In the annals of great American institutions, American Telephone and Telegraph, which was the parent corporation of the Bell Telephone Companies, has got to be one of the greatest. I’m not talking about the current former-Cingular, former-SBC, former-Southwest Bell, former-AT&T, exclusive-iPhone-provider AT&T, but the AT&T from a time when your choice of "calling plans" was limited to desk or wall models.
If that seems confusing, it’s because AT&T has always had a bit of an identity crisis. Originally, AT&T was just a subsidiary of American Bell Telephone Company, the original Alexander Graham Bell-inspired company. After a decade (for reasons perhaps best explained by tax accountants and rich industrialists), AT&T became the parent corporation and the Bell companies all became subsidiaries. But it was the same company all along — or more accurately, the same group of very large companies around the world.
Figure 1: By the time this illustration appeared on the cover of a telephone information pamphlet in 1937, American Telephone and Telegraph could connect to 93% of the world’s telephones and had just completed laying a transoceanic cable to China.
As a legal monopoly sanctioned by Congress, AT&T controlled pretty much every aspect of the telecommunications business through the series of companies AT&T owned and operated. It owned the copper mines, the wire factories, the switchboards, the telephone poles, and just about every phone in every home in America. It built an incredibly durable and reliable network where things rarely went wrong and phones lasted for decades.
Figure 2: Past, present, and future views of the telephone (top) as seen in an ad for Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T. And (bottom) an illustration showing the night shift arriving at the massive Western Electric factory in Indianapolis, Indiana. By the time AT&T was broken into several companies in 1984, it employed more than 1 million people.
But to do this, some sacrifices had to be made. There were a limited number of options, at least in the beginning, and new phone designs and services were few and far between. So you can bet it was a big deal when Snoopy phones came out.
Figure 3: 1915 was a big year for telephone technology demonstrations. At the Pan Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, Thomas Watson re-enacted the conversation he first had in 1876 with Alexander Graham Bell, only this time it took place as the first transcontinental phone call — 3,650 miles. Also at that event, as pictured here, an International Ball was held where a telephone operator danced around the room offering partners the opportunity to speak with anyone in the world through her telephone headset. All this was done magically, without wires! The secret? The entire ballroom floor was made with copper nails, which made contact with the operator’s copper-soled shoes. Wires from the shoes to the headset were hidden in her dress and an operator was standing by, listening to the conversation and connecting callers as they danced.
A Gracious Good Afternoon
Until I decided to write this column, I knew as much about Alexander Graham Bell as your average school child (from a few decades ago when they still taught history): some bearded guy that invented the telephone and had an assistant named Watson. Or was that Sherlock Holmes? Bell remained mysterious to me, though I can’t say I had any inclination to know more.
It turns out, however, that the Bell story is very interesting, and it’s understandable why more isn’t taught about him. In later years Bell advocated social philosophies that, while perhaps well-intentioned at the time, became grossly abused and indefensible. So as Maxwell Scott advised in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." And that’s exactly what AT&T did in the millions of Bell biographies it supplied to schools around the country. Not that they were inaccurate, but they left out quite a bit of the story.
Figure 4: Alexander Graham Bell was a clever young lad. Here, from a historic 1953 brochure provided to schools by AT&T, Bell demonstrates the nature of sound by manipulating his dog’s throat. Bell had taught the little Skye terrier named Trouvé to growl continuously on demand. He would then push against the dog’s vocal cords, changing the pitch of the growl to form crude "words." Thus, he was able to have the dog say "Ow ah oo ga-ma-ma," meaning, "How are you grandmother?" You have to remember that kids didn’t have quite as much to do back then, and their imaginations allowed for a bit more interpretation than today.
Like many inventors of the time (1870-1890), Bell was well educated, refined, and always curious — hardly the mad-scientist type. His fascination with sound and speech led to all kinds of experimentation. His primary motivation was to work with the deaf. The grateful parents of several deaf children funded Bell’s full-time experiments with electricity and sound.
Like many great inventions, the telephone was not the breakthrough Bell was looking for. Instead, Bell thought that by manipulating the vibration of electrified tuning forks, he could send multiple telegraph signals over the same wires. One thing lead to another and a mistake in 1875 by his assistant, Tom Watson, signaled to Bell that transmitting voice over wires might be possible. He worked up patents and continued experimenting. Three days after he received a patent in 1876 for the telephone, Bell and Watson had success in transmitting the first words: "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you."
Figure 5: Model of one of Bell’s original phone designs.
Bell wasn’t all that interested in exploiting this invention himself, so he left that up to his investor/partners, who slowly built interest for telephones connected by wire. But unlike some inventors, Bell became very wealthy — he was already doing pretty well when he invented the telephone. From the start his research was funded with commercial exploitation in mind; thus the patent application before he had a working model.
