Flashback 1924: Radio Goes Coast to Coast

Radio may be considered passé by some but it has been a staple in the lives of Americans for nearly 100 years and will be around for many years to come. Ninety-three years ago this month, on the night of February 8, 1924, AT&T made history when it conducted the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast from a banquet hall in Chicago’s Congress Hotel.

A speech delivered by company vice president John J. Carty, who was instrumental in developing the first transcontinental telephone line a decade earlier, was heard simultaneously in New York, Jacksonville, Denver, San Francisco, and even Havana, Cuba. He addressed by name telephone managers in each of the cities who tuned into the broadcast.

Although fewer than 10 percent of Americans owned a radio set in 1924, radio was the coveted technology of the day and well on its way to becoming a mass-market product. Families gathered around the radio to be informed and entertained just as they would gather around the TV a couple of decades later.

Gizmodo’s Matt Novak described the event in his 2013 article “Hello Frisco…”:

The April 1924 issue of Science and Invention magazine included this map [shown above] of the momentous occasion, showing the various wired connections between cities that were necessary to broadcast the message across great distances. The magazine gave readers an idea of the scope of the project, telling of hardships and explaining that the cables were reaching a mile below sea level in the southeast, and a mile above sea level in the Rocky Mountains.

At a point near Winnemucca, Nevada, a severe blizzard was raging. Scores of men were at work keeping the lines in repair so that communication could be carried on without interruption. At one point of the line near Key West, the submarine cable was one mile below sea level, while near Denver it was a mile above sea level.

The illustrations of people saying "Hello! Frisco!" is in reference to the first coast-to-coast telephone call made between an aging Alexander Graham Bell and his former assistant Thomas Watson on January 15, 1915 during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Their call, from Bell in New York to Watson in San Francisco, would inspire the title of the 1943 film Hello, Frisco, Hello which is set at the 1915 Exposition.

Somewhat strangely, in all the accounts I've read of that 1915 phone call, Bell never actually said "hello Frisco." But given the tremendous distaste so many people from San Francisco have for the term Frisco, I suppose it's for the best. At least they didn't say "hello San Fran."