It’s January 25th, 1915 at the exchange of the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation in San Francisco.
Inside, a roomful of smartly dressed businessmen talk among themselves… but when the clock strikes one o’clock, a hush of anticipation settles across the room.
A phone rings and all eyes go to the building’s special guest: the co-inventor of the telephone, Thomas Watson.
Four decades ago, Thomas and his former employer, Alexander Graham Bell, revolutionized communication with their invention, the telephone. Now, from opposite coasts, they’re about to partake in another milestone by conducting the first transcontinental phone call.
Excited whispers fill the room as Thomas lifts the receiver and holds it to his ear. At first, he hears nothing.
Then, there’s a slight buzz, followed by the familiar soft Scottish accent of his former employer.
Applause breaks out as Thomas confirms he can hear Alexander Graham Bell all the way across the country.
When the applause dies down, Thomas hears Bell say a sentence already burned into his memory: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” It’s the same sentence that Bell chose to utter on their first successful telephone call years ago. But today Thomas has a different response to it.
With a chuckle, he replies, “I could—but this time it would take me a week to get to you.” He smiles as Bell laughs on the other end. Though they may be 3,400 miles apart, this moment feels just like the fortuitous day in Bell’s attic when the pair conducted their first-ever phone call. Except, this time, the stakes are far lower.
Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson’s conversation during the first transcontinental call is a light-hearted recreation of events 39 years before. On that occasion, Bell summoned Thomas with exactly the same words—only it was the first-ever telephone call, and the line between them stretched simply from one room to another.
The event marked a triumph of not only the pair’s engineering talent but also their competitive spirit. When that historic first call was made, telephone technology didn't yet exist. But, already, it was a battleground for engineers. To become credited as the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell had to work fast and race against his rivals. Until, eventually, the Scotsman beats his competitors, kickstarting a technological revolution that will change the world when he made the first successful telephone call on March 10th, 1876.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 10th, 1876: Alexander Graham Bell Makes the First Telephone Call.
It’s the afternoon of June 2nd, 1875 in Boston, Massachusetts, forty years before the first transcontinental telephone call.
Inside a room in his attic laboratory, 28-year-old Alexander Graham Bell tinkers with a modified telegraph machine.
Bell has been long interested in communication. Born to a deaf mother, he first found work helping deaf people learn how to speak. But Bell also has a passion for electrical engineering, and for the past few years, he’s been experimenting with telegraph equipment.
Right now, only single-tone telegraphs exist. They work by transmitting Morse code over wires, but they use only one frequency of sound. So, Bell is investigating whether a single-tone telegraph machine could be altered to send and receive different tones. He reasons that if the tones are of different frequencies, multiple messages could be transmitted at the same time over a single wire, making the telegraph network far more efficient.
But before Bell tests his modified telegraph, he checks it has power and is set to receive a signal. Everything seems to be in order, so he alerts his assistant, Thomas Watson, that he’s ready. But, from the room next door, Thomas shouts back that there’s a problem with his telegraph transmitter. Bell sinks into his seat with a sigh. Every day, he treads between these two rooms hundreds of times. Already, his feet and back ache today. So he stays in his seat and asks Thomas what the issue is.
Thomas replies that one of the vibrating reeds they’re using to transmit tones is stuck to a magnet. Bell instructs him to pull it off—but be careful not to damage it. Seconds later, Bell hears a tinny twang reverberating as the reed comes free but then jumps up with a start as he takes in what just happened. The sound was more than just a single tone. And it didn’t carry from next door; it came through the telegraph receiver in his room.
Bell excitedly calls for Thomas to stick the reed back to the magnet and pull it off again. Then, he cups his ear next to the receiver and listens carefully. Once more, he hears the twang and there’s no doubt about it. A proper complex sound — and not just a single tone — traveled through the wire.
The inventors rejoice at their breakthrough. Bell points out that they’ve discovered more than just a way to transmit different single-frequency tones. They’ve developed a machine that can send a full spectrum of sounds across a wire. Then he thinks they can take their discovery one step further. Bell imagines that if they refine the machine, it could even transmit human voices.