As is the case with all such breakthroughs, other scientists and inventors laid claim to some of Bell’s ideas, but several Supreme Court challenges upheld Bell’s status as "the" inventor of the telephone. And despite being relegated by history to the role of "assistant," Thomas Watson shared a portion of Bell’s patents and the profits that came from them.
Instead of becoming an industrialist, Bell preferred the role of educator, thinker, philosopher, and inventor. Indeed, Bell clearly foresaw what the phone would mean to society and how important it would become. In the early days, many people discounted the phone as a novelty (sound familiar?), and few understood its significance.
Figure 6: Bell wasn’t just a brilliant inventor, he was also quite the ladies’ man. Here, in illustrative re-enactment, he presents his bride-to-be with a silver-plated version of his first phone. She may have preferred a ring, and we don’t know if Bell also gave a phone to his mother, thus forcing the first instance of a daughter-in-law letting calls go directly to voicemail.
Later in life Bell became a huge supporter of aviation research and a leader in the Eugenics movement, a social philosophy that advocated improving heredity through intervention. In fairness, Bell did not advocate anything as drastic as race-elimination; he instead suggested that selective breeding and forced sterilization were reasonable tools in the quest to rid humankind of suffering and illness. He advocated against the marriage of deaf people, despite his years dedicated to helping them (and his own marriage to a deaf woman).
It’s hard, in perspective, not to over-simplify the Eugenics movement into indefensible sound bites, but many leading turn-of-the-century thinkers (Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, for example) supported it. It probably was a well-intentioned, though grossly misguided, effort at altruism. All evidence supports that Bell was truly dedicated to helping the deaf, for example, and he was a long-time friend of Helen Keller. Bell died in 1922, still much respected. But after World War II, the Eugenics period of his life was substantially downplayed and dropped from the AT&T propaganda. Obviously, the events in Germany proved that any effort to "improve" society through "intervention" could lead to horrific consequences.
Figure 7: The phone company wasn’t just about phones and wires. It was also about the people who made it all happen. Here, in a picture from 1966, we see six sisters who all worked for Pacific Bell Telephone in San Francisco. According to the accompanying text, "the girls, six of 14 children, live at home, attend the family church every Sunday. Each weekday morning they pile into Eunice’s (the oldest) compact car and drive to the office from suburban San Mateo. Their attendance record is exceptional, too — they’ve only been late once!" There is no reference to whether the sisters also share the same hairdresser.
Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?
The monumental task AT&T faced of running wires from coast-to-coast and from home-to-home was unprecedented. The country decided, for better or for worse, to grant AT&T exclusive rights to this new communication spectrum. So when it came to advertising and marketing, AT&T was in a unique position. It did not have to promote itself against competition but rather promote the proper use of telephones and the idea that making calls could replace writing letters or making a visit.
Figure 8: Three examples of advertising over the years from AT&T, designed to promote people using the phone. Top, a child says that using the phone is fun; middle, a chump puts his family at risk because he didn’t phone the motel ahead to reserve a room; and bottom, a hard-working professional thinks fondly of those war days and pauses to re-connect with his buddy.
Figure 9: This 1963 ad points out that it might not be possible to express your true feelings in a written note. What better way to say "thanks" than with a telephone call? That is, until we got email.
And then, when demand was high and bandwidth lagged, AT&T had to promote conservation of phone time and polite ways to share phone service with your neighbors.
Figure 10: The problem with promoting phone use was that it worked. At other times, as seen here in a 1943 ad, AT&T had to ask customers to limit the length of their calls to conserve bandwidth.
I’m just old enough to remember "party lines," which were telephone lines shared with a number of neighbors or even a small community (my grandmother still had one). In this case, the "party" wasn’t much fun — if someone else was using the phone you just had to wait until they were finished — kind of like sharing a bathroom. So AT&T published booklets and ads on the subject of phone manners, which explained the rules of phone use and polite behavior.
Figure 11: Putting lipstick on the pig. Here, AT&T suggests that having to share a phone line with your neighbors is a good thing, and gives tips on how to make living with a party line that much better.
I won’t be at all surprised if the new AT&T re-introduced the Party Line as an optional cell-phone feature for uniting friends for a real phone party. Kids would definitely pay extra for it, even if my grandmother paid less for her version.
Sharing a line with a group of people can be complicated, and it puts a strain on even the best relationships. In a ’50s-era Bell brochure on proper party-line use, the following examples were used to make the point that neighborly behavior is always the best course:
- "Hubby is going to be late and his wife is going to be vexed. Who is to blame? Possibly the person on the party line who forgot to replace the receiver after a call."
