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The History of Long Distance - A Communications Revolution

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876 (okay, there are claims others did before, but he filed for the patent first and he is the officially credited inventor), he soon realized that to be a success and genuinely revolutionize the way humans communicate the system would have to work over long distance, or run the risk of remaining little more than an interesting gadget for academics to mull over. So it did not take him long to improve the range. In that notable twelve months it was extended from around 8 miles to a distance of 143 miles at year’s end.

But that was still not going to be enough if the telephone was ever going to replace the telegraph. This had already been a part of society for some time, and had gone transcontinental fifteen years previously to take over the primary role of urgent message delivery in the United States from the famous Pony Express, which had been the best bet for speed before then.

Two years later, in 1878 the telephone concept received an extra boost by the installation of the first telephone at the White House, by the new President Rutherford B. Hayes; and the first call was between the President and Bell himself, (though some rumor at an earlier and unauthorized use). It always helps to get the Federal Government onside after all, but still, true long distance was some way off and would come to pass in many incremental stages, being powered by new associated inventions and the better application of available technology.

AT&T is Born

In New York in 1885 the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was incorporated. At this time it was a subsidiary of the American Bell Telephone Company, but was fourteen years later to buy out the assets of its’ parent and itself to become the parent of the Bell Telephone System. Alexander Graham Bell was himself one of the co-founders, and its corporate charter was clear in emphasizing the future importance of long distance telephony: “Connect one or more points in each and every city, town or place in the state of New York with one or more points in every other city, town or place in said state and in each and every other of the United States, Canada and Mexico; and each and every of said cities, towns and places is to be connected with each and every other city, town or place in said states and countries, and also by cable and other appropriate means with the rest of the known world.” The only thing they forgot there was the moon! This enthusiastic idealism was lampooned in some quarters, but today, we know what our science can do for us and happily the doubters and critics soon were forced into eating humble pie!

The first long distance step took a line from New York to Philadelphia in 1886, just one year after the company’s foundation, and by 1892 the longest line in length stood 950 odd miles between New York and Chicago. This record would hold for a while, as the limits of technology had been reached. An invention called Loading Coils (which were tightly strung copper coils wound up on a coil of iron, and positioned around every mile along the cable they were connected to) and the use of thinner telephone wires helped to extend the distance out further to Denver. But after about 1000 to 1500 miles telephone calls were extremely difficult, there being too much loss of signal for a voice to carry to a receiver clearly.

So consequently the dream of coast-to-coast conversations was ‘put on hold’.

This sparked up again in 1906 when private inventor Dr. Lee De Forest came up with the three-element-vacuum tube, also know as the audion. This was not fully utilized however until six years later in 1912, when AT&T who had been unsuccessfully attempting to build a similar device themselves, bought the patent from De Forest and began to improve the design by increasing the vacuum of the chamber and lessening the amount of internal gasses, allowing it to be used as a practical amplifier.

Now the way was clear for more progress and on June 17, 1914 at the town of Wendover, Utah; the last pole went up to link the east and west lines and enable the first transcontinental telephone call to be made on January 25 1915. The delay in dates here bizarrely was for public relation reasons, so as to allow the official opening to coincide with the exposition due to be held in San Francisco that year, which was to celebrate the finishing of construction of the Panama Canal.

It was the world’s longest telephone line with over two-and-a-half thousand tons of copper wire being strung on near to 130,000 poles. Three of the new vacuum tubes were in place to act as boosters and make the magic work.

As well as dignitaries in New York, including Alexander Graham Bell, and San Francisco, also taking part in the inaugural transcontinental call was the U.S. President of the day Woodrow Wilson, in Washington D.C. and from Jekyll Island, Georgia, the AT&T President, Theodore Vail.

Long Distance Takes Off

Now long distance would really take off, with increased demand from the populace leading to more innovation. Underground cables would carry greater number of wires and a new ‘carrier-current’ system was developed. This way of doing things could send multiple calls down a single pair of wires by differing the frequencies of voices, rather than transmitting them at their natural level. The first of these carriers was hooked up between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in 1918, the same year that saw the ending of World War One.

