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This Month in Business History

The Bell System

Manhole cover in the French Quarter of New Orleans displaying the Bell System Logo. 2017. Photo courtesy of Nanette Gibbs.

As far back as August 5, 1858, when the first transatlantic cable was completed, August has been a month of firsts and change for the Bell System. In the book, Events in Telecommunications History published by AT&T Archives, researchers provide a unique chronological record by both year and month of important events in the history of AT&T up to and including 1984.

While post 1984 represents the restructuring of AT&T after deregulation, it is important to note that the Bell System also represented various entities to include the Bell Laboratories and Western Electric to name a few.

What were some of these firsts?

Although not comprehensive, this list of "firsts" for the Bell System during the month of August offers insight into a company that was known for innovation and research.

  • August 10, 1876, the first one-way long distance call from Brantford, Ontario to Paris, Ontario was made when Alexander Graham Bell's father transmitted a call to the younger Bell who received the call in Paris, Ontario. Bell remarked: "This Brantford experiment is of historical interest…because it led to the discovery of the proper combination of parts in a telephone to enable it to become operative upon a long line; and because upon this occasion occurred the first transmission of the human voice over a telegraph line in which the transmitting and receiving telephone was miles apart."1
  • In August 27, 1896, dial telephones were now being used. Often referred to as 'finger wheels', these telephones were put into service in the city hall of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Interestingly enough, the phones equipped with dials machines replaced push-button devices which were considered inferior because the pulses were irregular. Many years later, push button phones were reintroduced.
  • On August 26, 1915, trials were conducted to transmit speech across the Atlantic; and, on August 27, 1915, a successful transmission of speech from Arlington, Virginia to Darien on the Isthmus of Panama was accomplished through the efforts of Bell System engineers and the United States Navy.
  • Within a period of two days, August 18-20, 1917, two way air-ground communication was maintained for the first time and communication between two airplanes in flight was accomplished. During another two day period, August 21-22, 1943, the first No. 4 toll crossbar switching system in the world was put into service at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was the first concrete move toward toll dialing.2
  • Without doubt, new technologies allowed for greater communication and the Bell System was at the forefront. On August 20, 1946 the first rural radiotelephone service began—connecting eight ranch houses in eastern Colorado with a central office at Cheyenne; and, on August 25 of the same year, a single link microwave radio was used between the Los Angeles Coliseum and Mount Wilson for pickup of a rodeo.
  • While 1947 witnessed the restoration of overseas services, August 15, 1947, marked the beginning of trials of telephone service from moving trains to any other telephones. The first call was made by W.R. Triem, general superintendent of Telegraph for Pennsylvania R.R. from a Pennsylvania express train as it emerged from the New Jersey end of the Hudson River tunnel. A.S. Hunt, Chief Engineer of Communications for B.&O., received the call while aboard a B.&O. train that was pulling out of Washington.3
  • August 23, 1956, Bell Laboratories announced their experiment with "Picture Phone" transmission that sends pictures along with sound over regular telephone lines. A small screen (up to 2 by 3 inches) permitted persons talking by telephone to see each other.4
  • August of 1957 marked AT&T's registration of its familiar blue bell service mark. It had been in use in several forms since 1889.5
  • The Bell System continued to explore new applications of communications technology, and on August 20, 1959, Bell Laboratories announced the development of a self-contained electronic artificial larynx for persons who had lost their voices through surgical removal or paralysis of the vocal chords.6
  • In August of 1966, Southern New England began testing coin telephones which permitted emergency calling without a coin.7
  • August 8, 1969. Bell Laboratories announced it was experimenting with magnetic “bubbles,” each smaller than the diameter of a human hair, that could be moved on magnetic plates in precise patterns to store enormous bits of information, do computation, or switch signals.8
  • August 1978. Telephone Pioneers of America, in cooperation with Western Electric and Bell Laboratories, began producing equipment to detect hearing problems in infants.9
  • August 20, 1980. AT&T announced a massive restructuring of the general departments in anticipation of the need to separate Bell System’s regulated activities from those expected to be deregulated.10
  • August 1983 AT&T Bell Laboratories received its 20,000th patent.11

In 1984, a restructured AT&T marks the beginning of the Post-Bell System.

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