The First Transcontinental Telephone
One of four telephones used to inaugurate the transcontinental telephone line on January 25, 1915.
The plaque on the telephone reads: “This instrument used by Maj. Henry L. Higginson at Boston, Mass. To open the Transcontinental telephone line with Thomas A. Watson at San Francisco, Cal. Monday evening January 25, 1915. Transmitter cutout & signal buttons added”
Higginson, a civil war hero and founder of the Boston Symphony, had long been a financial backer of American Bell (which became American Telephone and Telegraph in 1900) by way of his connection with the financial house of Lee, Higginson & Co.
AT&T staged several calling ceremonies in 1915. The first call was initiated by Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s former assistant, at the opening of the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and co-founder of AT&T, led a group of dignitaries in New York. AT&T President Theodore Vail spoke from Jekyll Island, Ga. And U.S. President Woodrow Wilson spoke from the White House.
At one point during the call, someone asked Professor Bell if he would repeat the first words he ever said over the telephone. He obliged, picking up the phone and repeating “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” To which Watson, in San Francisco, replied, “It would take me a week now.”
The transcontinental telephone line linked the Atlantic seaboard with the West Coast (and is often referred to as the New York-San Francisco line). This was the first line to use DeForest’s audion–an early vacuum tube. Thus, it is often regarded as a key event in the history of modern electronics.
Photo: Henry Lee Higginson with his telephone. Also shown is the De Forest Long-Plate audion vacuum tube that helped make the long distance line possible. All are on display at the Museum.