone conversations and one telegraph message at the same time. The phantom circuit, and its patent, would come in handy after 1894 when the original telephone patent ran out.

In 1888 the first workable pay telephone was developed, and the first common battery switchboard was patented. The latter was important because until its invention all telephones had to be equipped with batteries. The common battery switchboard allowed the current to be supplied from the central office. This, obviously, made it easier to install and use a telephone.

In 1889 Angus S. Hubbard, the general superintendent of the AT&T company in New York, submitted a design for use in advertising long distance service. His design consisted of a blue bell.

And then in 1891, an undertaker in Kansas City, irritated beyond endurance because he thought he was being given wrong numbers by central office operators, decided to take the matter in hand and do something about it. Return to Table of Contents


Mr. Strowger and His Electric Telephone Switch

The Kansas City undertaker's full name was Almon B. Strowger, and he had some good reasons for being disgruntled with his telephone service. As the telephone business grew faster and faster in America's larger cities, telephone central offices grew more and more complex. The switchboards were something to behold, with many, many operators sitting in long rows plugging countless plugs into countless jacks. The cost of adding new subscribers had risen to the point foreseen in the earlier days, and that cost was continuing to rise, not in a direct, but in a geometric ratio. One large city general manager wrote that he could see the day coming soon when he would go broke merely by adding a few more subscribers.

There was need for a break-through of some kind, and Mr. Strowger went a long way towards providing it. For he claimed to have invented the dial telephone system.

To be fair, he did, but to be entirely truthful, Bell Company engineers and inventors had laid the groundwork for him. In 1879 an engineering firm called Connolly, Connolly and McTighe patented the first automatic telephone switch. It was the first of some 2500 such patents which would follow it, but it did not work successfully. Neither did the others, although there is evidence that a dial was used to set up connections on inter-office lines between Worcester and Gloucester, Massachusetts in late 1885.

In 1884, Gilliland, now head of the Mechanical Department, devised a customer-operated switching technique called the village system. It was good for no more than 15 telephones, however, and was replaced when the town, or the telephone demand in the town, grew beyond the system's capacity. The village system, too, was considered to be automatic when it was in use, although by today's standards it would be considered only a complex wiring plan.

But Strowger's system did work. It made use of many features already patented, but it worked. Strowger kept his costs down, too. The first working model was constructed inside a circular collar box. Strowger moved into telephony from the undertaking business because, as the near-legend has it, he was convinced that some local telephone operators, their power over him having cone to their heads, were deliberately giving wrong numbers and busy signal reports to his customers in order to drive him out of business. Without trying to find the truth behind the suspicion, it seems, Strowger determined to find a way to rid the world of those pesky operators, once and for all. He made a pretty good try.

The first Strowger office could serve only 99 telephones, used buttons instead of a dial and each telephone needed a strong battery and five wires to connect it to the central office. During the next few years, however, these and other problems were solved. In 1896 the first system, this time using a dial, was built by the Automatic Electric Company of Chicago, based on Strowger's patents. It went into operation at the City Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Strowger's dial system was the first in operation, but the Bell companies, too late to be considered truly innovative -- a shortcoming which too often typified them between 1887 and 1907 -- took over the idea and improved it vastly. They changed the system beyond recognition and made it commercially acceptable.

In 1902 the Mechanical Department was merged with the Engineering Department and went to work producing an automatic office which could serve up to 10,000 customers and which would come to the rescue of both telephone companies and their customers. This work was done at the instigation of Frederick P. Fish, a brilliant patent lawyer who was then president of AT&T and who was more interested in patents than finance. The results of this work on automatic exchanges produced the foundation of what has come to be a large part of the information carried over the Bell System's network today: Data. Years before the computer was possible, Bell scientists and inventors developed what they called a "sender" which, in effect, took note of the pulses caused by the dial's rotation and sent the information to automatic switches of various kinds. It was the first data transmission. Return to Table of Contents


Time Runs Out on Bell's Patents

By the end of 1892 there were nearly 240,000 telephones in use in the United States and there were some 10,000 Bell telephone people working at running them. The Bell companies were operating the telephones, at varying degrees of efficiency, in nearly all large cities, leaving rural communities without service or with only one telephone, located down at the drugstore or at the livery stable along with the telegraph key.

As the fateful day approached when the original Bell patents expired, conjecture rose about what would happen next. Western Electric's newspaper, The Western Electrician, foresaw exciting times and a positive future in competition:

Owing to the business depression there is much unemployed capital, and
many idle factories. Many manufacturers will be eager to utilize their
plants in the production of telephones, once the patent restriction is removed. . . .
We are on the eve of an era of active production of cheap telephones and
of a healthy competition.

But the competition did not prove to be really healthy, or very good for the customer, the company or even Western Electric. The American Bell Telephone Company had paid $18 a year dividends during the years 1889-1893, due to the operating philosophy of its management. This led outsiders to consider the telephone business a great and easy way to make money without having to do much work. The patents would no longer work to keep the price of equipment high and there were thousands of towns without telephones just waiting for service. Not only that, but telephone growth in big cities was still far below maximum. So the cities where, presumably, it would be easier and cheaper to provide service were also ripe for the plucking, for nearly everyone complained about his telephone service.

During the six years following the patents' expiration more than 6,000 telephone companies were inaugurated in the United States alone. These companies were and still are called "independent" telephone companies. The name designates that they are not Bell telephone companies. It somehow also carries the semantic implication that the Bell System is not independent. It is.

The Independent Telephone Association was formed in 1897 in order to solve mutual problems, and has continued solving them ever since, although the problems have changed considerably. There have been periods of stress between Bell and independent companies, but never were relationships less friendly and more competitive than they were during the first 20 years or so after 1893. Today cooperation and friendship mark the relationship between Bell and independent companies.

Second, and even third, telephone systems were introduced in some cities, and although the new companies started with new equipment, they usually had too little financial backing. When the new system became an old system, and during periods of high growth like the 1890's this happened very quickly, there was no money in the treasury for replacement. Further, the new independent companies had to offer telephone service at lower prices than the Bell Companies in order to compete at all successfully. Bell prices had always ("always" here encompassing some 1-5 years) been quite high. Forbes felt that, since the costs of providing telephone service increased with the number of subscribers, the price of service should be based upon the number of telephones a subscriber was able to reach. In the 1890's typical Bell charges had been between $125 and $150 a year for a business telephone and around $I00 a year for a residence telephone, although this varied widely between cities. The independents offered service at considerably lower rates, some as low as $40 a year, but not usually for long.

This time of trial and confusion for telephone companies and users was also a time of great growth in telephone usage. By 1900, there were 855,900 telephones in service in Bell companies alone, compared to the 240,000 in use only eight years before. It became increasingly apparent that not only was technological help immediately needed in the Bell companies but that financial help was also necessary. The $I0 million capitalization allowed the American Bell Telephone Company by Massachusetts law was not enough for the growing company. Massachusetts corporation laws were very restrictive, not only in limiting capitalization, but also in other matters, such as the ownership of stock in associated companies and the price at which stock could be sold.

By 1899 the capitalization of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the special company formed to provide long distance service; had increased from $100,000 to $20,000,000. The obvious answer was to transfer the assets of the American Bell company to AT&T in New York. On December 31, 1899 the transfer was made and AT&T became the parent company of the Bell System, ending up at that time with a capitalization of nearly $71 million and total assets of over $120 million. American Bell continued in existence for a few more years as a patent-holding company, and then passed out of existence.

In 1900 the directors of AT&T asked Theodore Vail to come back from South America where he had gone to perform wonders in starting street car companies, but Vail was having too much fun. Besides, he was still unhappy with his previous treatment at the hands of the Bostonians.

So, in 1901, F. P. Fish, the patent lawyer, became president of AT&T and was immediately faced with problems far outside his immediate interests and talents. For one thing, over the years most Bell management had cared little for what the public thought of the company, preferring to deal in financial matters or do battle with the troublesome independent companies rather than bother about public attitudes. This had made customers and the general public less than sympathetic with telephone company problems.

And there were some big problems. Between 1902 and 1907, the Bell companies continued to grow at an alarming rate. Debt grew from just over $65 million to more than $202 million. Management found that they could no longer finance the business from earnings as earlier management had been able to do during the simpler, happy days of the 1880's and 90's. They also found few takers when they went out looking for more money.

This financial problem put the Bell companies in a vulnerable position, especially as 1907 got underway and the country hit one of its recurrent "panics," then the name for economic depressions. Money was tight, as the saying goes, and a number of very sturdy bankers, lead by J. P. Morgan sought to gain control of the Bell companies. Through some complex dealings in bonds, these banking interests did indeed gain control of AT&T debt financing, at least, and in 1907, that was all that was needed to control the company. The first thing these banking interests did after gaining control was to convince Theodore Vail to return.

Vail needed very little convincing, since he had sold his interests in his South American companies for $3.5 million, and was looking for something to do. He wrote to his sister when she tried to tell him he was too old at 62 to start all over again, "No, I must take it. It is the crowning thing of my life. I refused it six years ago; I am in a position to take it now. Besides they need me." Not only that, but a fortune teller in Paris had told Vail years before that his greatest work would be done after the age of 60.

Vail was needed badly. The Bell companies did not serve the public well and the public was responding negatively. The company was in financial trouble and, worst of all, it lacked aggressive and creative leadership. Vail took over on May 1, 1907, as president of AT&T again, but this time at the head of the Bell companies, and the Vail years started again.

