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At&t Up North

March 2023
1min read

In tabulating the accomplishments of AT&T, “Breaking the Connection” omitted a unique and most important project: the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. This was a chain of some sixty radar stations designed and installed by a Bell System project team across Arctic North America, extending three thousand miles from northwest Alaska to the east coast of Baffin Island in eastern Canada. This passive defense system has served to detect attempted transpolar transgressions by alien aircraft since 1958.

In late 1952 the Department of Defense handed AT&T a secret study outlining a plan to detect the intrusion into North American airspace of subsonic aircraft. With it was a directive to design, procure, install, and test within two years a prototype installation to determine the feasibility of such a system.

On the basis of successful test results in 1954, the Defense Department directed AT&T to build the whole North American Segment and complete the job by the end of 1957. Three major construction contractors were employed: one U.S. and two Canadian. Each employed its own civilian airlift subcontractor, but the Air Force transported outsized electronic material and the Navy transported the bulk of heavy material and fuel.

As superintendent of construction, I had a force of 120 Bell System supervisors and inspectors in the field plus Army personnel for field engineering. Manpower of our three general contractors reached a peak of 3,600 in summertime, about half that number working through the Arctic winters. At each site, we constructed buildings, antennae, a power plant, fuel systems, roads, and airstrips, some with hangars. As construction neared completion, several hundred Bell System employees—all volunteers—installed the electronic gear.

AT&T didn’t make a big profit on the DEW-Line. The project was done with the corporate and employee attitude of “in the spirit of service.” It was completed on time and with an outstanding safety record. Only Ma Bell with her full family could have done it.

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