Abstract: Long Lines: AT&T, Long Distance Telephony, and Corporate Control

Robert MacDougall


In January 1915, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company connected the United States' first transcontinental phone call. The New York - San Francisco circuit was an impressive technological achievement, but the lines were extremely expensive, and demand for very long distance service was minimal. The fanfare surrounding the transcontinental call and the emphasis AT&T placed on long lines in general seem out of proportion to the commercial importance of long distance telephony at this time. This paper argues that the great importance of long distance to AT&T was not commercial, but political and cultural. Long distance played a key role in justifying the centralization of corporate control in the telephone industry and the nation at large. The Bell System before the 1910s was not a single firm, but an association of regional operating companies with considerable autonomy. As AT&T's leaders fought to curtail this autonomy, long distance service offered a powerful technological justification. Outside the Bell System, the transcontinental network also served as a symbol of interconnection and integration. It became central to AT&T's campaign to convince Americans of its own legitimacy and that of nation-spanning corporations in general.

BEH On-Line Paper