It was another moment of rebirth for the Bell enterprise. Return to Table of Contents


Mr. Vail Goes To Work

Newspapers of the day called Theodore Vail the "Cincinnatus of Communications," referring to his supposedly having torn himself reluctantly from his Vermont farm and rushing heroically down to New York to save the Bell System. There was nothing much wrong with the simile except for the reluctance factor. Later, in 1920, the New York Times changed the line and called Vail the "Napoleon of communications." This would have been all right, too, except that Vail was six-feet-two.

Vail knew the telephone business thoroughly; as we have seen, he had been in no small measure responsible for its early growth. Had he remained with the firm from the start, instead of taking a 20-year leave of absence, no doubt things would have gone differently. Vail had the future of the company in his hands, but he had known for 20 years what should be done to shape the Bell telephone companies into the vital, growing, powerful and successfully unified organization he wanted them to be. He wasted no time wondering what to do; he got to work.

The title of the first section of Vail's first AT&T Annual Report to shareholders, published in 1908 for the year 1907, is "Public Relations." This term meant to Vail what it has almost ceased to mean today in the broader world of advertising and public relations: Relations between the public and the corporation. Theodore Vail was the first major business leader in America to recognize that good public relations will build the proper climate in which to build a successful business. To Vail "good" public relations meant honest reporting. "If we don't tell the truth about ourselves, somebody else will," he wrote.

Everything which had gone before into building the Bell companies was, to Vail, over. The entire business was in for a major re-evaluation, to be followed by major chances. Reports from his co-workers indicates that Vail's enthusiasm affected everyone and put new life into the company. Vail was to form the entire Bell organization, define it and bring it back to that which he had foreseen 20 years before.

In that same AT&T Annual Report, Vail looked back and wrote, "during the first year (after the telephone was invented) such of the many imaginations . . . as were demonstrably practical were assimilated and the business was established on the lines now followed which makes our company with its associated companies a national system.

"Each year has seen some progress in annihilating distance and bringing people closer to each other. Thirty years more may bring about results which will be almost as astonishing ... To the public, this 'Bell System' (and that's the first known use of the phrase) furnishes facilities, in its 'universality' of infinite value, a service which could not be furnished by disassociated companies.

"The strength of the Bell System lies in this 'universality.'"

This last was to become Vail's favorite phrase: "One policy, one system, one universal service," he said. And Vail worked with that idea in mind to build the business, to catch it up with the growth of the country, for telephony had fallen behind during its years of financial unstability.

During the period 1907-1918 Vail molded the Bell System into its present organization or close to it. The changes which have occurred since his retirement have been generally a continuation of his plans. But Vail was responsible for forming more than Bell System organization. He developed the company's public positions on the major corporate problems of the day: Competition from independent telephone companies, financing, governmental regulation, monopoly, governmental take-over, corporate areas of interest (although Vail left this one the least well defined) and research and development. All of these areas were aimed at finding the proper balance between improved customer service, which Vail called "public relations," and the financial success of the corporate enterprise.

There is little about the Bell System in the 1980's which Theodore Vail did not have a hand in formulating during his presidency of AT&T. And, in several ways, the Bell System today is still reaching for Vail's ideals, for Vail was a large man with huge vision -- a man without whom the Bell System would, no doubt, not exist today. That statement is easier to make than it might seem, for, in 1912, the British Post Office took over the operations of ail telephones in Great Britain. It seemed to many people in the United States, including the Postmaster General . . . that it would be a good idea here, too.

Vail met the problem of competition from other telephone companies head on. "The exaggerated stories," he wrote in the 1907 AT&T Annual Report, "of the fortunes made by original telephone investors, together with misleading statements of probable profits, made it possible to launch many of these (independent) companies pledged to low rates for exchange service and high dividends to investors. At these low rates, with 'maintenance' and 'reconstruction' expense either intentionally or ignorantly disregarded, these companies for a time had an appearance of prosperity. . . . The result has been unfortunate in nearly every case. . . . Most, if not all, of these companies which have had an existence long enough to force attention to the items of maintenance' and 'reconstruction' are now asking for increased rates."

In 1907 there were about 3,132,000 Bell telephones in the United States and some 2,987,000 independent company telephones. Competition was no small problem at the time, but as the independent companies ran into financial difficulties, the Bell System associated companies bought them. It was, as can be imagined, a period of some strife. By and large, however, the Bell System had little public opposition to this assimilation, for Bell's service was better. That was what Vail meant by "good" public relations. Today, of course, the Bell System operates, as it has since the middle 1920's, about 85 per cent of all the telephones in the continental United States.

The period of acquisition brought new problems. There were too many Bell companies to permit efficient management. In 1911 Vail announced the consolidation of Bell Associated Companies into state or regional organizations. This process has continued, resulting in today's 24 operating companies.

To cite just one example of this process: The present day New York Telephone Company started as the Metropolitan Telephone Company which, after it changed its name, absorbed the Central New York Telephone Company, the Bell Telephone Company of Buffalo, the New York and New Jersey Telephone Company, the Empire State Telephone Company, the New York and Pennsylvania Telephone Company and the Hudson River Telephone Company. The result of all this turned out to be too big, however, and in 1927 New Jersey Bell was formed, an associated company in its own right, incorporating a piece of New York Company territory.

Competition between duplicate telephone systems within cities was also a large problem when Vail returned. Of this, Vail said, "Duplication of plant is a waste to the investor. Duplication of charges is a waste to the user. . . . The only benefits are to the promoter." The public, who also fought the additional waste of inconvenience, believed him, and duplication of telephone services became first rare and, finally nonexistent.

"The value of a telephone system." Vail summed up in the 1909 AT&T Annual Report, "is measured by the possibility of reaching through its connections any one -- at any possible place.... If it is universal in its connections and intercommunications, it is indispensable to all those whose social or business relations are more than purely local. A telephone system, which undertakes to meet the full requirements must cover with its exchanges and connecting lines the whole country. Any development which is comprehensive must cover some territory which is not, and may never become, profitable in itself but must be carried at the expense of the whole. It must be a system that will afford communication with anyone that may possibly be wanted, at any time. To do this, the system must offer a connection of some kind, and at such rates, as will correspond to the value of the system to each and every user."

Vail talked about the "served" and the "server" in the 1910 AT&T Annual Report. "There has always been and will always be the laudable desire of the great public to be served rightly, and as cheaply as possible, which sometimes selfishly degenerates into a lack of consideration for the rights of those who are serving. On the other hand there has always been the laudable desire of the 'server,' or the producer, to get a profit for his services or production, which sometimes degenerates into a selfish disregard or a lack of consideration for the rights of those who are served."

To see both sides of this coin and talk about it publicly was most unusual back in 1910. Vail, however, expressed this point of view often and, much earlier, back in 1907 had written, "It is contended that if there is to be no competition, there should be public control."

These are Vail's major policies and they have all become basic to the Bell System and its operations. Return to Table of Contents


A Little Organization

In March, 1909, the 1908 AT&T Annual Report was issued -- written, as usual, by Theodore Vail. In it, he remarked, "The relation of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the associated companies is not generally understood. [AT&T] is primarily a holding company, holding stocks of the associated operating and manufacturing companies. As an operating company it owns and operates the long distance lines, the lines that connect all the systems of the associated companies with each other.

"In addition to these two functions it assumes what can be termed the centralized general administrative functions of all the associated Companies. The Bell System is one system telephonically interconnected, intercommunicating and interdependent. This system was built up under this policy and its continuance as a system depends on the continuance of the policy."

And that just about says it. Nothing has changed since 1908, except the size and complexity. The style has stayed the same, though the appearance has changed greatly.

The organization was held together, first by licenses to use Bell's patents issued by the parent company and, later, by a combination of stock-holdings and licenses. This situation remains the same also. "There is not, nor can there be, any competition between these local associated operating companies," Vail stated, and in fact, the license called for each company to operate only within its operating area. The license also called for the payment of a certain per cent of the licensed company's gross operating revenues for services done or contracted by AT&T to the licensed company. That charge has decreased greatly since Vail's day. Originally the fee was based on the number of telephones operated, and then in 1902 was set at four and one-half per cent. In 1926 the rate was reduced to four per cent; in 1928 this was reduced to two per cent and, then, the next year, further reduced to one and one-half per cent. In 1948 it was cut still further to one per cent at which level the License Contract remained until 1976 when the System was changed in order to make payment more equitable. To simplify the new method, presently AT&T's operating costs are totaled and each operating telephone company is billed a portion based on its percentage of total Bell System revenues.

In 1908 the manufacturing contract between Western Electric and AT&T was changed to allow Western Electric to sell equipment to companies outside the Bell System. This step was taken primarily because, since there was no patent protection any longer, selling equipment to independent telephone companies might result in more uniformity among all telephone companies. It might also make interconnection between Bell and non-Bell companies easier and more workable. But, other than that and to expand with the growing Bell System, Western Electric's responsibilities remained basically unchanged. Western Electric manufactured, shared research and development responsibilities with AT&T (there being no Bell Telephone Laboratories as yet), distributed and installed for the associated companies. It was for these services, as well as for administrative and financial assistance from AT&T that the associated companies paid their license fee.

The pattern of Bell System organization was set then and it was a good one, for it has lasted ever since. A great many "crises" have come and gone in the Bell System since Vail's day, but the organization he was responsible for developing and consolidating remains.

But the time has come to look beyond the corporation again. Big things were about to happen in the world of technology and the Bell System was, as usual, right in the thick of it. Return to Table of Contents


Wireless Telegraphy- and Long Distance Telephone

In 1906 Dr. Lee De Forest announced the advent of his invention of the audion to an audience of his fellow electrical engineers. The audion was the direct ancestor of the present day vacuum tube and was a giant step toward radio transmission. It was a distinct improvement on both Marconi's "coherer" which he had used in his initial experiments with wireless telegraphy and Sir Ambrose Fleming's "valve" which was, in effect, a diode and the first 'vacuum" tube, although the vacuum was not very good.

