Theodore Vail, the president of AT&T, had hoped to be alongside Alexander Graham Bell in New York when the inventor made the first transcontinental call to his trusted assistant, Thomas Watson, sitting 3,400 miles away in San Francisco. Hobbled with a leg injury on Jekyll Island, where he and other titans of industry escaped hard northeast winters, Vail instead participated from a parlor in the Jekyll Island Club as J.P. Morgan Jr. and William Rockefeller stood nearby. (President Woodrow Wilson, in Washington, D.C., and businessman Henry Higginson, in Boston, also sat in on the five-way call.) Vail’s physical condition required technicians to scramble to lay 1,100 extra miles of copper wire to make the commemorative call—a test was conducted one month earlier—because of the barrier island’s subpar telephone service. Shortly after the long-distance breakthrough, the company announced that a phone call between New York and San Francisco would cost $20.70 for the first three minutes, and $6.75 for each following minute.
This article appears in our January 2019 issue.