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The Telephone Goes Long Distance, 1910-1920

Theodore Vail

Theodore Vail Theodore Vail, President of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), dreamed of creating a transcontinental phone system. In 1913 AT&T dispatched teams of workers - through blizzards, lightning, and rough terrain - to string a continuous line of telephone wires between the coasts. The lines were joined on 17 June 1914 in Utah. The longest line stretched 3,505 miles.

Theodore Vail's Invitation to the Completion of Transcontinental Line Independent operators owned the telephone exchange in towns and other small areas but often did not have access to the toll network. Long distance lines were controlled by Bell; independents were usually denied access or required to pay high prices to use the toll lines. There was no regulation of the problem between independents and the mighty Bell until 1913 when the government intervened and an agreement was finally reached. The Bell system, or AT&T, agreed to let independent telephone companies connect their exchanges to the long-distance toll network.

Lee De Forest

Lee De Forest Lee De Forest invented his version of the regenerative circuit in 1912. It amplified the volume of radio or telephone, which made long-distance calling clearer.

Dr. Lee De Forest patented the vacuum tube, a device that boosted transmission and made it possible to call over long distances. People no longer had to depend on the telegraph to send long messages although there were still some problems. In San Angelo, the first toll line terminated on the wall of the old Landon Hotel. In the early days of the system, persons who wanted to place a long distance call had to go to the hotel and often had to wait a day for the call to be completed.


WWI Switchboard Operator During the war, 233 U.S. women were part of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit that went overseas. Many worked under combat conditions close behind the lines.

The 412 Signal Corps Battalion, comprised of telephone employee volunteers, was trained at Camp Morse in Leon Springs, TX. They arrived in France 26 January 1918 and began building a telephone and telegraph line that stretched 400 miles across the field of battle. Telephone engineers developed two-way air-to-ground radio equipment in 1917, and American pilots used it in 1918 combat in France.

Operators were among the first to know when World War I ended. An operator in Gonzales, Texas was preparing to go off duty. Suddenly, news began to make the rounds that the war was over. The operator decided to stay in case there was further news. As the night went on, church bells began to ring out and lamps began to light up on the switchboard. The two operators took plugs in both hands and began answering the calls with the words “Germany has sued for peace.”

Telephone Service Grows

Customers were charged a flat rate. It was much easier to charge everyone the same price instead of trying to figure out who used what part of what line over what distance for how long and for how much. Flat rates were determined by the amount of money the owner needed to keep the business going. This was known as a revenue requirement. The amount was divided by the total number of customers in the exchange. Business customers paid twice the monthly charge as residential customers.

Bell and Watson reenacted their first telephone conversation at the Pan-American Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Bell, in New York, called Watson and said, “Watson come here, I want to see you.” Watson in San Francisco said, “I would be glad to come, Mr. Bell, but it would take more than a week.” Long distance service became available immediately.

Phones of the Period

Kellogg Common Battery Wall Type Telephone Kellogg Common Battery Wall Type Telephone (1916 and later)

Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company Common Battery Desk Stand Telephone Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company Common Battery Desk Stand Telephone (1915 and later).

Automatic Electric Candlestick Dial Telephone Automatic Electric Candlestick Dial Telephone (1916 and later).

Theodore Gary purchased Automatic Electric Company in 1919, developer of the dial-operated automatic system, which replaced manual connections by the telephone operator. Automatic Electric was also the largest telephone manufacturer in the United States.

American Electric Throw Away Intercom Telephone American Electric Throw Away Intercom Telephone (1918)

The parts are crimped together and the telephone has no screws.

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