Theodore Newton Vail

by Colin Berkshire

Theodore Newton Vail is the man who really founded the Bell System. He built the nationwide network, he founded Bell Labs. He was quite outspoken. He died in 1920.

Surprisingly, little seems to have changed from his time. It’s the same problems, opportunities, and social challenges.
Here is one quote that illustrates how things haven’t changed much in 100 years:

“There is too little idea of personal responsibility; too much of “the world owes me a living,” forgetting that if the world does owe you a living, you must be your own collector.” — Theodore Newton Vail (Founder of the Bell System, 1849-1920)

Quoting from the PBS Website:

In 1907, Vail returned to what was essentially his previous job, though now the company was known as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, or AT&T. AT&T was in some trouble because its phone patents had expired and other small companies were getting into the business. Suddenly, AT&T had competition. Vail solved this problem in three ways:

  • First, he decided AT&T must have the very best phone system available: he committed the company to building a long-distance system that would cross the entire US. To do this he knew he would have to invest in scientific research, and he encouraged the development of AT&Ts own laboratory, Bell Labs.
  • Second, he cooperated with the competitors, leasing them the use of AT&T’s phone lines.
  • Third, he managed to convince the public and the government that the best possible phone system was one that could provide “universal service” around the country — in essence, the best phone system would come from a monopoly like AT&T.

Regarding that first goal, it was on January 25, 1915 that it became possible to call coast to coast across the United States. (The line was physically connected for the first time on June 17, 1914. It then underwent six months of refinement before public service began).

It was a metallic system, meaning that your phone call would be carried entirely over a copper wire via 130,000 telephone poles. No radio, no carriers, nothing wireless. Just a copper wire.

The cost of a phone call from coast to coast was $20.70 for the first three minutes. In today’s dollars that would be over $500.