The prospect drives Bell and Thomas to work tirelessly refining and fine-tuning the invention they’re calling a telephone. It’s tedious, repetitive, and difficult. For eight months, they struggle to get their setup to transmit intelligible human speech. But Bell knows that other inventors are working on similar technology. So before their invention is even complete, he instructs his attorney to put in a patent application to ensure he is credited as the inventor of the telephone.
At noon on February 14th, 1876, Bell’s lawyer, Marcellus Bailey, makes his way into the federal patent office in Washington, DC. Marcellus walks to the front desk and explains his mission, handing over Bell’s application to patent what he describes as an “improvement in telegraphy.”
A clerk glances at the documents, before placing them in the office’s in-basket and returning to his work. But Marcellus is not satisfied. Today's pile of patent applications already in the office’s in-basket is too high. He knows Bell is worried about other inventors beating him to the punch. So, Marcellus insists that his client’s application be filed immediately, and begrudgingly, the clerk obliges.
This expedited filing will prove consequential. Because back in Boston, Marcellus, and Bell will learn that the patent office received another application for a voice-transmitting telegraph on the very same day. But even though Bell’s application was filed a few hours earlier, the rival inventor will claim that his application actually arrived first. And this controversy will cast doubt on the proper recipient of the patent. But it will not deter Alexander Graham Bell. The Scotsman will remain set on bringing his invention to fruition before any competitors. And he will do all he can to make sure his creation is better than any of his rivals’—even if it means using potentially illegal means.
It’s early March 1876 in Washington, DC; just over two weeks after Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyer submitted a patent application.
Zenas Fisk Wilber sits behind his desk at the United States Patent Office and stares at two sets of documents. Each details a new invention - a way of transmitting speech through electric wires. As the patent examiner in charge of electrical devices, it’s Zenas’s job to judge the relative merits of the two conflicting applications before him. But today, that duty has been complicated by a sudden arrival. Zenas clears his throat and looks up at the man sitting on the other side of his desk: Alexander Graham Bell.
Zenas is not supposed to discuss patent claims with the applicants—especially when there may be a conflict between parties. But Bell was insistent that he meet with Zenas today. As soon as his lawyer told him about the rival claim, Bell booked a train to Washington and rushed to the Patent Office to request a meeting.
But before the inventor can begin pleading his case, Zenas outlines the problem he’s facing. He understands that Bell has submitted an application for a new form of telegraph that can transmit speech. But, on the same day, Elisha Gray, an engineer from Illinois, filed paperwork at the Patent Office for a remarkably similar invention.
Bell cuts in urging the patent examiner to overlook the unfortunate timing and goes on to explain that he’s been working on his invention for years and is close to a breakthrough. It would be a shame to not be awarded the patent now.
Zenas nods sympathetically, before extending an offer. He explains that Gray has submitted a patent caveat, essentially a provisional application, saying Gray has the theoretical knowledge to build a telephone—but hasn’t done so yet. On the other hand, Bell has submitted a full patent application. And that means he has physical proof that his telephone works. Assuming Bell has a functioning telephone, Zenas says he will award the patent to him.
He then looks at Bell questioningly, but the inventor doesn’t respond. So Zenas asks outright does Bell have an operational telephone. Bell remains silent for a moment and shifts uncomfortably. Then it dawns on Zenas that Bell has not yet built a telephone that works. His patent application has been submitted too early.
So Zenas declares that without a functioning telephone to speak of, their meeting is over. But Bell refuses to give up. As Zenas begins collecting his papers, the inventor reaches across the desk and holds Zenas’s sleeve. He asks whether it would be possible to check Gray’s paperwork. Zenas frowns explaining that would be a breach of the office’s rules. But Bell’s eyes flit down to the desk and Zenas follows his gaze seeing that a hundred-dollar bill has appeared between them.
