First Transcontinental Telephone Call

Alexander Graham Bell Calls Thomas Watson, Again

A picture of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), Scottish-born American inventor who patented the telephone in 1876. (1907). (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On January 25, 1915, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was given the honor of making the first transcontinental telephone call. While in New York, Bell called his old assistant, Thomas Watson, in San Francisco, calling out, "Hoy! Hoy! Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?" It was the first time a call was made across the United States.

The First Telephone Call

Scottish-born American inventor Alexander Graham Bell was living in Boston, working on an invention that would enable several messages to travel at the same time across telegraph wires, when he came upon the idea for a speaking telegraph.

Bell's financial backers thought this idea just a flighty distraction and insisted he get back to creating the multi-message telegraph.

Bell refused to heed their advice and worked with his assistant, Thomas Watson, on creating the speaking telegraph. It was Gardiner Hubbard, one of Bell's financial backers (and his soon-to-be father in law) that filed the patent for the speaking telegraph on Bell's behalf. On March 3, 1876, Bell's 29th birthday, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded Patent No. 174,465.

Despite the patent, the speaking telegraph was still not fully functioning. After some additional work creating a new transmitter, the first telephone call was made. On the evening of March 10, 1876, Bell and Watson were in Bell's home at 5 Exeter Place in Boston when they started the experiment. Bell stood by the transmitter in the laboratory, while Watson was to listen at the receiver, which had been placed on a dresser in a bedroom down the hall.

Bell said, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" Watson heard Bell's voice and its urgency made Watson rush back into the other room, to find that Bell had spilled acid on himself. No one was seriously hurt and both were extremely excited that the "speaking telegraph" had worked.

Problems With Distance

After Bell and Watson had created the first telephone, others worked on perfecting the idea and allowing transmission of voices to go much farther than just a room down the hall.

In 1885, AT&T (the American Telephone and Telegraph company) had a vision to stretch telephone wires across the United States, starting in New York. The problem was that the farther the line reached, the quieter the voice sounded. By 1911, the lines reached all the way to Denver, Colorado but could go no farther without losing sound completely.

In 1912, private inventor Dr. Lee de Forest invented an "audion," a vacuum-tube repeater that allowed periodic amplification of sound along the telephone line. This invention made it possible for telephone calls to travel across the country without losing volume. AT&T then finished installing the telephone line from Denver all the way to San Francisco, finishing on June 27, 1914.

The First Transcontinental Telephone Call

The inauguration of the first transcontinental telephone line waited for six months after it was completed; AT&T wanted the event to correspond with the Panama-Pacific exhibition, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal.

On January 25, 1915, the first transcontinental telephone call was made. Alexander Graham Bell, now 67 years old, sat at a long table at the AT&T headquarters in New York City, while his long-ago assistant, Thomas Watson, waited for the call in San Francisco.

At 4:30 p.m., Bell made the call. "Hoy! Hoy! Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?" asked Bell. Bell's voice travelled 3,400 miles, over more than 130,000 telephone poles, to be heard distinctly by Watson. "Yes, Mr. Bell, I hear you perfectly. Do you hear me well?" answered Watson.

Bell had also heard Watson clearly. The first transcontinental telephone call had been a success! Bell and Watson continued to chat for a few minutes, and then Bell, reminiscing upon the very first phone call, said, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you." But this time, not being just down the hall, Watson replied, "It would take me a week to get to you this time."

After Watson and Bell were done talking, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson came onto the line from Washington D.C. and congratulated Bell on this notable achievement.