CHAPTER V. THE EXPANSION OF THE BUSINESS
The telephone business did not really begin to grow big and overspread the earth until 1896, but the keynote of expansion was first sounded by Theodore Vail in the earliest days, when as yet the telephone was a babe in arms. In 1879 Vail said, in a letter written to one of his captains:
"Tell our agents that we have a proposition on foot to connect the different cities for the purpose of personal communication, and in other ways to organize a GRAND TELEPHONIC SYSTEM."
This was brave talk at that time, when there were not in the whole world as many telephones as there are to-day in Cincinnati. It was brave talk in those days of iron wire, peg switchboards, and noisy diaphragms. Most telephone men regarded it as nothing more than talk. They did not see any business future for the telephone ex- cept in short-distance service. But Vail was in earnest. His previous experience as the head of the railway mail service had lifted him up to a higher point of view. He knew the need of a national system of communication that would be quicker and more direct than either the telegraph or the post office.
"I saw that if the telephone could talk one mile to-day," he said, "it would be talking a hundred miles to-morrow." And he persisted, in spite of a considerable deal of ridicule, in maintaining that the telephone was destined to connect cities and nations as well as individuals.
Four months after he had prophesied the "grand telephonic system," he encouraged Charles J. Glidden, of world-tour fame, to build a telephone line between Boston and Lowell. This was the first inter-city line. It was well placed, as the owners of the Lowell mills lived in Boston, and it made a small profit from the start. This success cheered Vail on to a master- effort. He resolved to build a line from Boston to Providence, and was so stubbornly bent upon doing this that when the Bell Company refused to act, he picked up the risk and set off with it alone. He organized a company of well- known Rhode Islanders - nicknamed the "Governors' Company" - and built the line. It was a failure at first, and went by the name of "Vail's Folly." But Engineer Carty, by a happy thought, DOUBLED THE WIRE, and thus in a moment established two new factors in the telephone business - the Metallic Circuit and the Long Distance line.
At once the Bell Company came over to Vail's point of view, bought his new line, and launched out upon what seemed to be the foolhardy enterprise of stringing a double wire from Boston to New York. 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 would n'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. "It was the salvation of the business," said Edward J. Hill. It marked a turning-point in the history of the telephone, when the day of small things was ended and the day of great things was begun. No one man, no hundred men, had created it. It was the final result of ten years of invention and improvement.
While this epoch-making line was being strung, Vail was pushing his "grand telephonic system" policy by organizing The American Telephone and Telegraph Company. This, too, was a master-stroke. It was the introduction of the staff-and-line method of organization into business. It was doing for the forty or fifty Bell Companies what Von Moltke did for the German army prior to the Franco-Prussian War. It was the creation of a central company that should link all local companies together, and itself own and operate the means by which these companies are united. This central company was to grapple with all national problems, to own all telephones and long-distance lines, to protect all patents, and to be the headquarters of invention, information, capital, and legal protection for the entire federation of Bell Companies.
Seldom has a company been started with so small a capital and so vast a purpose. It had no more than $100,000 of capital stock, in 1885; but its declared object was nothing less than to establish a system of wire communication for the human race. Here are, in its own words, the marching orders of this Company: "To connect one or more points in each and every city, town, or place an the State of New York, with one or more points in each and every other city, town, or place in said State, and in each and every other of the United States, and in Canada, and Mexico; and each and every of said cities, towns, and places is to be connected with each and every other city, town, or place in said States and countries, and also by cable and other appropriate means with the rest of the known world."
So ran Vail's dream, and for nine years he worked mightily to make it come true. He remained until the various parts of the business had grown together, and until his plan for a "grand telephonic system" was under way and fairly well understood. Then he went out, into a series of picturesque enterprises, until he had built up a four-square fortune; and recently, in 1907, he came back to be the head of the telephone business, and to complete the work of organization that he started thirty years before.