First Transcontinental Telephone Call
Jekyll Island and the Opening of the Transcontinental Telephone Line
While construction of the transcontinental telephone line was completed in June of 1914, the opening of it for commercial service was delayed to coincide with the San Francisco World's Fair. Several years earlier, AT&T declared that telephone service between the coastlines would be achieved by the start of the next World's Fair. The year this assertion was made, interesting to note, a way to amplify electrical current across the continent had not been invented yet.
She explains, "On the evening of January 24th, Father was called to the telephone during dinner, and he came back with the look on his face that he had when things weren't going his way. He stopped at Mr. Vail's table and said, 'Vail, it's stopped working again. I told [club manager] Grob to come and talk to you.'
This was an opportunity for Father to tell us as much as we were able to understand about the line between Brunswick and Jekyl[l] and how many times they had tried to fix it. 'It will be terrible if Mr. Vail can't get through tomorrow... The President, Alexander Graham Bell and Mr. Vail will all be on the line at once.'"
Susan Albright Reed continues, "The next day, we had our first swim in Mr. Gould's pool. The famous telephone call was forgotten in the delight of that first swim outdoors."
The transcontinental telephone line, stretching between New York City and San Francisco, crossed through 13 states. Four copper wires, the means to transmit the telephone signal, were held up by 130,000 wood poles. On the day of the historic phone call, approximately 1,500
Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell started the event around 4:00 pm Eastern Standard Time by speaking from New York to his assistant Thomas A. Watson in San Francisco. Mr. Vail and others including William Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, Jr. listened to the conversation keenly in one of the parlors of the Jekyll Island clubhouse.
The ceremony included phone speeches by officials, discussion of the lines' superb operation, as well as a brief talk between Vail and another person about the weather conditions in Georgia and California. Then, to help fill time before President Woodrow Wilson joined in, Bell and Watson were asked to recreate the first words transmitted by phone. Thomas Watson was pulled away from reporters in San Francisco and Alexander Graham Bell plugged in a reproduction of their circa 1876 telephone. Bell, with spectators laughing and applauding, uttered the words, "Mr. Watson, come here please, I want you."
Watson responded that it would take at least a week for him to get to New York. The crowd applauded. A short time later, President Woodrow Wilson congratulated everyone from a phone at the White House in Washington, D.C.
Another voice then interjected, "Hello, Mr. Vail."
Vail responded, "Who is this?"
"This is the President. I am glad to hear your voice. I have just been speaking across the continent this afternoon," announced President Woodrow Wilson.
Theodore Vail replied, "Oh, yes."
"Before I give up the telephone," continued President Wilson, "I wanted to extend my congratulations to you on the consummation of this remarkable work."
"Thank you," said Vail.
President Wilson commented, "I am very sorry to hear that you are sick."
"I am getting along very nicely. I am sort of a cripple, that is all," asserted Vail.
"I hope you will be well soon. Good-bye, Mr. Vail."
"Thank you, Good-bye, Mr. President."
The transcontinental telephone ceremony ended soon afterwards. Later that evening, the line between San Francisco and Boston was officially dedicated and in the inauguration one of the conversations that transpired was spoken in Chinese.
During this 50th anniversary ceremony, retired telephone worker Herman Murdock and retired telephone operator Clara Horton attended. Murdock in 1915 repaired the telephone line near Brunswick before the official call took place and enabled Jekyll Island to take part in the affair. Ms. Horton in 1915 operated the telephone switchboard in the clubhouse.
Numerous government officials and regional dignitaries such as Dr. Sidney Vail, a St. Simons Island dentist and relative of Theodore Vail, were present at the 50th anniversary celebration. Following the dedication of the telephone display, a luncheon and a reenactment of the telephone call occurred at the then named Stuckey's Carriage Inn Motel on Jekyll. Using a telephone switchboard found in the attic of Crane Cottage, Secretary of State Ben W. Fortson Jr. called Theodore Vail's great grandniece Margaret Vail Foster in San Jose, California. The event concluded with Telephone Pioneer Vice President Larry P. Morgan telephoning AT&T president H. M. Romnes in New York.
† Permission to use images courtesy of the AT&T Corporate Archives