Breaking The Connection

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The size of AT&T reflected the role of the telephone in modern life. And the role of the telephone, the pervasiveness of the telephone, reflected the success of AT&T in carrying out its mission as a business organization. In the words of Charles Brown, that mission was “to link Americans to each other and to the world with direct and almost instantaneous communication.” In a little more than one hundred years the fulfillment of that mission has transformed our lives, our work, and our world.

Inventing the System: Bell’s “Perfect Network”

The story of the invention of the telephone has been told many times (see, for instance, Lincoln Barnett’s “The Voice Heard Round the World,” American Heritage , April 1965). The story of AT&T—an organization that built a system linking virtually all of the world’s telephones—is less familiar. The story is as complex as the technology that supports the system, but we can begin with the simplest unit—a single telephone.

Like any other tool, a telephone functions as an extension of the human body and as a means of overcoming the body’s limits. In the words of the writer John Brooks, the telephone offers “a way of increasing human earshot.” With it, Brooks notes in his excellent history Telephone: The First Hundred Years , “man, instead of being able to make himself heard a few hundred yards away with a shout, can make himself heard … around the world with a whisper.”

To appreciate the telephone, we merely need compare it with its predecessor, the telegraph, which required trained operators and could transmit its message only via code. In the language currently in vogue, the telephone is “user-friendly.”

Familiarity has robbed us of the wonder that the telephone used to inspire. When the emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, saw Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate his invention at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, he responded as all of us would respond if we could recover our innocence: “My God! It talks!”

The telephone is such a marvel that we run some risk of overstating the case on its behalf. In an essay written in 1976 to mark the centennial of the telephone’s invention, Colin Cherry, professor of telecommunication at Imperial College in London, commented: “Perhaps we ought not to celebrate the telephone at all … but should wait a couple of years more and celebrate instead the telephone exchange . It was the exchange principle that led to the growth of endless new social organizations, because it offered choice of social contacts, on demand, even between strangers … in ways totally new in history.”

This comment takes us to the heart of the subject. The telephone is a wonder, but without the telephone exchange—without the telephone system—it would not be a revolutionary wonder. Though he played only a minor role in building the system, Alexander Graham Bell saw clearly, and saw before anyone else, what it would involve. In a letter written in 1878, he spelled out the details with remarkable precision:

“At the present time we have a perfect network of gas-pipes and water-pipes throughout our larger cities. We have main pipes laid under the streets communicating by side pipes with the various dwellings, enabling the members to draw their supplies of gas and water from a common source.

“In a similar manner,” it is conceivable that cables of Telephone wires could be laid underground or suspended overhead communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, counting houses, ships, manufactories, etc., etc., uniting them through the main cable with a central office where the wires could be connected as desired, establishing direct communication between any two places in the city. Such a plan as this, though impracticable at the present moment, will, I firmly believe, be the outcome of the introduction of the Telephone to the public. Not only so, but I believe that in the future wires will unite the head offices of the Telephone Company in different cities and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place.”

 

Bell’s vision of a “perfect network” guided the telephone company long after his active involvement with the company had come to an end. His letter focuses attention exactly where it belongs—not on the telephone itself but on the telephone system. It makes little sense, after all, to speak of a single phone; it takes two to talk. But it does make sense to speak of a single system. “The telephone network now interconnecting the continents,” Colin Cherry noted in 1976, “is by far the largest integrated machine in the world.” And in an essay published just before divestiture, in the farewell issue of Bell Telephone Magazine , the historian Theodore H. White commented: “‘System’ is the word to hang onto as we part. … Not the miracles of microwaves, nor the miracles of the transistor, nor the coming miracles of fiberglass carrying photons at the speed of light can compare to the achievement of making one system. …” The story of AT&T is the story of the system.