Utah History Encyclopedia


By Jay M. Haymond

Final transcontinental telephone pole, 17 June 1914

The telephone or "harmonic telegraph" as it was first called, was invented in June 1875 by Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson. Inventors and gadgeteers throughout the country soon picked up on the idea. A.M. Munser secured the rights to introduce the telephone in Utah. The first demonstration in Salt Lake City took place on 1 March 1879 between the residence of L.E. Holden on South Temple and Fort Douglas.

Soon there were small systems in Utah that resembled intercoms rather than phone systems as we know them today. In March 1880 telephone exchanges were licensed to operate in Ogden and Salt Lake City. The Ogden exchange, known as "The Ogden Telephone Exchange Company," began operating in September with twenty four lines and thirty phones under the National Bell Telephone Company. The Salt Lake City exchange began operation in April 1881 under the American Bell Telephone Company. The major difference between the two national companies was their financial backing. J.P. Morgan backed the American Bell Telephone Company, which developed into the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1907 and eventually absorbed most of its competitors.

The first technology was primitive. Phone wires leading from the exchange office to subscribers were strung from housetop to housetop, but the Salt Lake City exchange, especially, grew rapidly. By 1890 there were over 500 subscribers; by 1900 there were more than 1,200.

Other systems also grew; and with the growth came consolidation. In June 1881 the Utah Telephone Company was formed to provide service to all of Utah. In February 1883 the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company was incorporated and licensed by the American Bell Telephone Company to serve the states of Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. In 1911 the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company became part of the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company.

Long-distance service began with lines between Salt Lake City and Park City in 1883. Service between Salt Lake and Ogden was then opened, and by the early 1890s long-distance lines had been built as far south as Nephi and as far north as Preston, Idaho. Other rural systems were established around the turn of the century; for example, a line connecting Moab and Monticello was finished in 1906. However, for some time only one telephone was available in Monticello, at the local store.

Nationally, phone wires were being strung to link the country as the telegraph and railroads had done in the 1860s. The span between Salt Lake City and Wendover was a problem. At times the working temperature was 130 degrees and the glare made working in the daytime almost impossible. The final pole was set and wires strung on 28 July 1914 at Wendover to complete the first transcontinental phone line in the United States.

Following the completion of the transcontinental telephone line, telephone service expanded throughout the state. By the mid-twentieth century nearly all homes, offices, businesses, farms, and ranches within the state had access to telephone service.

In 1993 telephone service was provided to over 800,000 access lines in Utah. The telephone company is attempting to compete with other information providers and expand the definition of "telephony" to include all aspects of telecommunications. When early in the twentieth century local phone companies joined with other providers to become Mountain Bell and American Telephone and Telegraph, the resulting giant telephone company earned the charge of monopoly. It was forced to break up in 1984 into what were called "Baby Bells"--regional service companies. In the Intermountain West, the regional company was US West, which provided service in fourteen western states. The new companies were restrained from going into the fields of information services, the manufacture of equipment, and the extending of long-distance phone lines. As compensation, they could join in the growing computer industry. Located in one of the most rapidly growing areas of the country, US West has formed business combinations and alliances to meet the new competition from other phone companies. They (and the other phone companies) have expanded services and are attempting to define a telecommunications business to meet and claim a share of the future in information services related to computers, networks, modems, faxes, satellite and cellular transmissions, and many other (and future) technological communication breakthroughs of the present era.