Jekyll Island and the telephone

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

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An important event in the history of the telephone happened on Jekyll Island. If you wander around the historic area south of the Jekyll Island Clubhouse, now the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, you will find a plexiglass box encompassing an old telephone. A plaque erected by the Dixie Chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America below the phone dated January 1965 reads:

The first transcontinental telephone call was transmitted by a telephone instrument of this type on January 23, 1915. Mr. Theodore N. Vail, President of American Telephone and Telegraph Company, talked from Jekyll Island to Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone in New Your; Thomas A. Watson, Assistant to Dr. Bell, in San Francisco; and to President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C.

Thus, four men at four locations participated in that first transcontinental call. The AT&T website notes that:

At one point during the call, someone asked Professor Bell if he would repeat the first words he ever said over the telephone. He obliged, picking up the phone and repeating “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” To which Watson, in San Francisco, replied, “It would take me a week now.”

The modern company AT&T used to be American Telephone and Telegraph Company. In 1908, Theodore N. Vail, President of the company, prioritized completion of a transcontinental telephone line. Their goal was to have the transcontinental line open in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, scheduled for 1915 in San Francisco.

The final pole for the transcontinental phone line was erected and the line strung in June 1914, but officials waited for the Exposition before they made the first call, to heighten the fanfare.

Why was Mr. Vail on Jekyll Island for this historic event? How does this compare to our modern satellite and cell phone services? Why are new phone systems in the Third World most commonly cell networks?

Panama-Pacific International Exposition on the web.

Downloadable digital copy of Exposition Fact-Book: Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco, 1915.

Jekyll Island Club Hotel website.

Where to find it