A diode contains a filament which is charged with electricity and a "plate" to which electrons flow from the filament. It was used to detect radio waves; not well, but sufficiently to prove their presence.

De Forest added a third element, now called a "grid," a much more sensitive device, between the filament and the plate which could detect any changes in the flow of electrons between the filament and the plate. The audion, with its third element, was much better than anything that had gone before. Further, the audion did much more than detect wireless radio waves. It almost seemed as if the audion could also be made to amplify these waves, which meant that if this were true and could be made workable, then the audion could also be used to amplify telephone conversations over wires.

Perhaps the greatest drawback to a nation-wide long distance service in 1907 when Vail assumed leadership of AT&T was that of not being able to amplify and repeat telephone conversations very well over very long distances. All the technology available before De Forest, and there had been a great deal done in the field of "loading" wires and in the production of mechanical repeaters, could not send a telephone message clear across the country. But the audion might just make this possible.

Vail was excited and ordered all haste in examining the audion and then improving it so it could be adapted to telephony. In 1907, Vail appointed J. J. Carty head of the Engineering Department, a move which preceded the consolidation of AT&T's Engineering Department with that of Western Electric. The AT&T research people moved down from Boston to join the Western Electric people in New York. The amalgamated department grew at an accelerated pace, but it was still nearly 20 years away from becoming the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

By 1912 De Forest, who had kept on at his own research, had come up with an improved audion, called now a triode, for its three elements. The triode would, in fact, amplify telephone conversations. It proved to be weak and imperfect amplification when it was tested, but it worked.

Bell people continued to work on it also. One, H. D. Arnold, guessed that what was keeping De Forest's tube from high efficiency was the great amount of air remaining within it. Using recently developed pumping methods, Arnold was able to come up with a very high vacuum tube and, sure enough, he had it.

This success lead the Bell System to offer to buy De Forest's patents for the audion, the triode and the associated circuits. De Forest agreed, keeping only the basic, non-transferable patent right. Bell engineers kept at the development of the tube and circuits, adapting them further for telephony.

Then, on July 29, 1914, the first New York to San Francisco telephone conversation took place -- between engineers. The following winter, the line was opened to commercial use with great accompanying publicity. Alexander Graham Bell was on the New York City end of the line and Thomas Watson was way off in San Francisco. Bell used a model of his first telephone and said, to the surprise of no one at all, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you." Theodore Vail was down in Georgia at Jekyll Island to make the conversation truly nation-wide and historic.

But the vacuum tube was due for bigger things. Bell engineers were convinced that radiotelephony was possible and that using wireless techniques for telephony would be much cheaper than stringing wires and cables. At this time, the concept of commercial radio and television was still years in the future, and no one had considered the problems of frequency regulation. At any rate, in April, Bell engineers talked, via radiotelephone, over the 250 miles between Montauk Point, New York and Wilmington, Delaware. In May they extended this distance to 1000 miles with a conversation between Montauk and St. Simon's Island in Georgia. Finally, on October 21, 1915, Bell System engineers accomplished their dream. They were the first people to hold a transatlantic conversation by voice, even if it was faint and garbled. First words are somehow important, and these first words, spoken by B. B. Webb in Arlington, Virginia, to H. R. Shreeve high atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris, were ". . . and now, Shreeve, goodnight."

World War I communication needs caused the development, by General Electric, of what has been called the Alexanderson alternator, which had put radio-telegraphy into practical use ship-to-shore and across battlefields. The English Marconi Company's American branch registered for the right to use this alternator, but the U.S. Government balked at letting such an important device fall into "foreign" hands. This caused General Electric and a group of companies called "the radio companies" to join together and buy Marconi's American interests, form a new corporation and call it the Radio Corporation of America.

The Bell System and RCA then held all the patents on vacuum tubes and their related circuits. Not only that, scientists working for these firms had made so many inventions and improvements in the field that a great many overlapping and disputed patents resulted. The AT&T Engineering Department was split in 1919, at the height of all this activity. The Department of Development and Research, with J. J. Carty at its head, went on its own, making a great and creative effort in producing its part of the jumble of claims and variations in radiotelephony.

Compromise, however, broke the deadlock, and an agreement was reached in 1921. General Electric and its subsidiary, RCA, received exclusive license for radio work and AT&T received an open field for wire telephony and telegraphy. But, when it was discovered shortly thereafter that wires would probably be the best way to interconnect radio stations, things grew tense and complicated again.

Back in 1915, Theodore Vail had written the official AT&T position paper on the subject. In it Vail committed the Bell System to jumping full into the wireless business because, "whatever there is to add to the value (of the telephone system) or to increase its universality, this Company proposes to develop. . . . To this end the American Telephone and Telegraph Company will . . . extend the universality of its systems by wireless stations at selected points. . . ."

And RCA (or the "radio companies") was also committed to expand its interests in radio. Each organization proceeded to follow its own ideas, AT&T saying that RCA could not use its patents without applying for licenses and RCA not applying for licenses unless it felt like it, and both of them starting to build radio station networks. Things went along this double path until 1926, when compromise again solved the problem. A three-way agreement was reached in which, first, AT&T sold to RCA its subsidiary Broadcasting Company of America, including New York station WEAF which had for a time broadcast from a studio in AT&T headquarters at 195 Broadway. Second, RCA signed a service agreement, whereby it received transmission service from AT&T. And third, both parties agreed to a cross-licensing agreement, whereby they stopped fighting over patents.

It would be well, at this point, to leave the late 1920's for the time being and return to Theodore Vail back in 1908, where he is about to stir up a hornet's nest. Return to Table of Contents

AT&T Takes Western Union on, or the Tables Are Turned

Jay Gould, the financier, did get hold of Western Union shortly after Western Union management had signed the agreement with the Bell companies turning the telephone over to Bell and keeping the telegraph. When Jay Gould died, he left Western Union, along with sundry other million-dollar assets, including one or two railroads, to his son, George. George was interested in many things, but telegraphy was not one of them. As a result, Western Union suffered as George Gould turned to his railroads. The financial panic of 1907 was the final straw, bringing Western Union to the brink of disaster and enabling Vail to fulfill one of his greatest ambitions.

Vail firmly believed that his concept of one universal communications system was the best thing for America, and he felt that a telegraph network should be an integral part of that system.

"The connection or relation between the telephone and the telegraph is not in any sense one of substitution, it is supplementary; one is auxiliary to the other," Vail wrote in the 1909 AT&T Annual Report. "Line construction and maintenance are common to both the telephone and telegraph, and can be combined or performed jointly with economy."

Vail convinced his directors and fellow Bell System workers, and so AT&T bought Western Union from George J. Gould, to Gould's great relief.

Vail was appointed president of Western Union and immediately began to shore up the company. He eliminated offices which were not paying and combined many local Western Union offices with local telephone offices, the telephone manager taking over the responsibilities. Vail, harking back to his early training in the post office, invented the Night Letter and the Day Letter, greatly increasing the use of telegraph lines during off-hours. He pointed out to the public through advertisements that telegrams could be telephoned to the local office and then telephoned to the recipient at the distant point, thus obviating the need for messengers and speeding the transaction enormously. In doing this, he increased the value of both the telephone and the telegraph.

Things were going along well until Clarence* Mackay of the Postal Telegraph Company became, reasonably enough, concerned. Mackay complained to the Justice Department, charging AT&T with violation of the anti-trust laws. This was disturbing to Vail for he truly believed that the universal service he proposed was greatest in value for all Americans and should be allowed to grow. The concept of universality, applied later to the telephone business alone, was to be termed, "natural monopoly." But in 1912, the word "monopoly" was a bad one to the public. The "trustbusters" under Teddy Roosevelt had not considered the Bell companies in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law. But President Taft's Attorney General, George W. Wickersham, felt that the acquisition of Western Union, along with the acquisition of a number of independent telephone companies which occurred at about the same time, might be in violation of the act and should be explored.

Not only that, but by 1913 the people who felt that the government should take over the Bell System were gaining strength politically and an anti-trust suit at that time would be very unfortunate. All things taken into consideration, it was decided that the better part of valor should rule, that the Bell System should respond to public opinion. Vail, although he believed otherwise, announced that AT&T would sell its stock in Western Union and that Western Union would become a separate company, independent of AT&T. This announcement was made in the form of a letter from Nathan C. Kingsbury, vice president of AT&T, and committed AT&T not only to disposing of its telegraph stock, but agreeing to provide long distance service to independent telephone companies and to buy additional independent telephone companies only when the purchase was discussed with and agreed upon by the Interstate Commerce Commission, and then only in special instances. This letter came to be called the "Kingsbury Commitment" and stayed in effect until 1921 when the Graham-Willis Act legalized it and outdated it. The Graham-Willis Act also defined the concept of "natural monopoly."

The Kinesbury Commitment and the Justice Department's agreement quieted talk of government ownership for a few years, but World War I and its natural accompaniment of patriotic fever brought it back, and much stronger than before. "The government should run the nation's communication network," was the cry, in so many words, because, as the Cleveland Press put it, "There are some things that a government such as ours, dealing with large units and actuated only by the thought of service, can do better than any individual.... The people should hold the strings in matters in which they are so vitally interested, just as they have always held the strings on their mails and highways."

