Can you hear me now? Transcontinental telephone service marks 100 years

Black-and-white photo of Alexander Graham Bell in suit with white hair and white beard

Alexander Graham Bell conducted a first celebrated call on the transcontinental telephone line, staged in January 1915 six months following the first 1914 connection to test the line. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

TUESDAY, JULY 29: Paper-thin telephones, sleek tablets, high-tech smartphones and e-readers now circle the globe. But it was only 100 years ago, on this day, that the first test call was made on a transcontinental telephone line. Commercial service for the technology, however, was not possible until January 25 of the following year.

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
AND THEODORE VAIL

Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone way back in 1876. Appropriately, he was invited to complete the celebrated “first” telephone call on a transcontinental line in 1915. In truth, that was an official demonstration scheduled to coincide with a huge world’s fair in San Francisco.

The first actual voice transmission on the transcontinental line is the subject of today’s anniversary, connecting Theodore Vail, the president of AT&T, with a few of his workers. Wikipedia has details. Vail was a fascinating figure in American life, even though he is almost entirely forgotten today. He began working in railroads and with mail delivery in the American West, then he switched to the new telephone technology.

Perhaps because of his vast experience, Vail was quite a visionary. At the height of his career, he argued that major corporations, especially communication companies, should have public service as their first and foremost goal, even more important than the financial profits earned. He also foreshadowed the 21st-century debates on privacy by writing—a century ago—”If we don’t tell the truth about ourselves, someone else will.”

The highly debated question of who invented the telephone remains a burning controversy, but Bell patented his version, and went down in history as his patents were successfully defended for a time.

TELEPHONES TODAY

On a basic level, every telephone converts sound into electronic signals that are suitable for transmission—via cables, radio or other transmission media—and the signals are replayed into the receiver’s telephone, where they are converted back into audible form. From the Greek tele (“far”) and phone (“voice”), telephone means, quite literally, “distant voice.”

Did you know? A January 2014 Pew study found that 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone, and 42 percent own a tablet; 58 percent own a smartphone, and 32 percent have an e-reader.

The earliest mobile phones evolved from two-way radios and transportables. Cellular technology took off in the 1960s, and 1973 brought the first cellular phone call. (Read more from Wikipedia.) Today, most mobile devices can send and receive text messages; take and display photographs; access Internet sites and play music and video. Smartphones combine mobile communication and computing needs.

IN THE NEWS:
LEGALIZING CELL UNLOCKING,
BATTERIES SHRINK

American consumers will soon be able to legally unlock their phones for wireless networks, reported the Huffington Post, after a bill was passed that allows phone users more choices when choosing a phone carrier. The bill, “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act,” allows consumers and third parties to unlock phones that were received through a carrier.

The lithium-ion batteries of today may be too large for future electric devices, and a startup business in California is responding to that need with paper-thin batteries. Imprint Energy has been experimenting with chemistry that was, previously, regarded as incompatible with batteries. (Read more in the Christian Science Monitor.)