Editor’s Note, 22 January 2019: This photo essay appeared in the March 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum. Since then, the AT&T Archives and History Center in Warren, N.J., has undergone a number of changes. The staff now includes a corporate historian, Sheldon Hochheiser, as well as a corporate archivist, Melissa Wasson. George Kupczak retired in 2015. In August 2018, AT&T opened a corporate museum, the AT&T Science and Technology Innovation Center, in Middletown, N.J. A few of the artifacts mentioned in this article, including one of Claude Shannon’s mice and a Telstar satellite, are featured in the new museum.
Calls of Yore: In a cloud of bubble wrap stands a telephone switchboard probably used in the New York City area in the mid-20th century. The operator who ran this switchboard would have been expected not only to route calls by hand but also to run the teletype keyboard on the right. Photo: Erika Larsen
Early Light: A prototype of a solar cell, invented in 1954 by Bell Labs researchers Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller, and Daryl Chapin, consists of paper-thin strips of silicon embedded in clear plastic, attached by wire to terminals on either side. The battery generated 0.185 watts, not quite enough to illuminate a flashlight bulb. Photo: Erika Larsen
Mighty Mice: To demonstrate his ideas on switching relays for the Bell Telephone System, Claude E. Shannon crafted these wooden mice and used a crude protocomputer based on electrical relays to navigate them through a maze. Even with its simplistic “brain” of 40 relays, the mouse could figure out the shortest path. Photo: Erika Larsen
Like Clockwork: Decades before he became the most influential president of AT&T and a champion of universal phone service, Theodore N. Vail invented this electrical signaling apparatus, designed to enable one station to call up another without signaling intervening stations. Vail's device was awarded U.S. patent 212,873 on 4 March 1879. Photo: Erika Larsen
Famous First Words: Machinist Thomas A. Watson scribbled in his laboratory notebook the first words ever spoken over a telephone: “Mr. Watson! Come here! I want you!” The speaker was, of course, Alexander Graham Bell, who was standing in the next room of his Boston workshop on the fateful night of 10 March 1876. Photo: Erika Larsen
History Books: The Bell System’s broad support of research is captured in tens of thousands of lab notebooks preserved in the AT&T Archives. Notebooks shown here include those of transistor pioneers William Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen, and Arno Penzias, who shared the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering the cosmic microwave background radiation. Photo: Erika Larsen
Sight and Sound: The Vitaphone, developed by Western Electric engineers, helped usher in the “talkies”—motion pictures with synchronized sound. It recorded sound onto an oversize phonograph record. The second feature produced using the system, The Jazz Singer, earned an extraordinary US $3.5 million, signaling the end of cinema’s silent era. Photo: Erika Larsen
Now Hear This: Among the phonographic gems at the archives is “Play It Again, Mr. Edison,” a popular record engineered by Thomas Alva himself. It includes a John Philip Sousa march and a foxtrot version of “I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” More sober offerings include hearing test tones and a radio documentary series on democracy. Photo: Erika Larsen
Shelf Life: Thousands of AT&T documentaries, instructional videos, public service announcements, and TV ads live on in the archives, awaiting, mostly in vain, some future audience. The titles run the gamut from “Developing Your Sales Personality” to “Survival Under A-Bomb Attack.” Photo: Erika Larsen
Show Time: This vacuum tube received images during the first U.S. public demonstration of television in 1927. The signal was transmitted by radio from Whippany, N.J., to the Bell Telephone Labs building in downtown New York City. The tube created pulses of light, which were directed by a scanning wheel receiver to form the viewable image. Photo: Erika Larsen
Early Signals: This loop antenna, built in the 1920s, consists of 12 coils of wire on a wooden frame. It needs to be pointed directly at the signal source. But the basic design is still favored by do-it-yourselfers because it is easy to build and can pick up weak radio signals. Photo: Erika Larsen
Sacred Scrolls: Computer printouts captured telemetry from the launch of AT&T’s Telstar I, the first commercial communications satellite and the first privately owned satellite of any kind. Launched from Cape Canaveral on 10 July 1962, it was short-lived. Radiation from a U.S. nuclear test and from sunlight fried its circuits, and it failed in February of the following year. Photo: Erika Larsen
Call Waiting: An old wall telephone, dating from 1899 and manufactured by the Monarch Telephone Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, lies among its brethren on the upper level of the Archives’ vast warehouse. Monarch was one of thousands of phone companies that sprang up in the United States after Alexander Graham Bell’s second telephone patent expired in 1894. Photo: Erika Larsen
Caretaker: The AT&T Archives, once a bustling enterprise, are now the domain of one man: George Kupczak. Though not trained as a historian or an archivist—his past professions include dancer, paralegal, and real estate agent—he tends to the collection and fields the steady stream of inquiries from the public with good-natured patience. Photo: Erika Larsen
The AT&T Archives and History Center doesn’t make much of a first impression. Located on a quiet wooded road in Warren, N.J., its fluorescent-lit hallways and nondescript offices could easily be mistaken for some back-office operation. Then you enter the cavernous, 12-meter-high warehouse.
