A Capsule History of
the Bell System
edited from previously published material by Kenneth P. Todd, Jr.
Copyrighted (c) by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T)
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Table of Contents
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
to Table of Contents
Graham Bell and the Invention of the Telephone
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
to Table of Contents
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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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.
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
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
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
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.
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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
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.
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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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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.
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Table of Contents
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
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
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
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
"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.
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 instability.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
to Table of Contents
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
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
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
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
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.
to Table of Contents
Beginning of Bell System Regulation
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
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.
to Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to Table of Contents
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to Table of Contents
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
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
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
by Marion May Dilts, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1941.
the World of the Future,
by Hal Hellman, M. Evans and Company, New York, 1969.
by Catherine MacKenzie, Houghton Mifflen Co., Boston and New York, 1928.
The Bell Telephone
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.
by F. L. Rhodes, Harper & Brothers, New York and London, 1929.
Views on Public
by Theodore N. Vail, privately printed, 1917.
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.