So finally, just a month before the war was over, on October 5, 1918, a contract was signed between the Post Office Department and AT&T, putting the U.S. government in control of the Bell System, but with those Bell System people who were not away on military duty, still running it. There were few differences noted by the public at the time, probably because everything was curtailed during the war and the telephone was just one more "civilian" service which suffered. But the Bell System did suffer, even though the contract looked to be satisfactory. The System operated at such a loss during the few months the Government operated it that rate increases were necessary immediately afterward to pay for the reconstruction and building that was necessary to allow the System to catch up again.

After some litigation the Bell System was returned to private hands on July 31, 1919, along with much relief on the part of both the Post Office Department and AT&T. Government ownership had been tried. It had not worked. But Governmental take-over was just the outward and most extreme form of regulation. As Vail has already been quoted as saying, "Where there is no competition, there should be regulation." The Bell System, and Vail in particular, sought regulation long before regulators sought the Bell System. Return to Table of Contents


The Beginning of Bell System Regulation

The Interstate Commerce Commission had been in existence for 20 years by the time Theodore Vail returned to AT&T in 1907. The ICC was formed in 1887, but was not granted authority to regulate interstate telephone business until the following year. But, back in 1888, long distance service was a very limited and less than everyday affair. Not until 1910 did the ICC receive sufficient budget to do any effective regulation of telephone service, and then it seems to have acted in more of an advisory capacity than in the investigative one which the Federal Communications Commission has assumed since its formation in 1934.

Beginning in 1910, the ICC began to be interested in total telephone company operation, not just long distance service. The ICC was instrumental in starting a unified system of accounts within the telephone industry in 1913, a system useful to the commission in making comparisons between the various parts of the Bell System and in keeping watch on the System as it defined itself organizationally. The ICC also suggested rules for telephone depreciation accounting in 1913.

But the ICC still had a relatively small budget and a great interest in many other matters, the railroads in particular. It spent very little of its total time and money watching and regulating the telephone industry.

In 1907 the state of Wisconsin passed an act to give wide regulatory powers to the Wisconsin Commission in dealing with public utilities, including the telephone industry. New York followed suit quickly, as did nearly all the other states. These state commissions (Texas is today the only state without such a commission, although it has local ones) deal with local problems, rates, and services, and they coordinate with the FCC, as they used to coordinate with the ICC.

State commissions and, since 1934, the FCC, also deal with the quality of telephone service as well as its cost, and pride themselves more and more on being consumer "watchdogs." Except for unfortunate specific instances, the telephone service provided by the Bell System and the many independent telephone companies in the United States is better than telephone service anywhere else in the world.

As already noted, in 1913 the Bell System responded to public pressure with the Kingsbury Commitment and agreed to work with the ICC in dealing with corporate expansion. In 1921 the Graham-Willis Act was passed by Congress, confirming that agreement in law. Then, in 1934, the Communications Act was passed, forming the Federal Communications Commission, which undertook to revise the accounting system devised by the ICC as well as just about everything else in the Bell System.

Now, the Bell System has always been in favor of regulation, at least since 1907. Vail's statement was the first such recorded officially, and Vail repeated it again and again, using a number of variations. And he went further. Vail felt, and Bell System leadership has agreed ever since, that "state control or regulation should be of such character as to encourage the highest possible standard in plant, the utmost extension of facilities, the highest efficiency in service, and to that end should allow rates that will warrant the highest wages for the best service, some reward for high efficiency in administration, and such certainty of return on investment as will induce investors not only to retain their securities, but to supply at all times all the capital needed to meet the demands of the public."

That statement appeared in the 1910 AT&T Annual Report, but it could very well have been written today, so clearly does it define present Bell System attitude toward regulation. That same year, Vail also said that a permanent commission "should act only after thorough investigation and be governed by the equities of each case. It would in time establish a course of practice and precedent for the guidance of all concerned."

"Experience," said Vail, "has demonstrated that this 'supervision' should stop at 'control' and 'regulation' and not 'manage,' 'operate' nor 'dictate' . . ."

Again, Vail set the stage for the Bell System. His view has turned out to be clear and correct, to the point that commissioners as well as telephone people today agree pretty much with what he said. Of course, historical perspective is useful. In 1910-11 Vail had none to go by. He was facing increasing pressure for a governmental takeover of the telephone industry, considerable competition in the form of other operating telephone companies, and much less of the sort of control of corporate financing which the Securities and Exchange Commission exercises today.

Vail, with these pressures very real, was forced to come up with some creative solutions to his problems. It was far more unusual in 1910 to propose that one's business be regulated than it is today. Vail's being there first, 60 years ago, is even more impressive than it would appear at first glance.

Arthur Page, appointed the first vice president of public relations at AT&T in 1929, wrote in his book, The Bell System, published in 1941, "The public, acting through its legislators, has a right to expect and demand good service at reasonable prices from business. It has the power to take any action it pleases to insure this.... The regulatory bodies as well as legislators have a responsibility . . . to see that business does serve the public well . . . and that the commissions do not force a disintegration of responsibility that renders healthy industries and the best service to the nation possible."

Arthur Page's book was written at the end of a particularly trying regulatory time for the Bell System. The Great Depression of the 30's had just passed, although no one really believed it, and had soured many Americans on the ability of businesses to regulate themselves. In many ways the 1930's resembled the decade, 1908-1918. Each were years of great economic and social change. The difference, of course, was that the answers found during the 1930's were for more governmental control through investigation, rather than the takeover technique of the earlier period.

After the formation of the Federal Communications Commission, an investigation of the Bell System took place unlike any before or since for intensity and completeness. All aspects of the System's operations were investigated and no rebuttals were allowed by Bell System people in response to FCC findings and recommendations. The Bell System found this to be grossly unfair, and said so. Today, the Bell System, the FCC and their relationship all face a new world. This will develop from changes contemplated in the Communications Act of 1934, shifting emphases stemming from consumer groups and other social pressures and, perhaps most significant, changes in the philosophy of competition in the communications business. Return to Table of Contents


Bell System People

As the Bell System grew, so did its need for employees with a wide variety of skills. The operation of switchboards called for armies of people -- telephone operators -- and their management developed into what has come to be called the Traffic Department, that arm of the operations responsible for moving telephone traffic across the network. From the need to sell telephone service and then account for receipts from those sales, the Commercial Department grew. Later, during the 1930's, the Accounting Department was made a separate organization. The Plant Department has been responsible for telephone plant -- installation, maintenance, repair, construction. Various administrative functions have come into being over the years to deal with such essentials as personnel, public relations, and finance.

By the end of Theodore Vail's presidency of AT&T in 1919, the pattern was pretty well set. Thousands of Bell System people performed hundreds of different jobs within various departments in various Bell System associated companies and at AT&T Jobs changed as times and technology changed, but it would have been possible for a Bell System employee to feel at home with the writings and notes made by Bell System people 50 or 60 years before.

On January 1, 1913 a Plan for Employees' Pensions, Disability Benefits and Insurance was put into effect by AT&T, its associated companies, Western Electric and, for a short time, Western Union. At that time there were nearly 200,000 people working for the Bell System eligible for the plan's benefits. It was one of the first of its kind in the United States.

The Bell System Benefit plan has continued in effect ever since, expanding as it has gone along. Today it is still an outstanding plan, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the country. In making the original announcement of the plan, Vail concluded, ". . . we have a personal interest in our public service, a personal interest in our employees and a personal interest in our common country. It is our hope that what we have already accomplished has helped the men and women of the Bell System to become happier and better American citizens, and it is our wish that what has been planned for the future will contribute to their constantly increasing happiness and betterment."

In 1978 and 1979, The Bell System undertook a reorganization, broader by far than any before; for the first time, the change was not motivated by evolution, but by competition. In order to stand ready to react to competitive pressures as they appear in the telephone business, the operating departments were reorganized into three major segments: Network, encompassing parts of the old Traffic and Engineering Departments, and the Business and Residence Segments which divide up the old Commercial, Marketing and Plant Departments according to the type and needs of customer served.

Paternalistic, perhaps, but honest. The Bell System has grown in size and complexity and Bell System people have grown in sophistication, but the Bell System has always been proud of its people and Bell System people have always been proud of their work. The "Spirit of Service" has been around since the beginning. Somehow, the providing of communications links between people has brought out the best in the hundreds of thousands of people who have worked and still work for the Bell System. Mr. Watson came running to assist Bell in 1876 and telephone people have been running to aid others ever since.

When Theodore Vail died in 1920, a year, almost to the day, after he retired as president, a fund was set up in his memory to provide awards of recognition to telephone people both within and without the Bell System who have performed truly outstanding acts of heroism and public service.

The Vail Awards, which are paid out of income from the Theodore N. Vail Memorial Fund and go to Bell System people who have put duty to others above themselves, reached their 50th anniversary in 1970. The devotion to the public that these awards recognize is still a vital ingredient of the Bell System's success, without which the human side of the business would become only routine.

Vail Awards have gone to PBX operators who have died at hotel switchboards awakening guests threatened by fire, to operators in small towns who have saved the lives of fellow citizens from floods, to installers who have rescued people from automobile wrecks and fires, to groups of employees who have responded and banded together to face emergencies like forest fires and hurricanes. But the Vail Awards scratch just the surface. Daily acts of extra services to customers have come to be expected from Bell System employees, most of whom expect to perform them and all of whom receive great satisfaction from their performance.

So far, this history has traced the Bell System from its beginnings in the pre-telephone days to its emergence in 1920 in approximately the form it maintains today. In the rest of this history, the Bell System's development corresponds very closely with that of the United States. For, as the Graham-Willis Act pointed out in 1921, the Bell System, its people and its technology had truly become a "natural resource" - a natural monopoly.

