CHAPTER IX. THE FUTURE OF THE TELEPHONE
In the Spring of 1907 Theodore N. Vail, a rugged, ruddy, white-haired man, was superintending the building of a big barn in northern Vermont. His house stood near-by, on a balcony of rolling land that overlooked the town of Lyndon and far beyond, across evergreen forests to the massive bulk of Burke Mountain. His farm, very nearly ten square miles in area, lay back of the house in a great oval of field and woodland, with several dozen cottages in the clearings. His Welsh ponies and Swiss cattle were grazing on the May grass, and the men were busy with the ploughs and harrows and seeders. It was almost thirty years since he had been called in to create the business structure of telephony, and to shape the general plan of its development. Since then he had done many other things. The one city of Buenos Ayres had paid him more, merely for giving it a system of trolleys and electric lights, than the United States had paid him for putting the telephone on a business basis. He was now rich and retired, free to enjoy his play-work of the farm and to forget the troubles of the city and the telephone
But, as he stood among his barn-builders, there arrived from Boston and New York a delegation of telephone directors. Most of them belonged to the "Old Guard" of telephony. They had fought under Vail in the pioneer days; and now they had come to ask him to return to the telephone business, after twenty years of absence. Vail laughed at the suggestion.
"Nonsense," he said, "I'm too old. I'm sixty- two years of age." The directors persisted. They spoke of the approaching storm-cloud of panic and the need of another strong hand at the wheel until the crisis was over, but Vail still refused. They spoke of old times and old memories, but he shook his head. "All my life," he said, "I have wanted to be a farmer."
Then they drew a picture of the telephone situation. They showed him that the "grand telephonic system" which he had planned was unfinished. He was its architect, and it was undone. The telephone business was energetic and prosperous. Under the brilliant leadership of Frederick P. Fish, it had grown by leaps and bounds. But it was still far from being the SYSTEM that Vail had dreamed of in his younger days; and so, when the directors put before him his unfinished plan, he surrendered. The instinct for completeness, which is one of the dominating characteristics of his mind, compelled him to consent. It was the call of the telephone.
Since that May morning, 1907, great things have been done by the men of the telephone and telegraph world. The Bell System was brought through the panic without a scratch. When the doubt and confusion were at their worst, Vail wrote an open letter to his stock-holders, in his practical, farmer-like way. He said:
"Our net earnings for the last ten months were $13,715,000, as against $11,579,000 for the same period in 1906. We have now in the banks over $18,000,000; and we will not need to borrow any money for two years."
Soon afterwards, the work of consolidation began. Companies that overlapped were united. Small local wire-clusters, several thousands of them, were linked to the national lines. A policy of publicity superseded the secrecy which had naturally grown to be a habit in the days of patent litigation. Visitors and reporters found an open door. Educational advertisements were published in the most popular magazines. The corps of inventors was spurred up to conquer the long-distance problems. And in return for a thirty million check, the control of the historic Western Union was transferred from the children of Jay Gould to the thirty thousand stock-holders of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.
From what has been done, therefore, we may venture a guess as to the future of the telephone. This "grand telephonic system" which had no existence thirty years ago, except in the imagination of Vail, seems to be at hand. The very newsboys in the streets are crying it. And while there is, of course, no exact blueprint of a best possible telephone system, we can now see the general outlines of Vail's plan.
There is nothing mysterious or ominous in this plan. It has nothing to do with the pools and conspiracies of Wall Street. No one will be squeezed out except the promoters of paper companies. The simple fact is that Vail is organizing a complete Bell System for the same reason that he built one big comfortable barn for his Swiss cattle and his Welsh ponies, instead of half a dozen small uncomfortable sheds. He has never been a "high financier" to juggle profits out of other men's losses. He is merely applying to the telephone business the same hard sense that any farmer uses in the management of his farm. He is building a Big Barn, metaphorically, for the telephone and telegraph.
Plainly, the telephone system of the future will be national, so that any two people in the same country will be able to talk to one another. It will not be competitive, for the reason that no farmer would think for a moment of running his farm on competitive lines. It will have a staff- and-line organization, to use a military phrase. Each local company will continue to handle its own local affairs, and exercise to the full the basic virtue of self-help. But there will also be, as now, a central body of experts to handle the larger affairs that are common to all companies. No separateness or secession on the one side, nor bureaucracy on the other - that is the typically American idea that underlies the ideal telephone system.