In the roaring twenties things marched ahead again with technical and administrative improvements to switchboards making it easier for the operators to use, and quicker for the callers to get their calls. No longer would so large a string of operators be needed along the route of a single call, each looking up pathways through enormous route books to connect the circuit correctly to progress the call. Average completion times plummeted to around a couple of minutes waiting time from above seven minutes.

Also in the twenties the phone lines were used by newspapers to transmit and receive wire photographs via a very basic form of facsimile machine (fax). A sight well known and loved from classic movies, when newspaper reporters were often heroes of the plot.

Routing Codes are Introduced

In the forties and fifties automation sped things up again for long distance with now only a single operator needed to route a call. Routing information codes used by the operators were superceded with area codes seen by all today. These were first used as operator shortcuts dialed into the new switches which the machines could then translate into the lengthy data it needed. Now the call-completion times dropped to less than 20 seconds. When computers came later, the caller themselves could use the codes on their phones with direct dialing, waiting times were slashed to 1 to 2 seconds and operators were no longer needed, apart from enquiries work.

Back to the lines themselves and 1929 saw the invention of co-axial cable (co-ax) which was the original broadband. This was first used experimentally by AT&T in 1936 between New York and Philadelphia. It proved successful and began to be used regularly in 1941. This original was known as L1 and had the capacity to deal with 480 phone calls at once.

Co-axial cable was half of the next generation, its partner for long distance being microwave radio relay.

Radio-telephones had already been around for some time but were limited in use and reliability, microwaves were far superior; although since 1927 a commercial long distance service had existed between the Unites States and the United Kingdom. A joint venture of these nations which would later evolve to include Canada, South Africa, Kenya, Australia and Egypt as well as ships afar in the oceans. The U.S. transmitter being sited in Deal, New Jersey. This link with England would continue until 1956 when a transatlantic co-axial cable system was laid at the cost of 42 million dollars. An enormous sum in those days, but the project was a resounding success until becoming obsolete at the hands of satellites, and soon began paying for itself.

Microwave Relays Increase Conversations

Co-ax could do this alone, but for land, especially across awkward geographical features, the microwave relay had the advantages of relative cheapness of installation and lower maintenance cost. It began in the United States in 1947, sending long distance calls along a series of seven towers between New York and Boston. This original system was very effective but later ones could carry an eight-fold increase in telephone conversations. So it wasn’t long, (just eight years in fact) before a transcontinental microwave radio relay system with a-hundred-and-seven towers linked up New York again with San Francisco for the cost of 40 million dollars.

By 1958 microwave relays accounted for 25% of the United States’ long distance calls, and by the end of the 1970s this had risen to 70%, with co-ax dealing with the remainder.

Long distance calling cards made their debut in Europe in 1975, but these early versions were prepaid swipe cards which could only be used via special pay-phones. They grew in circulation slowly around the world and the U.S. but the introduction of PIN numbers, allowing them to be made use of with any phone would later explode their numbers.

Fiber-optics Takes Over

The 1980s brought fiber-optics with the first long distance route being installed between the nation’s capital and New York in ‘83. They rapidly took over the communications world, leading to total nationwide coverage by the end of that decade.

These thin, and now super-thin, glass fibers which send digital data by rapid pulses of light could probably not have been dreamed of by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, but have transformed the audio clarity of the long distance phone calls that had their wheels set in motion by him all those years ago.

Ironically, as this latest technology seemed to complete the AT&T mission, a year after their introduction the company was broken up for anti-monopoly reasons, leading to the many hundreds of long distance carriers that serve the American consumer today.

About The Author

Matt Jacks is a successful freelance writer providing tips and advice for consumers purchasing long distance service, cheap long distance and satellite broadband dsl. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

This article on the "History of Long Distance" reprinted with permission.

© 2004 - Net Guides Publishing, Inc.

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