The First Transcontinental Phone Call Was Made 100 Years Ago Today

By Darren Orf on at

On Jan. 25th, 1915, inventor Alexander Graham Bell (centre) called up his former lab partner, Thomas Watson, in San Francisco, making the first transcontinental phone call in history.

"Mr. Watson, are you there?"

Watson answered in the affirmative as hundreds of attendees erupted in applause, according to a 1915 edition of The New York Times:

He [Bell] heard a sound that at first he thought was due to some imperfection in the transmission of the voice over the long wire, but in a moment he realised that Mr. Watson had turned away from his telephone to tell the San Francisco audience what Dr. Bell had said, and that the noise he had heard had been the applause of the audience, 3,400 miles away.

This transcontinental phone line was a dream several years in the making, started in 1908 by AT&T's president Theodore Vail. The goal was to actually build the phone line in time to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The last pole was installed in Wendover, Utah, in July of 1914, but the official first conversation was postponed until the Panama-Pacific exposition in January the next year.

Back then getting from the eastern coast of the US to the west took 16 days to go by canal, 90 hours by railway, or 1/15th of a second by telephone—but it was a little pricey. According to CNET, a three-minute call from NY to SF would cost about $20.70 in 1915 dollars—or about $400/£266 in today's money. On a related side note, I will never complain about my phone bill again.

Even though our communication is now dominated with texting and email rather than phone calls, this achievement was big—and obviously not one that will be forgotten.

Image via AT&T Archives and History Center