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Telephone: The American Experience

Telephone: The American Experience

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55 Min.
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Thomas Edison called it an invention that "annihilated time and space and brought the human family in closer touch." President Rutherford B. Hayes deemed it "one of the greatest events since creation."

"The Telephone," is the story of an invention that forever changed the way the world interacts. From the earliest, most primitive instruments to the first coast-to-coast call, Academy Award-nominated producers Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon detail the wiring of America. Using never-before-seen still photographs and archival sound and film footage to evoke a sense of the nation at the turn of the twentieth century, "The Telephone" conveys the power of the invention and its overarching impact on American life.

Alexander Graham Bell reluctantly presented his new device at America's Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He didn't believe the world would be interested in his invention until he witnessed the startled and astonished reactions of the Exposition scientists and judges, one of whom declared Bell's invention the most amazing thing he had seen in America. Within a year of the centennial exhibition, Bell had installed 230 phones and had established the Bell Telephone Company. Four years after its creation, there were 60,000 phones; by the turn of the century there were two million. Despite its novelty and its rudimentary audio quality, the telephone took a quick and fierce hold on American society, and soon became a necessity.

The first telephone operators were boys, who soon earned a reputation for being rude and abusive to each other as well as to the customers. The young women who replaced them did not swear and were said to be faster, and by 1910, New York Telephone had 6,000 women working on its switchboards. While the telephone joined teaching in finally bringing significant numbers of women into the workplace, there were rigid codes of dress and conduct the women had to follow. "You could only use certain phrases -- 'Number please' and 'Thank you,'" recalls a former operator, 98-year-old Marie McGrath. "The customer could say anything they wanted to you, and you would say, 'Thank you.'"

By 1915, the wiring of America was complete. In an undertaking as monumental as the construction of the trans-American railroad, AT&T strung 14,000 miles of copper wire across the country. Thirty-nine years after the first demonstration of telephone, the 68-year-old Bell was summoned by AT&T to New York to recreate his first call -- this time calling his friend and partner Thomas Watson in San Francisco.


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  • Published: 1997
  • LearnOutLoud.com Product ID: T079381