- "Hubby tried to let her know he was bringing home a friend, but all he got were busy signals. When they arrived, she was in no shape to receive guests. Someone on the party line forgot to hang up the receiver."
- "Explanations are in order, but not by hubby. He tried to call and say he would be late for dinner, but the party line was busy. His wife was talking to friends. Result: a cold supper."
- "Is it possible it was her own fault? While hubby was trying to call her? Was she talking to members of her bridge club without pausing between calls? On a party line it’s neighborly to space your calls so others can use their telephones, too."
Party lines, it seems, were hell on well-intentioned hubbies. (Was there ever, really, a time when husbands brought home surprise dinner guests? Personally, I can’t imagine any relationship surviving more than one such incident.)
Figure 12: I have no idea if the perception that women spend more time on the phone than men is a reality, but AT&T certainly promoted that image in ads and text. In this 1969 ad, AT&T wants hubby to know that not all calls have to be "important." Some are just girl talk!
Figure 13: Also in 1969 AT&T started giving people permission to use the phone in the bedroom, and even more shocking, for delightful conversations, not just sensible ones. AT&T did not suggest what the topic of conversation should be during these calls. That was left up to the callers.
For all Other Options, Push Five
Politely telling your neighbors to shut their trap and hang up was one thing, but for business, this new customer-relations tool called the telephone presented a number of challenges.
According to a 1949 brochure on telephone technique by Willard K. Lasher, phone manners are particularly necessary because "the ringing of the telephone is the most persistent and vexatious invasion of privacy that has yet been invented. Abruptly claiming one’s attention, the intruder had better be pleasant if he’s going to take the sting out of that insistent bell. We may on occasion refuse to answer a doorbell, but it takes iron resolution not to answer the telephone; in short, it’s all but impossible. We are the slaves of the bell." It’s a good thing Lasher died long before the cell phone was introduced.
Figure 14: In 1949 when this pamphlet was released, phone manners and telephone technique were still being defined. Most important thing to remember? That the telephone is a vexing and rude device that should only be used when necessary and then only efficiently and without wasting any time.
First off, there was the matter of your employees’ telephone voices. "It is not necessary to strive for the smooth, honeyed tones of a radio announcer," says Lasher. "But it is necessary to be clear and pleasant and to use a tone that isn’t flat or ‘dead’." The advice goes on to suggest you can’t trust your friends to tell you if you have a pleasant voice. That job should go to your local phone operator who will be glad to help you learn how to speak properly into your instrument.
Figure 15: Sage advice from 1949.
And after you get the proper speaking voice down, be sure not to rush your message. "A great deal of time is lost by people who think the ‘efficient’ way to use the telephone is to pour as many words as possible into the mouthpiece in a brief interval of time," advises Lasher. "You can make friends inside and outside your office if you express yourself properly over the wire."
Much of the early literature on how to use the telephone covers ways to conserve time, be clear, and get to the point. My favorite advice is still relevant today and has to do with receiving calls: "If you are talking with someone when the bell rings, don’t swing abruptly away from him. Ask his pardon for the interruption, relax, pick up the phone and give your name in a tone that signifies polite attention. Relax, be pleasant and sound pleasant. If you do this, you will find that you can receive unsolicited calls in the light of pleasant interludes instead of thinking of them as irritating interruptions."
Figure 16: This page is from a 1963 AT&T brochure designed to help businesses train employees on good phone behavior. I’m not sure where I got it, but on the cover was a hand-written note: "Have the girl that answers your telephone read this. It might help you get repeat business. Signed, a former customer" [with "former" underlined]. Businesses ultimately learned that phone manners are too difficult to control, so instead they simply did away with answering entirely.
In a 1963 Bell Telephone brochure, the five qualities of a good phone voice are listed as:
Alertness – Give the impression you are wide-awake and alert, interested in the calling person.
Pleasantness – Build a pleasant company image with a "voice with a Smile." Pleasantness is contagious!
Naturalness – Use simple, straightforward language and avoid technical terms and slang.
Distinctness – Speak clearly and distinctly. Move the lips, tongue and jaw freely. Talk directly into the transmitter.
Expressiveness – A well-modulated voice carries best over the telephone. Use a normal tone of voice, neither too loud nor too slow. Vary your tone of voice. It will bring out the meaning of sentences and add color and vitality to what you say.
I’ve been trying to add color and vitality to what I say for many years. If I had only learned to modulate my voice!
Figure 17: More tips for the ambitious secretary from 1963.
Make Me an Instrument of Your Piece
For the first few decades of phone service, the telephone itself was unimportant — it was the service that mattered. Most important to AT&T was durability and serviceability. Stocking a variety of parts for different telephone models didn’t make sense.