Zenas pauses. This is a clear attempt at a bribe, but $100 is the same as his entire monthly salary. After a moment’s indecision, Zenas decides that allowing Bell a quick look at Gray’s application wouldn't do any harm. Bell’s patent application does in theory supersede Gray’s caveat, after all. So Zenas sweeps the bill into his pocket and heads for the door. He tells Bell he’s off for the bathroom, leaving the inventor free to inspect his rival’s paperwork.
Five minutes later, Zenas returns to his office, and Bell is still seated by the desk, looking pleased with himself. Then the inventor stands, shakes Zenas’s hand and announces he’s returning to Boston. He promises evidence of his working prototype will be in the Patent Office soon. Zenas nods and says he’ll send a letter to Gray informing him that his patent caveat will be rejected since Bell has beaten him to making a functioning telephone.
A few days later, Thomas Watson hears footsteps running up the stairs to Bell’s attic laboratory. He stands from his desk and leaves the equipment he was cleaning to welcome his employer back, but he finds Bell is already hunched over his notebooks and scribbling furiously. Thomas has seen Bell in similar moods before—and it usually means he’s thought of a new idea.
Thomas peers over Bell’s shoulder at a diagram of their telephone. But as he looks closer, Thomas spots a new addition to the plans. Bell tells him that it’s a dish of acidified water. He explains that the liquid may be able to transmit sound better than air. And it’s possible that it could enable them to more precisely vary the signals sent through their telephone. The resulting sound could be clearer, and perhaps help operators to distinguish speech. Thomas thinks it's a clever idea and asks Bell how he came up with it, the inventor stutters and says it just popped into his head on the train ride home.
But the liquid transmitter likely is not Bell’s own idea—it could've gained illicitly from Elisha Gray’s patent caveat. Nevertheless, armed with this new knowledge, Thomas and Bell will spend the next frenzied hours modifying their telephone. And within only a few days of his meeting in the Patent Office, Bell will make history when he utters the first words transmitted in a telephone call.
It’s March 10th, 1876 in Boston, Massachusetts, three days after Alexander Graham Bell returned from the federal patent office.
Once again, Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, stand in separate rooms in their attic laboratory, each working on their prototype telephone. But so far, they have not been able to transmit any speech through them.
Bell creeps to the door and quietly closes it. When he tests his telephone again, he doesn’t want Thomas to hear his voice float from room to room over the air. He wants it to be sure that it's transmitted only through the wire.
Sitting down and picking up the receiver of his telephone, Bell smiles as he leans in close and says: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” From the other room, he hears a loud exclamation. Then Thomas bursts through the door. He heard Bell’s exact words and repeats the sentence back.
The two men leap for joy. Bell moves into the receiver room and takes his turn listening as Thomas picks up a book and begins reading the first page. Every word comes through. Though occasionally muffled and indistinct, there’s still no doubt about it—their telephone works.
As word of their invention circulates, many celebrate the inventors’ success. But one person takes offense. Claiming Bell stole his idea, Elisha Gray takes the Scottish inventor to court. But Gray ultimately loses their legal battle. Bell remains credited as the inventor of the telephone, happily taking the glory for a device he is sure will change the world.
But not everyone agrees with Bell’s grand estimations of the telephone—at least, not at first. When Bell forms a new telephone company in 1877, he offers shares to the nation’s leading telegraph company, Western Union. But they scoff at his new invention and refuse to put in a penny. Just a year later, Western Union realizes its error and offers Bell $25 million for the patent rights to the telephone. But by then, it is too late.
Within 40 years, the telephone network will traverse the entire United States. Twelve years after that, phone calls will be made across the Atlantic Ocean. Now, there are more telephones in the United States than there are people. Telephone communication has shrunk the world, allowing families to keep in touch around the globe, and enabling businesses to close deals on the other side of the planet. All this and more became possible when Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call on March 10th, 1876.
Next on History Daily. March 13th, 1881. Czar Alexander II of Russia is assassinated by members of a leftist revolutionary group known as the People’s Will.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.