Telecommunications History Group Resources
A Brief History of the Bell System - Educational Resources
Associated Subjects: History, Social Studies, Science, Economics
Grade Levels: 7-9
Time Required: Two or three class periods (or two plus homework)
Skills Used: Critical thinking; essay writing; historical comprehension; information gathering; internet research skills; making inferences and drawing conclusions; working collaboratively
CO Curriculum Standards Addressed: History 1, 2, 4; Science 5; Economics 3; Reading & Writing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
A company with the resources to finance and build not just one, but several skyscrapers such as the one in Denver didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. The Bell System (AT&T and the various other companies it owned) had become the dominant phone service provider in the United States long before the 1920s; in fact, it had a monopoly on phone service even then. By 1984 it was deemed too much of a monopoly and was broken up, which lead more or less directly to the large number of phone companies we have today.
Interestingly, these companies are beginning to merge and coalesce, and we could see a return to near-monopolistic conditions in the future.
This lesson discusses the history of the Bell System, focusing primarily on the growth of the company founded by Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone), including the spread of the telephone and its importance in society; the dominance of the Bell System and its resultant wealth; and, finally, the 1984 federally mandated breakup of the company.
- How can a single invention create a major corporation?
- What is a monopoly, and can it be a good thing?
This lesson could begin with discussions about the telephone, working backwards from the ubiquitous cell phone of today (which many of the students probably have with them) to home phones to a time when telephones were new and strange devices. Have the students think about what it would have been like to be without telephones (and without computers, TV, and nearly every other electronic convenience!). What was communication like in those days? How would the invention of the telephone change everything? What will the future be like?
Then have the students break into groups and research the development of the Bell System (and incidentally the history of telephones) using the resources listed above. (This could also be a homework, computer lab, or library assignment.)
The lesson can end there, or can be developed further into a discussion about monopolies and the good and bad things about them. For instance, it could be said that having one system cover the entire country is a good thing, because different regions will be able to talk to one another without going through different kinds of service, technical hurdles, etc. (This is similar to having one computer operating system—Windows—on all computers so that users can move to different computers and use the same programs, etc.) On the other hand, a monopolistic company might become lazy about serving its customers if it knows there is no competition for the customer to move to, which in the case of a phone company can mean bad lines not being repaired, service complaints going unheeded, and price rises.
Discuss also what has happened since the breakup of the Bell System, and today’s tendency for phone companies to “remerge” into larger and larger conglomerates.
Finally the question: Was it a good thing to break up the Bell System in 1984? Did the proliferation of smaller phone companies create a better marketplace? Should these companies now be allowed to merge and create near-monopolies all over again?
Assessment will occur as the lesson goes along, and will include:
- Class discussion about phones and their place in society today, and historically.
- Group essays (or presentations) about the history of the Bell System.
- Class discussion (or essays) about monopolies and their merits/faults.
- Discussion/essays on whether the breakup of the Bell System was a good or a bad thing.