The telephone had become an integral part of America. It had become an institution, no longer a luxury item, but a necessity of American life. The Bell System had come of age along with the telephone, but, as further investigation will demonstrate, it still had a great deal to learn and a great many changes to make. Return to Table of Contents


The 1920's and 1930's - A Study in Contrasts

Harry Bates Thayer was elected president of AT&T on June 18, 1919 with Theodore Vail taking over as chairman of the Board of Directors, a post he would hold for less than a year. Thayer had been a telephone man all of his working life, and represented to the mass of telephone people the fact that they, too, could rise to the top. Thayer had started with Western Electric as a shipping clerk; the first of a line of AT&T presidents who started in the business at the bottom. The "up from the ranks" tradition is a strong one in the Bell System.

Two weeks after Thayer came into the presidency, the AT&T administration organization was split in two; The Department of Operating and Engineering splitting off from the research organization. Thus, the 1920's started without Vail, but with his organizational ideas still very much intact. For one, Vail's concept of the need to consolidate the associated companies into their present conformation was concluded, for the most part, during that decade.

On February 6, 1920, Indiana Bell was formed and on December 23, 1920, Illinois Bell was brought into being when the Chicago Telephone Company bought the properties of the Central Union of Illinois. A week later, on January 1, 1921, the properties of the Nebraska Telephone Company and the Northwestern Telephone Exchange Company merged with Northwestern Bell, which had just changed its name from Iowa Bell. In September, 1921, the Ohio State and Ohio Bell companies were consolidated to form the present Ohio Bell Telephone Company. In July, 1926, Southern Bell assumed the conformation it would hold until 1969 when South Central Bell was split off. Then, in September, 1927, New Jersey Bell was formed. And that was it for just over 30 years, until Pacific Northwest Bell split off from Pacific Telephone in July, 1961.

Another landmark organization change occurred on January 1, 1925 when the Western Electric Engineering Department became the Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. Although the AT&T Development and Research Department held out for nine more years before joining the Bell Labs, Thomas Watson's little laboratory had finally come into its own to be the largest and most effective industrial laboratory in the world.

By 1925 it was recognized that telephone technology was increasingly based on science and the scientific method, with increasing pressure to put new scientific knowledge to use as rapidly as possible and by that time the 1907 laboratory had crown to several times its original size. So the Bell Laboratories organization was developed to do research, systems engineering and development work. Research and associated fundamental development provide the reservoir of new knowledge and new understanding which is essential for new communications facilities and systems. The work includes all sectors of science that appear likely to contribute to the advancement of communications and is carried out in enough volume to assure a minimum time lag in the practical application of scientific advances. It also includes systems research and operations research.

The 1920's were big days for radio and television "firsts," and, almost without exception, they were Bell System firsts also. The first radio commercial was aired on August 28, 1922 at 5:00 P.M. over AT&T's New York Station WEAF. It consisted of a ten-minute talk boosting the Hawthorne Court housing development and was sponsored by the Queensborough Corporation. This may or may not be considered to have been a major achievement, but it paved the way for a developing advertising industry and a new way of life for consuming Americans.

October, 1922, heard the first radio broadcast of a football game (Princeton-21, University of Chicago-18). The first network broadcast occurred on January 4, 1923, when the Massachusetts Bankers' Association Annual Dinner ceremonies were also heard over WEAF in New York.

On May 21, 1923, Graham McNamee first spoke, at WEAF, over the airwaves to the "folks out in radioland." He was followed, on June 21, by President Harding, who spoke from St. Louis on "The World Court." President Coolidge first talked on the radio the next December over a six-station hookup. February, 1924, was the first coast-to-coast broadcast. This was utilized the next June, when the first national political convention (the Republican one, because it came first that year) was broadcast, this time to 12 cities connected by the Long Lines Department of AT&T. Election returns carrying Coolidge to his victory over John W Davis were broadcast the next November. The first broadcast of a Rose Bowl game happened January 1,1927, but the big thing that year was the first public demonstration of television in America.

John Logie Baird had already demonstrated television -- London to Glasgow -- in February, 1927. That didn't make Bell Labs' public demonstration in April any less exciting, however, or Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce in Washington. D.C., who participated, any less excited.

On January 27, 1929, color television was demonstrated at the Bell Labs, and this time it was a genuine first. Radio had become an American institution along with the telephone by the end of 1929, and so had talking pictures. That's another story; and a good one at that.

Before getting into it, one more fact of major Bell System history should be presented: On January 20, 1925, Walter S. Gifford was elected president Of AT&T, replacing Thayer. He, like Thayer, had started (in 1904) with Western Electric. But, unlike Thayer, he was one step removed from Vail's somewhat imperial philosophy that the Bell System should just keep charging along, taking over as much as it could in every field even remotely connected with telephony. Gifford felt strongly that the telephone company should concentrate on providing telephone service and let other businesses deal with other problems. He made the decision, for instance, that AT&T should get out of the radio business and he believed this strongly enough to change the direction the Bell System was going in radio.

Gifford did a great deal more for the Bell System than this introduction would indicate, of course, for he was president of AT&T from 1925 to 1948. His personality and philosophy made a deep, positive and lasting impression on the Bell System.

The Bell Laboratories (and its predecessors) had been at work some years trying to develop what would now be called "high fidelity" sound recording techniques in order to test telephone transmission systems as they were, in turn, developed. This was because the current state of the commercial recording industry was not good enough for their exacting needs. As expected, in 1924, they succeeded and someone next asked the logical question, "Why don't we see if we can apply this to the movies?"

An agreement was reached between Western Electric and the Vitaphone Corporation (itself formed for the same purpose by a man named Walter J. Rich and the Warner Brothers) whereby Vitaphone would produce talking pictures using Western Electric equipment. This sort of production was a long way from telephony, but Mr. Gifford contrary to the tack he took with respect to radio decided to let the experiments continue. The story is pretty well known: Hollywood was happy with the status quo, largely because movie stars were afraid their voices wouldn't be acceptable -- and with good reason. Perhaps most important, there was a great deal of money tied up in soundless production equipment, not to mention the millions of dollars it would cost to re-equip all the movie houses in America with sound projectors.

Resistance like that was difficult to overcome, but Western Electric and Vitaphone produced, first, in 1926, Don Juan, starring John Barrymore and a complete recorded musical score by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1927 they produced The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson singing "Sonnv Boy."

Things began to pick up with that. It seemed that talkies would go after all, so Electrical Research Products, Incorporated, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Western Electric, was formed to exploit inventions produced by Bell System research, and talking pictures, specifically. The firm was called ERPI by the movie trade.

By the end of 1928 there were more than one thousand theaters equipped with Western Electric sound equipment. Most Hollywood studios were in the process of changing to sound production, using Western Electric equipment, although there was strong competition from RCA. All this new sound equipment was very expensive, and, before long, two major Hollywood film producers approached AT&T for loans to help them install equipment in their theater chains. (This was in the pre-anti-trust suit days when movie producers were allowed to own their own theaters and thus control booking. AT&T did assist them, either by direct loans (through ERPI) or by buying stock.

It was a most uncomfortable position. Not only was AT&T involved in a business far removed from telephony, a situation which went directly against Gifford's basic belief in the Bell System's proper role, but it was a very public business as well. ERPI drew much publicity both adverse and positive, as well as a long list of expensive anti-trust suits during the late 20's and early 30's. AT&T won the suits, but not without much unwanted press. Furthermore, ERPI did well financially, for during the Great Depression movies were more popular than ever. It was difficult to discourage success. Nevertheless, even when the Bell System, through ERPI, held most of the major patent rights for talking motion pictures and, therefore, could have controlled the film industry (as it could have controlled the radio industry earlier), the System did not exercise that power. Gradually other sound systems were developed which did not infringe on ERPI's patents. The Bell System was able to leave Hollywood, although it took a later court order to effect the final divorce. ERPI's day and the Bell System's Hollywood career both came to a close.

And now this history returns to telephonic communications.

The first large major Bell System machine switching center was cut into service in 1919 at Norfolk, Virginia (see public announcement), but the equipment was Strowger's and made by the Automatic Electric Company. Installation was done by Automatic Electric people. In July, 1921, the first machine switching office using Western Electric equipment installed by Bell System people was cut over at Dallas, Texas.

The first community dial office -- an unattended automatic exchange for smaller communities -- was cut over at San Clemente, California on July 30, 1927. Dial and electronic switching installations have continued apace ever since and a century of Bell System manual telephone service ended in June, 1978, when Pacific Telephone installed a Number 3 Electronic Switching System in Avalon on Catalina Island to replace a 58-year-old manual switchboard, the last in the Bell System.

During the roaring 20's long distance service got better and better, transmission grew clearer and clearer and the price got lower and lower. A New York to San Francisco, three-minute station-to-station day call dropped from $16.50 in 1920 to $4.00 in 1940. The same call today costs $1.35.

Long distance service has become, as Theodore Vail had envisioned in 1884, the "backbone" of the Bell System. This network of communications has also developed into the nation's nerve system as well, tying the country together and linking the country with the rest of the world.

Ship-to-shore telephony was first demonstrated in 1922 and in January, 1923, one-way radio-telephony was demonstrated between America and England. On March 7, 1926, the first public test was made of two-way radio-telephone service between New York and London. Overseas service has grown ever since. In 1927 when transatlantic service opened to the public there were 2250 overseas calls placed to Great Britain. It was extended to various European cities in 1928. In 1971, there were 10,800,000 calls made to virtually all countries in the world.

Alexander Graham Bell died on August 2, 1922 at his home in Nova Scotia, Canada, and on August 4 all telephone service in both the United States and Canada was suspended for one minute, from 6:25 to 6:26 during Bell's funeral. The telephone system his invention started had long since moved out of his life, for Bell was much more interested in exploring new fields like aviation than in extending old inventions. Nevertheless, Bell's basic kindness and interest in people's welfare permeated the Bell System and Bell System people in 1922. It still does, for that matter.

