To make a phone call to the US today, you only have to dial 001 from your landline or mobile and you’ll be connected within a few seconds.
Of course, it hasn’t always been that easy, but 90 years ago this week communications between the UK and the US made a huge leap forward: for the first time anyone could call the United States thanks to the introduction of the first transatlantic telephone service.
On January 7, 1927, the inaugural call was made between Walter S Gifford, President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in New York, and Sir Evelyn Murray, Secretary of the Post Office (the forerunner of BT) in London.
“No one can foresee the ultimate significance of this last achievement of science and organisation. It will certainly facilitate business; it will be a social convenience and a comfort; and, through the closer bond which it establishes, it will promote better understanding and strengthen the ties of the friendship,” said Gifford at 1.45pm GMT.
“Through the spoken word, aided by the personality of the voice, the people of New York and the people of London will become neighbours in a real sense, although separated by thousands of miles.”
From London, Murray answered: “The opening of a public telephone service across the Atlantic between London and New York is a conspicuous milestone on the road of telephone progress, and marks the beginning of a new epoch in the development of communication between our two counties”
He then uttered the words that marked a new era of communications: “I now declare the service open to the public.”
The path across the Atlantic
The origins of that call go back to 1902 following successful experiments using radio transmission in telephone calls.
In October 1915 AT&T successfully made a call from Arlington, Virginia to the Eiffel Tower - the first time speech had crossed the Atlantic – when engineer B.B. Web’s words ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ were heard in Paris.
Read more in our feature: Hello Paris! Remembering the first time speech travelled across the Atlantic by wonderful wireless.
Another significant event was the completion of the Rugby Transmitter in January 1926. With a power of 200kW, the two transmitters were 500 times as strong as an ordinary broadcast, and the 800-foot-high masts employed 10 miles of cable.
In February that year a ‘satisfactory’ conversation was held between Rugby and Rocking Point in Long Island, New York.
The next step was to create a sustainable commercial service, which was launched with Gifford’s words to Murray nine decades ago on January 7, 1927.
At around £15 for three minutes, the calls weren’t cheap. This was because of the high cost of building the Rugby transmitters - an astronomical £500,000 each in 1927.
Despite this, the service was so popular that on the first day opening hours at the London Trunk Exchange in the City of London (which received the signals from Rugby) were extended past 6pm, with the Foreign Office even forfeiting its own evening transmission from Rugby.
Some entrepreneurs even invested in their own call boxes, the Daily News reporting: “Opportunist or Humourist? A Wimbledon tobacconist who has a telephone call-box in his shop has taken swift advantage of the latest facility. He has hung out a notice: ‘You may telephone New York from here - £15’.’’
After a few weeks the service was extended to all of England and Wales in the UK, and to Maine, New Hampshire, Indiana, Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey in the US.
The next milestone in transatlantic communication was the opening of TAT1, the first transatlantic telephone cable in 1956 - discover more about this amazing story.
The Rugby Radio Station, once owned by BT, has been disposed of responsibly and sustainably. The site has been sold and is being redeveloped to create 6,200 new homes aligned to the government’s policy of reusing "industrial" land for housing.
Photo credit: BT Archives