There, antiquated switchboards and steel shelves filled with dust-covered telephones stand alongside weird vacuum tubes and outmoded antennas. Behind a metal cage, a Western Electric washing machine, from an early experiment in diversification, stands in the shadows. Beneath a blue tarp lies a three-quarter-scale model of the first Telstar communications satellite. A big wooden packing crate conceals plaster molds from the famous Golden Boy statue, which once perched atop AT&T headquarters in downtown New York City. You can even smell the history here: slightly cold and musty, with an edge of iron and machine oil.
But it’s only after your eyes adjust to the dim light that you finally start to get it. Believe it or not, that bizarre-looking kludge of camera and turntable was the very first motion-picture sound system. In the archive room, known locally as The Vault, can be found the world's first solar cell. And that beat-up little notebook holds the scribblings of none other than Thomas A. Watson, the technical brains behind Alexander Graham Bell’s ingenious telephonic inventions. Here, he captured for the record the first precious words ever spoken by phone: “Mr. Watson! Come here! I want you!”
In addition to this fascinating assortment of artifacts, there are tens of thousands of audio and video recordings, a million or so photographs, and countless other documents deemed valuable by one AT&T archivist or another over the past century. The collection is a testament to the enormous resources the once-mighty telecommunications giant used to dedicate to recording and publicizing its own accomplishments. As Theodore N. Vail, the visionary AT&T president who engineered the transformation of the Bell telephone system into a national enterprise, wrote back in 1911: “If we don’t tell the truth about ourselves, someone else will.”
And so the company published, and the archives dutifully preserved, technical journals (Bell System Technical Journal, Bell Journal of Economics), in-house magazines (Western Electric Engineer, The 195 Bulletin), and even an annual compendium called The World’s Telephones, enumerating the number of telephones in the world (195.3 million in 1966) and a country-by-country tally of telephone traffic (80 060 434 local calls placed in Papua New Guinea, in 1988).
AT&T also offered to the public a museum of telephone technology at its original New York City headquarters, and a team of historians and archivists preserved those pieces of history that signified the company’s‚–and the world’s–seminal events in telecommunications: the invention of the transistor, the first public demonstration of television, the launching of the first commercial satellite, among other milestones. Over the years, scholars combed the archives to produce an impressive body of work on corporate management, innovation, business policy, and other topics. Last September, after a several-year hiatus, the archives once again began hosting scholarly visits.
Any collection of old things can evoke a certain nostalgia. And any single artifact, stripped of the context in which it was once used and from the people who gave it life, is like a story waiting, patiently, to be told. Here are some objects that caught our eyes and stood up to scrutiny. Their stories are of one of the signature triumphs of the 20th century: the birth and growth of modern telecommunications, from Alexander Graham Bell to the Internet.