Figure 18: For quite a few years phones didn’t change much, but Western Electric did figure out how to add various colors to the manufacturing process. They had about as many color choices as Apple does for the iPod. See how much progress we’ve made?
But that doesn’t mean that design was unimportant. Collectors of phones will point to a number of models as classic examples of near-perfect industrial design. Western Electric, the division of AT&T that manufactured the telephone handsets, was conservative by nature but employed some great designers over the years. The Western Electric Model 500, in use in various forms from 1949 through the 1980s, was the product of designer Henry Dreyfuss (as was the earlier Model 302 and the later Princess). Dreyfuss also designed such icons as the Twentieth Century Limited locomotive, the John Deere Model A and B tractors, the Honeywell circular wall thermostat, the Hoover Model 150 vacuum cleaner, and the Westclox Big Ben alarm clock.
Figure 19: A classic red Western Electric model 500 phone, designed by Henry Dreyfuss.
Figure 20: The 500 came in a variety of colors over the years. Eventually you could even have bright orange or lime green. Though AT&T promoted phones as "gifts," you could never actually own the working parts of the phone — only the exterior shell.
But aside from a few choices of models and colors, it wasn’t until the Princess phone was released in 1959 that the terms "fashion" and "phone" were used together. This smaller phone, marketed primarily to women for use in the bedroom, fit unobtrusively where prior phones dared not go. Since most households had a phone by then, AT&T knew that its growth would come from multiple-phone homes. So the company began marketing phones to fit in other areas of the home and to specific lifestyles and genders.
Figure 21: The Princess phone was released in 1959 but had its debut at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. A huge hit, the Princess required a special transformer to power the small light, and cost a small additional fee each month.
Figure 22: The ad slogan for the Princess phone was used for many years: "It’s little!… It’s lovely!… It lights!"
And all along, the equipment belonged to Ma Bell. Eventually you could "purchase" designer and novelty phones, but if you read the fine print, all you were getting was the cheap-plastic housing. "Working parts remain our property." The upside to this level of control was a lifetime guarantee on all phone equipment, as long as you continued to pay that monthly fee.
Figure 23: Once most homes had one phone, AT&T aggressively went after the market for "extension" phones, which "saved time and steps."
Figure 24: A Princess for a Princess, 1967.
Please Hang Up and Try Again
By the 1970s, it was clear that a telephone monopoly didn’t make as much sense anymore. Foreign competitors and a changing communications infrastructure were being held back by AT&T’s tight control. Yes, you could get a phone that matched your refrigerator, or looked like fake leather, but that was about it. The system was closed, and even when modern conveniences like phone-answering machines came along, AT&T would threaten to disconnect your service if you placed any "unauthorized" devices on its network.
Figure 25: By the ’70s, AT&T was trying very hard to offer variety, partly to stave off public demand for third-party phone products. Most of these designer phones used the same interior parts, and once again, you could only purchase the exterior shell, not the actual working components of the phone.
Figure 26: In 1980 when this ad ran, the anti-monopoly writing was on the wall for AT&T and a massive public-relations campaign was underway to establish AT&T as having a variety of products. In only a few short years, customers would have a choice in the phone market again, and AT&T wanted to be thought of first. In addition to new products, AT&T began opening "phone stores" in malls and shopping centers around the country.
And just in case anyone thinks getting their iPhone "bricked" by an Apple software upgrade is rough, wait until an official-looking guy comes to the door and rips the phone off the wall. AT&T wasn’t kidding around when it said you were only licensing the technology and that it remained the company’s property.
But the fight became futile and eventually even Congress could see that having a phone monopoly was good for AT&T, but not for America. So after much wrangling and years of planning, the AT&T monopoly ended on January 1, 1984. Customers were allowed to purchase the phones in their homes, and the market opened for third-party phone technology.
Figure 27: Cordless phones presented one of the first big challenges to AT&T dominance. Third-party products like these were some of the earliest wireless options. The top ad is from 1976; the bottom from Sharper Image appeared in 1981.
Then all hell broke loose and we began our slow descent into a world where phones are disposable and service is measured in how many bars you can get if you lean out the window. And no lifetime guarantees.
Figure 29: The Mod II telephone didn’t become a hit, despite predictions to the contrary. Even now, 38 years later, there’s something about talking to someone over video that just doesn’t feel right. Maybe what we need are some new brochures outlining the proper rules and manners for video phoning.
Now, over two decades later, a big part of the old AT&T is back again as the new AT&T, only this time it has to compete on merit and price. Unless, of course, you just have to have that new iPhone, in which case you can still have the pleasure of dealing with a monopoly. Or should I say, two monopolies?Tags