At the March 29, 1921 Annual Meeting, shareholders voted a $9 per share dividend on AT&T common stock in order to make the stock sufficiently attractive to investors. This nine-dollar dividend was to become famous during the Great Depression when it, almost alone of all dividends, remained unchanged. In fact, during five of the 10 years, 1930-1939, the dividend was paid out of surplus, thus adding emphasis to the stock's reputation of being one best suited for "widows and orphans."

Since the turn of the 20th Century the Bell System has taken great pride in the huge body of Americans who hold stock in its companies, especially in AT&T. The fact that today more than three million different people and organizations own AT&T common stock adds strength to the theory that Bell System shareowners and Bell System customers are representative of the same public group: the general public. Since this is so, treating customers properly results in treating shareowners properly - and vice versa, which makes things both simpler and more complicated at the same time.

The complexity results from the fact that so-called Bell System corporate "share owner relations," an activity performed by the Treasury Department, is difficult to separate from the customer relations activities of the various operating departments or, for that matter, from public relations as practiced by the Public Relations Department. Theodore Vail was probably right when he lumped all this under the name, public relations.

The Bell System, by the mid-1920's was, in spite of all the changes going on, or perhaps because of them, ready for redefinition. And Walter S. Gifford was just the man to render this service. On October 20, 1927 Gifford spoke before the National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners at their convention in Dallas, Texas. His was a major speech for the conventioneers, but it was also a very basic and important one for the Bell System. In that talk he outlined, once and for all, the Bell System's policy regarding its approach to the communications business. It was, of course, the policy already defined in the early pages of this history: "The best possible telephone service at the lowest cost consistent with financial safety."

Gifford started his talk by pointing out that the telephone business is "from its very nature carried on without competition in the usual sense." This, he said, has "a most important bearing on the policy that must be followed by the management if it lives up to its responsibilities. The fact that the ownership is so widespread and diffused imposes an unusual obligation on the management to see to it that the savings of these hundreds of thousands of people are secure and remain so. The fact that the responsibility for such a large part of the entire telephone service of the country rests solely upon this company and its associated companies also imposes on the management an unusual obligation to the public to see to it that the service shall at all times be adequate, dependable and satisfactory to the user. Obviously, the only sound policy that will meet these obligations is to continue to furnish the best possible telephone service at the lowest cost consistent with financial safety. This policy is bound to succeed in the long run and there is no justification of acting otherwise than for the long run."

As Arthur Page points out in his book, this speech was unusual for two reasons: First, no company had ever before laid its private policy on the public line and, second, in spite of this being so, the national press and even most of the commissioners present, missed the point.

Gifford had said that rates would be high enough to allow management to operate the business adequately "in the long run" but no higher. Strangely enough, or strangely enough for 1927, he had promised that there would be no extra dividends for shareholders, no profits beyond those necessary for running the business. This was probably Gifford's major contribution to the Bell System, for it, along with the $9 dividend, placed the Bell System in a most favorable spot so far as public opinion went when the tide turned during the next decade and many people stopped thinking that big business was the champion of the American Way of Life, but, instead, its arch-enemy.

The newly-formed FCC's investigation which started in 1934 was both broad and public and a real test of the Bell System's public image. The investigation was also a very antagonistic one. Great credit should be given to Gifford's leadership that public attitudes would remain generally positive and that such books as Horace Coon's American Tel & Tel, The Story of a Great Monopoly, published in 1939, could contain positive summations: "Business men may reply: 'Oh, but the Bell System did not have to worry about competition, the Bell System had the blessing of the government in developing of its monopoly, the Bell System enjoyed freedom from interference by would-be trust busters. It was an exception.' It certainly has been an exception in many respects. Given such freedom, how many other industrial leaders would have been so enlightened, would have restrained themselves and their subordinates from the unusual ruthless exploitation such as a monopoly in such a position might have exercised? How many would have had the intelligence to see that big profits go with genuine public service? . . . How many business leaders would have been as shrewd in selling the idea that the interests of stockholders, management, and subscribers are united in one common interest?

". . . the Bell System has regulated itself and credit must be given to its leaders for their realization that the success and the growth of the System has been dependent upon the approval of the government and public opinion."

But, of course, Walter Gifford didn't do it all alone. He directed policy and hundreds of thousands of Bell System people implemented it. And, as always, they did so with a strong belief in what they were doing.

The Depression brought many hardships. Telephone growth stopped and then retreated during 1931, '32 and '33. The number of Bell System people also decreased during, those years. But the Depression was less hard on Bell System people than on many other Americans. Many Bell System people actually sold telephones door-to-door as their contribution to the health of the system.

The period of boom during the 1920's and the period of depression during the 1930's were as contrasting a couple of periods of time as is possible to conceive. But the Bell System's continuity was undiminished during both, not only through boom and bust, but through an exhaustive major governmental investigation as well.

As the 1930's drew to a close and the FCC's report was issued -- in a much less antagonistic form than was first anticipated -- the nation grew closer to war. So important was the Bell System's network deemed for national defense and to what came to be called the "war effort" that the Justice Department postponed its investigations and ruling on a major anti-trust suit which had developed from the FCC's investigation.

World War II would be a second test of whether the Bell System's natural monopoly would work under fire. Return to Table of Contents


World War II and the Post-War Years

World War II tested the Bell System's organizational abilities to the utmost. As in the earlier World War, many thousand Bell System people went into the services to add their abilities to their country's "arsenal of democracy." Altogether, 69,800 Bell System people were in the armed services during the nearly four years of war. New service camps were built where only sage brush or wheat fields grew before, and the demands of war production absorbed nearly all the strategic materials the Bell System used in its daily business. These materials included not only the copper and other metals needed for the production of telephones, switchboards, switching machines and for the wiring of central offices, they included as well the many missing, employees. What was available was installed, but other than a few exceptions, not for civilian use. The home front, therefore, languished in terms of new telephone service. Americans were urged not to use long distance lines unless necessary, so military personnel could call home.

The Bell System served well during World War II, and received high commendation from the government for its role. There was no talk this time about government take-over, after the World War I experiments. But the war caused the Bell System to leave unsatisfied a great and growing body of Americans who wanted more and better telephone service as soon as they could get it.

When the war was finally over, orders for service came boiling in. The post-war years brought unprecedented demand for more telephone service, more telephones, more telephone jobs, post-war inflation and, then, the first strike against the Bell System by the Communication Workers of America. All this within two years after the war's end. If that weren't enough, Mr. Gifford left the presidency of AT&T on February 18, 1948 to become Chairman of the Board of Directors from which post he retired at the end of 1949. Gifford was followed as president of AT&T by Leroy A. Wilson, a man who had come up through the operating departments of Indiana Bell.

The major problem of the day was growth. More telephones for more people. And, as has already been noted, more telephones to be installed means that more money is needed to install them. That basic engineering rule states that more telephones means more expense for interconnection. The telephone growth in 1946 held the record until it was eclipsed in the 1960's and used up just about all the extra facilities which were available. This, coupled with a great burst of post-war inflation made higher telephone rates imperative if the Bell System hoped to keep up with public demand. Not all the technological wonders in the world could substitute, and this was a major period for technological wonders. Television burst forth and so did a very tiny device from the Bell Labs called a transistor, both destined to change the recreational habits of millions of Americans. So the many Bell System associated companies took stock, borrowed what money they could and then started their first post-war round of rate cases before the many state and local commissions across the country.

The telephone company rate case is a peculiar ritual which has become more and more familiar during the past 25 years. But it was relatively unique during the late 1940's and early 1950's. The phone company rate increase request is made to allow the company to earn a sufficiently high return on its investment so it can raise more money to invest on more equipment to provide more service. The request is tempered by inflation and new telephone demand, and also by the cost of money that the company must borrow to go on growing,

The complexities involved in balancing these many components with a fair and reasonable price to be charged customers for the service rendered require many hours of presentation before the commissioners. Usually, when the telephone rate case follows a typical pattern (if, indeed, there is such a thing), the commissioners involved award a rate increase, but usually not as high as the company has indicated it needs. This lower figure precipitates the next request for higher rates, and the thing starts over again.

The years immediately after World War II were trying ones for telephone people and for telephone customers as well. Service improvements were not prompt in many cases because of the long "lead time" necessary from the moment a new central office, for example, had been proved in by forecasters, then ordered from Western Electric or some other manufacturing company, delivered, installed, tested and then cut into service. The problems were met and solved, however, with the help of understanding customers and hard working Bell System people. They were solved just in time, in fact, for the 1956 Consent Decree to be issued by the Justice Department.

This consent decree was the final judgment on the antitrust suit instituted years before against the Western Electric Company and AT&T. It developed from the fact that over the years Bell System research had come up with many inventions whose use was only peripherally connected with telephony. When highly creative people in an organization like the Bell Labs are given their heads, they tend to come up with all kinds of fascinating things, and a company would be foolish, indeed, to ignore them. The Bell System's ventures into radio and movies were good examples of this; the transistor's appearance magnified the situation.

The Justice Department, in the eyes of the Bell System, at least, over-reacted and sought the separation of the System's manufacturing from its operations and research functions; in effect, giving away anything the Labs people came up with.

