Never say never. Thomas Edison was both a great inventor and an amusing prognosticator. But nobody, no matter how smart, knows the future. And that goes for Edison as well. Back in 1894, Edison predicted that transatlantic phone calls would be impossible. But his doubts would prove silly roughly 30 years later when the first transatlantic phone call was completed in 1927.
Thomas Edison spoke with the Galveston Daily News in Texas for an interview published in that newspaper’s 28 October 1894 edition. Edison expressed his doubts, explaining in a rather convoluted way that you’d need a special kind of cable.
I don’t think we will be able to telephone across the Atlantic. It would be impossible because of the electrification of the gutta percha covering of the cable. Every substance will electrify somewhat, so the difficulty is not to be overcome by discarding what is now used. Between Valencia and Hart’s Content [in Newfoundland], for instance, the tons of gutta percha on the cable play a large part in its operation. Every bit of it has to be electrified before a single signal can be sent. And when the current is cut off at Valencia after being operated, it will continues to flow into Heart’s Content for a comparatively long time afterward. This all interferes with the sound waves. Even in telegraphing there is no real break between the flashes and there are only ten to twelve sound waves per second. In telephoning there would be two or three thousand in the same time. The only way to get over it would be to employ some other force that would not affect surrounding matter.
The first official transatlantic phone call would take place on 7 January 1927, between London and New York. The quality of the call was indeed a mess, but it worked. The call was completed by bouncing radio waves, not by laying an incredibly long cable across the ocean.
What did the first official transatlantic phone call sound like? Held between W.S. Gifford, president of AT&T in New York, and Evelyn P. Murray, head of the British General Post Office in London, Gifford started the call with a prepared statement:
Today is the result of many years of research and experimentation. We open a telephonic path of speech between New York and London. That the people of these great cities will be brought within speaking distance to exchange views and facts as if they were face to face. No one can foresee the ultimate significance of this latest achievement of science and organisation.
There’s actually a fascinating short documentary called Speaking From America about how telephone calls were made across the Atlantic Ocean. Directed by Humphrey Jennings in 1938, the film shows how radio waves were used in the 1930s to connect Europe and the United States by telephone. If you’re into tech history, it’s a must watch.
(The film does not appear to be available online, but you can order it on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of Volume One of the Humphrey Jennings Collection.)
Edison died in 1931, just a few years after the first transatlantic phone call. And while Edison wasn’t involved in the invention of transatlantic telephone technology, he did try something even more ambitious: A telephone that was supposed to talk to ghosts. Seriously.