Throwback Thursday: The First Phone Calls from New York to Boston

The Boston-New York line was an important success story in the telephone’s development.


Alexander Graham Bell by Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Boston and New York are interconnected enough that there’s a good chance you’ll talk by phone (or text, SnapChat, Gchat, or however the kids are talking these days) with someone in the Empire State at some point today. It’s amazing to think that just 130 years ago, on March 27, 1884, the first long-distance phone call between those two cities took place.

Its a brief but key turning point in what was then a rapidly moving technological wave. Much of that progress happened here in Boston, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell. Six years after Bell invented the telephone, the technology had spread but chiefly as a means of local communication. There were lines between Lowell and Boston, and between Boston and Providence, but the idea that telephones would one day allow us to talk to someone around the world hadn’t quite caught on. Still, the success of the Boston-Providence line gave enough hope that the Bell Company started work on an even grander idea: a New York to Boston line, made plausible by the innovation to use copper wire. In the 1910 history The History of the Telephone, Herbert Newton Casson recalled that this long distance line, like most expensive technological gambles, had its detractors:

This was to be not only the longest of all telephone lines, strung on ten thousand poles; it was to be a line de luxe, built of glistening red copper, not iron. Its cost was to be seventy thousand dollars, which was an enormous sum in those hardscrabble days. There was much opposition to such extravagance, and much ridicule. “I wouldn’t take that line as a gift,” said one of the Bell Company’s officials.

But when the last coil of wire was stretched into place, and the first “Hello” leaped from Boston to New York, the new line was a victorious success. It carried messages from the first day; and more, it raised the whole telephone business to a higher level. It swept away the prejudice that telephone service could become nothing more than a neighborhood affair.

Years later, the achievement was overshadowed by even bigger ones. In 1915, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson reenacted their famous first call, this time with Bell standing in New York and Watson in San Francisco as they inaugurated the first transcontinental line, a feat made possible by the success of those calls from Boston to New York a few decades earlier.