At a time of mass emigration to the colonies, new arrivals had no way to communicate rapidly with loved ones back home. How they’d have loved to tap a screen, launch FaceTime and tell family they’d docked safely on a different continent.
In this era of instant global communications through online services with fast broadband such as BT Infinity reaching 52mpbs, it’s easy to forget that contacting friends or relatives abroad once required sending letters and, for the elite few, expensive telegrams.
The first step towards the crystal clear transatlantic voice transmissions we enjoy today took place 101 years ago this week, when human speech crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the very first time.
Connecting the US and France
On October 21 1915, a radio engineer by the name of B.B. Webb spoke the words ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ into a radio mouthpiece in Arlington, Virginia in the US; moments later his words were heard in Paris, France.
The breakthrough came courtesy of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s American Telephone & Telegraph Company, known today as US wireless provider AT&T.
The receipt and demodulation of the electromagnetic waves was made possible through an antenna at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
At this point, the tower, built in 1889, was due to be taken down, but designer Gustave Eiffel was looking for ways to make the structure useful for the people of Paris and this stunt the bill perfectly.
A report at the time said: “Owing to the fact that France is at war and that wireless is playing a most important part in the working out of the French military communication system, it was with extreme difficulty that officials were persuaded to permit the use of the 1,000-foot Eiffel Tower station at Paris.”
Representatives from the French government and the US army radio service were in attendance to witness as AT&T engineers H.E. Shreeve and A.M. Curtis, first heard spoken word from 3,800 miles away.
As the primitive call was only one-way, it took cabled communications posted back to the US to confirm the transmission had been received, thus commencing the era of transatlantic voice communications.
The same speech signals were also sent to the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, a location that would earn a notorious place in history almost 30 years later. That gave the experiment an unprecedented reach of almost 10,000 miles.
Theodore Vail, then president of AT&T, sent a dispatch reading: “The talk from Washington this morning, heard both in Paris and Honolulu… establishes as a fact that under favorable atmospheric and electrical conditions, with proper equipment which the engineers of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company have developed, we will be able to carry on conversation between New York and European points as well as to the western coast and points across the Pacific Ocean.”
The December 1915 issue of the Electrical Experimenter brought word of the “epochal achievement”.
The report said: “Following the announcement of the success of the tests, [AT&T] predicted that wireless telephonic communication between New York or any other American city and all the great cities of the world was but a matter of time.”
However, it would be another 11 years before the first two-way call would take place between London and New York. A year later, in 1927, the first commercial transatlantic telephony service was opened. FaceTime didn’t arrive until 2010.
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Theodore Vale: By Bain (Library of Congress) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.