The consent decree modified this, however. It limited the Bell System to common carrier communications and government projects, but preserved the long-standing relationship between the manufacturing, research and operating arms. The final judgment had three major provisions: First, AT&T and its operating subsidiaries were confined to the furnishing of services and, in particular, to those communications services other than message telegraph service whose charges are subject to regulation. Second, Western Electric was limited to the manufacture of equipment of a type sold to companies of the Bell System and to other activities of a type engaged in for the Bell System, except for business for the Federal Government. Third, all patents by the Bell System prior to the date of the decree (January 24, 1956) must be licensed royalty-free to any applicant at any time. Patents issued subsequent to the date of the decree must be licensed to any applicant at a reasonable license fee.

Somehow, this consent decree, far from being deadening, added incentive to the Bell System's efforts to grow into a truly modern organization. Assisting this charge into the future was the advent of Frederick R. Kappel, who became president of AT&T on September 19, 1956. Kappel, who came up through the ranks of Northwestern Bell and Western Electric, replaced Cleo F. Craig as president.

Direct Distance Dialing for Bell System customers became more and more usual during the 1950's. It was introduced in 1950 between New York and New Jersey, and was quickly inaugurated in other communities. Direct Distance Dialing was the first of the really modern telephone services to be made available.

New leadership and a new definition made 1956 yet another important year of change for the Bell System. On September 25, 1956 the first transatlantic telephone cable, announced in 1953 with its final splice completed only one month before, opened for business. This cable, the result of real heroism on the part of many Bell System people -- and their co-workers in telephony in England -- insured good transmission, unaffected by the natural phenomena which had troubled radio-telephony since its inception. The next decade would see even more emphasis on undersea cables.

Mr. Kappel's watchword was "vitality" -- a reflection back to Vail's remarks 75 years earlier -- and vitality was rampant. Shareowners at AT&T's April 15, 1959 Annual Meeting approved, with vitality, a revolutionary change: A three-for-one split of AT&T's common stock, coupled with a dividend increase up to $9.90 a year, based on the pre-split stock. Thus a tradition stretching back to 1921 was broken. Suddenly investors, including widows and orphans, began to look at AT&T stock as a "growth" issue. A further, two-for-one split was voted in 1964; more dividend increases have been voted since.

Vitality notwithstanding, this change in its public image caught some Bell System people off-guard and out-dated the old public image of "Ma" Bell. The Bell System had indeed entered modern days. But the 1960's would become years of even more change; a list of major events during that decade is very nearly a list of the major interests of the Bell System in the 1970's. Return to Table of Contents


The 1960's and Today

The 1960's were explosive years for the Bell System -- as they were for the rest of the country as well. Changes, great and small, came and seem to have come to stay in the life-style of much of the American population. The Bell System was right there when it started and, if any single happening can be Picked as the opening shot, the Bell System has a pretty good claim on it.

It was like this: For some years Bell Labs technologists had been growing increasingly concerned about the limitations of the national numbering plan which had been adopted earlier to make Direct Distance Dialing possible. In brief, the numbering plan divided the United States and Canada into areas, each area equipped with a different three-digit number which could be recognized by automatic switching equipment because the second digit was either a one or a zero. When the numbering plan was first devised it appeared that telephone numbers would go on forever, without any possible shortage developing. But the American and Canadian populations began growing at such a rate that the numbers would run out unless something was done. Since the area codes must have either a one or a zero in the middle, they could not be added to without great expense in changing the recognizing equipment. It looked as if something should be done about individual telephone numbers. Further, others at Bell Labs had found that push-button telephones, when introduced (as, of course, they were very soon, as the Touch-Tone( telephone) would be much easier to use if the numbers could appear all alone on the buttons without being confused by the addition of letters. And still other Labs futurists, looking far ahead, could see problems resulting from international direct distance dialing because of differences in alphabets, dial arrangements and letter shapes.

The single answer to all three of these problems, it turned out, was simple: do away with all telephone number prefix names and substitute their number equivalents. This would allow more prefixes (no reasonable English words could be found starting with PW, XS, RW, YR, JX and a few others), would clear up the design of push-buttons and would allow the international agreement on Arabic numerals to take care of the customer training necessary for international customer direct dialing.

The solution was announced quietly at first in small communities, where, by and large, it was met with indifference. This calmed whatever public relations misgivings existed, and the new plan, dubbed All Number Calling (ANC), was widely announced.

A group of very vocal people hated it. They felt, they said, that they and everyone else were being reduced to numbers, that computers were dehumanizing American life, that their heritage was being destroyed and that the Bell System was behind the whole plot. They said a great deal more than that and added, moreover, that psychological tests had proved their point. They got large headlines.

The Bell System answered. It may have been a mistake, but the developers at Bell Labs, still quoting their original findings and needs, tested some more and found that ANC numbers were easier to remember, more distinctive and better than the old kind.

The controversy surged noisily. An organization called the Anti-Digit Dialing League was formed in San Francisco, the heartland of the opposition. Many Bell System people couldn't help wondering why all the fuss was being made about something so relatively unimportant as telephone number conformation. The controversy is, of course, over now.

The point of the teapot tempest over ANC, however, should not be missed. Things have changed and the American public does care about individuality, and is concerned about population growth and urban pressures on day-to-day ease of living. The public cares and the public is no longer happy to be quiet about it. The ANC announcement, coming as it did at the first of the decade, hit an unexpected hidden nerve, and the Bell System, large and anonymous when taken altogether by masses of people, got the brunt of the first wave of popular revolt. Certainly, local Bell System people were not held responsible; the enemy was "they" and they must be whipped. Perhaps no other response was so indicative of what was to follow during the next ten years, as that which followed the introduction of ANC.

One result of the ANC storm has been a reassessing of the Bell System Public Relations Department's role in the System along with a redefinition of that department's job. Today, more time is spent testing public reaction, in finding answers to the causes of any low public attitude levels regarding the System. The Bell System came to understand in a very pragmatic way, because of ANC, that it is more than a natural monopoly or a national resource. The Bell System is also an American institution and whatever it does is of great and vital interest to the American public. This is not surprising, when one considers statistics regarding the Bell System's relative size within the United States.

Being an American institution is no small thing; it carries great responsibilities, but they can be dealt with. Behind what might be called the Bell System's non-physical presence in the American consciousness -- its institutional aspects may be a better way of expressing that concept -- stands its nationwide switched network.

This switched network is the Bell System's principal physical resource. The network represents 93 per cent of the System's net investment and produces 95 per cent of its total revenues. And most of the more than one million Bell System people -- the System's other major resource -- are engaged in the design, maintenance and operation of the network. Only during the last 15 years has this network come to be recognized as an entity. Previously Bell people talked about long distance lines, local service, various levels of sophistication in switching centers, all kinds of varied services available, but almost as if all these existed independently, rather than as pieces of a whole.

This change in philosophy, just as the one accompanying ANC, is representative of the 1960's -- and of today -- as opposed to the years before. Bell and Vail both talked about the national overtones of what they were doing. But it wasn't until just recently that these overtones became a reality and the word, "system," in the Bell System's name came to be fully understood. System means unity of purpose -- and that, in short, is what the switched network represents to AT&T and its associated companies. The national switched network has been growing since the very first days of the telephone, but it has only been recognized for what it is during the last 15 or so years.

Some 25,000 local Bell and independent switching offices are at the base of this network. These offices serve from a few up to 10,000 lines. There are four additional ranks or levels of switching offices (to switch the switching offices), called tandem offices of various types. The Bell System's switched network is unique in size, complexity and sophistication in the world, but it shares with other nations' communications networks its primary purpose, that of carrying information. The network carries information of all kinds. From as many sources to as many terminations as are necessary or needed or, for that matter, as are conceivable.

The Bell System's switched network is the answer to Theodore Vail's objective, written in 1910: "A telephone system which undertakes to meet its full requirements must cover with its exchanges and connecting lines the whole country. It must be a system that will afford communications with anyone that may possibly be wanted, at any time."

The Bell System's network today, however, includes more than the usually understood interconnection of exchange to exchange across the country. Cables stretch underseas, across the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean. The Bell System's cable ship Long Lines has played and continues to play a major role in laying these cables. The Long Lines Department of AT&T has grown in size and concept, adept now at dealing with communications organizations around the world, usually governmental agencies, as well as with the many private firms also engaged in overseas communications traffic.

During the late 50's and early 60's there were a number of theories set forth regarding yet another technique to use to transmit information: satellite communication.

The first and most easily achieved technique was to send up, by rocket, a huge inflatable balloon made of a mirror-surfaced, thin plastic called "mylar." Echo I and Echo II were communications satellites of this type. They merely acted as passive reflectors of transmission from the Earth. There was no amplification and considerable distortion. especially after the balloons were punctured by meteors.

The next step was to send up amplifying repeaters. Rocketry techniques had reached the point by the early 60's that the Bell System felt it could profitably experiment with its own relatively low-altitude satellite. Telstar I, the first true communications satellite, was built by the Bell Labs and shot into orbit by the U.S. government, with the Bell System paying the costs of the shot. Telstar electrified the world with the clarity of its transmission, even of television pictures from across the ocean, and opened up a new world of international communication. Telstar II and RCA's Relay satellites followed quickly, but by then rocketry had progressed to the point that high altitude communications satellites were possible. The high altitude satellite orbits at the speed of the Earth's rotation from a point some 23,000 miles up, and appears, from the ground, to be standing still in space.

Communications satellites opened the door to international negotiation, and, it appeared, the U.S. Government and its agencies were better equipped to do this than a privately owned corporation like AT&T. So Congress passed a bill authorizing the Comsat Corporation to be owned by the government, the Public and the carriers which proposed to make use of the satellites it hung into space. The Bell System pioneered satellite communication. It proved the concept would work successfully and today is the heaviest user of Comsat's services, employing satellites to carry voice, data and television information all over the world.

Another new look at an old problem came about during the 1960's. This was the connection of customer-owned or provided communications facilities with the Bell System switched network. This subject is usually referred to as "interconnection" today, replacing earlier meanings of the word. Interconnection tariff regulations have been in effect for more than 40 years. They were established with the understanding and support of the many regulatory bodies in the country because telephone companies in the United States are held responsible for the usefulness and dependability of the nationwide switched network and the quality of service provided to all its users. The tariffs have been revised from time to time to accommodate new situations, new services, new techniques, when it has been found that these would be desirable in terms of the public interest and where the connections would be made without jeopardizing service to other customers.

In 1977 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC's 19'75 and 1976 registration programs, which required that most telephone terminal equipment, whether provided by the phone company or bought by the customer from other suppliers, must be registered with the FCC before being directly connected to the network. Since registration does not guarantee performance, this program has not been welcomed by Bell System people, although the System's policy is to cooperate with any changes instituted. Further, registration does not mean that customers must provide their own phones. The Bell System hopes, in fact, that they do not and has opened some 1500 PhoneCenter Stores around the nation to help them in making their choices. We are committed to doing our best to make registration work and still keep the quality of service high.

All of which means a new world for many Bell System people, who have spent their Bell System careers with the understanding that nothing except Bell System-owned equipment could be connected to the Bell System network.

Automatic switching equipment has changed greatly since Mr. Strowger showed up with his collar box. The most recent development, one which is changing the face of local switching centers and adding a great deal of flexibility to local customer services is called electronic switching.

The electronic switching system (ESS) is really a specialized computer, which switches telephone calls almost instantaneously. Its further introduction is progressing, with speed today. Electronic switching is an outstanding example of the sort of thing the Bell System's continuing research and development program can produce. New ways of doing old things better, new things to do, dreams of the future, are all a part of the organization which produced the ESS. ESS was designed and perfected at the Bell Labs, is built and installed by Western Electric and is maintained and operated by local Bell System companies.

Today, Western Electric and the Bell Telephone laboratories are in the forefront of technological wonder, perhaps to the point that wonder almost ceases. Fortunately, wonder never quite disappears, and weekly, almost daily, bulletins are issued announcing yet another, Picturephone( Meeting Service; micro-miniaturization for data transmission equipment and ordinary telephone equipment; new and faster, more reliable electronic switching techniques; new and more attractive telephone instruments. The list won't stop. During, the years to come unguessed inventions and discoveries will be added to the wave guides, transistors, solar batteries and the thousands of other devices which have emerged from Bell System research and development.

The telephone customer picks up the telephone and places a call. Lasers, transistors, microminiaturized equipment, electronic switches, the complexities of the nationwide switching network, over one million Bell System employees -- all these, at least -- are there to see that the call reaches the telephone called.

The Bell System today is successful in doing its job. At the end of 1978 it had more than 133 million telephones in service and handled over 180 billion calls. Return to Table of Contents


Conclusion

It is fair to say that the Bell System has led the world in communications since very early in this century and, though this is open to argument, during most of the last quarter of the 19th Century. It is also fair to say that the Bell System has dominated the development and use of communications techniques, not only in America but around the world, during most of this time and that it has been, almost without deviation, a benevolent domination.

It would be interesting to dwell upon the philosophical conjecture that the job makes the corporation or whether the corporation makes the job. Or, for that matter, whether people control corporations or corporations control people. More realistically, it's a give and take sort of thing. For instance, the Bell System, from the time that the changes of 1907 were stabilized around 1914 up, until 1978, just sort of moved along like the Mississippi River. It just was. Then the changes that had begun in the 1960's came to a head, and the System reacted with a new organization based, no longer on operating departments, but on serving its customers, either business or residence, in all ways to the best of the company's ability.

Through nearly all its history, the telephone industry has operated for the most part as a regulated monopoly-and through nearly all that time the industry and its regulators have addressed themselves to one goal: universal service. And to promote that goal the Bell System's aim (and the aim of most regulators) has been to keep charges for residence phone service as low as possible and the quality of that service as high as possible.

In the 1970's, the Federal Communications Commission pursued a policy of promoting "competition" in certain sectors of the telephone industry, notably in the provision of private line services for business and in the supply of terminal equipment-switchboards, key systems and the like.

Bell's position is that competition -- or, more precisely, regulated competition that is, in effect, a government-imposed allocation of the market -- is adverse to the interest of the general public in that it can impair service by fragmenting responsibility for it and add to its costly dislocating a carefully-arranged pricing structure designed to keep home rates low.

On November 20, 1974, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against the Bell System charging monopolization and conspiracy to monopolize the supply of telecommunications service and equipment in this country.

In reply the Bell System said it is confident that it is not in violation of the antitrust laws and is determined to contest the Justice Department's action vigorously.

For a great many years the operations of the Bell companies -- their services -- have been rigorously regulated by public authority on both the Federal and state levels. That this arrangement works well is evident from the fact that private enterprise operating under -government regulation has provided the U.S. a telecommunications service that in terms of its quality, availability and low cost is unrivalled in the world. To supplant long standing national policy, as the Justice Department would, simply in the interest of competition for competition's sake-and without any showing of the public benefits-would not only ignore the lessons of history but deny the future the proven benefits of that policy.

The Justice Department's suit, should it succeed in its aim of breaking up the Bell System would fragment responsibility for the service process. Separating Bell Laboratories from Western Electric and both from the Bell Telephone companies would destroy this process. It would obstruct innovation by impairing the close working relationships that link the people who design telephone facilities with the people who build and operate them.

The great size and omnipresence of the Bell System, over and over during most of the Bell System's corporate history, appeared frightening or frustrating, or both, to many people who stand outside the system, who try to nudge its progress with an input or an attack and who find that very little happens as a result. One young ex-Bell System manager who, when asked why he had left the business to try another, answered that he thought "the phone company was like a giant marshmallow. No matter how hard you kick it, you cannot make a dent." Amusing, and, to a degree true; but true only insofar as one tries to make a dent which is not in aid of the Bell System's basic operating policy.

So far, the basic Bell System's policy has withstood the test of time very well. One hundred years is a good long time. But not long enough. Presently, the Bell System supports congressional efforts to reform the Communications Act of 1934 in order to resolve what appear to be conflicting goals: universal service or competition. These two concepts do seem to stand at two ends of an argument, but the Bell System believes that there is a way to resolve the differences without debasing telephone and other communications
service in this country. And the System is working to this end.

The resolution of these conflicting goals will not be the final change. It is more and more obvious that change is the key to the Bell System's future now as perhaps never before. These changes, facing the System as it entered its second hundred years of operations, confront all American institutions - and for that matter, institutions the world over. And, further, there are many interested publics needing to be addressed today which used to be silent and, for the most part, unlistening: youth, minority groups, consumer interest groups, expanding and changing government agencies. The Bell System has the responsibility to address these audiences, for an institution has the responsibility to keep its constituency informed. The day has passed when, "No comment," was an acceptable answer to an embarrassing question. Nor can an institution retreat into a primarily defensive position. Fortunately for the Bell System, this is nothing new. Bell managers have been asking hard questions - and answering them for years. As Vail pointed out in 1908, "if we don't tell the truth about ourselves, someone else will." and he was very right.

The spirit of service within the Bell System is still there, increased by a marketing orientation, the objective of which is to increase the dimensions of service; the spirit of service has grown more sophisticated. But, then, so has the rest of the world. There can be no question but that today's and tomorrow's service policies -- the heart of the Bell System's operations -- are no longer as simplistic as those Theodore Vail and Walter Gifford formed and knew. Today, Bell System service equals an increasingly complex nation in an increasingly complex world society. That society demands an instant "Yes!" to its every request, but all too often asks for the wrong things.

Complex, yes, but impossible, no. The Bell System remains a human organization, dealing with human problems. Solving them, trying to give the right answers to all questions, right and wrong, takes a lot of imagination; but to complete the circle neatly, so did the invention of the telephone in 1876.
Return to Table of Contents


Bibliography

BOOKS
American Tel. & Tel., The Story of a Great Monopoly,
by Horace Coon, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1939.

AT&T -- The Story of Industrial Conquest,
by N. R. Danielian, The Vanguard Press, New York, 1939.

The Telephone in a Changing World,
by Marion May Dilts, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1941.

Communications in the World of the Future,
by Hal Hellman, M. Evans and Company, New York, 1969.

Alexander Graham Bell,
by Catherine MacKenzie, Houghton Mifflen Co., Boston and New York, 1928.

The Bell Telephone System,
by Arthur W. Page, Harper & Brothers, New York and London, 1929.

In One Man's Life, Biography of Theodore N. Vail,
by Albert Bigelow Paine, Harper & Brothers, New York and London, 19?9.

Beginnings of Telephony,
by F. L. Rhodes, Harper & Brothers, New York and London, 1929.

Views on Public Questions,
by Theodore N. Vail, privately printed, 1917.

For Noteworthy Public Service, The Theodore N. Vail National Awards,
published by the Bell System, New York, 1950.

Exploring Life, The Autobiography of Thomas A. Watson,
by D. Appleton and Company, New York and London, 1926.


*The original Bell System document stated "Charles" rather than "Clarence" MacKay.  This error was reported by Michael C. Beck, P.E., Technical Director, Thales Mackay Radio, Inc. (formerly Mackay Radio Systems).  Michael went on to state that Clarence had 2 children - John William (named in honor of his grandfather who was one of the silver barons of the Comstock and founded Commercial Cable Company which broke the Western Union monopoly ) and Ellin, who married songwriter Irving Berlin.

All original material on this web site is copyrighted �1997 - �2005 by David Massey.