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Communications in Seattle in our Virtual Museum Partners
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described in this exhibit, see the Science of Phones
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Welcome to the Second Floor of the Museum of Communications in Seattle. As you follow the tour, you will see exhibits showing the many different parts of the Bell Telephone System.
The history of AT&T and the Bell System is both long and complex; see our Company Histories
pages for more information and links to detailed histories. For the purposes of this tour, the following summary will suffice.
The Bell System emerged in the 1920s as a government-regulated monopoly. It operated in coordination with state, local, and federal agencies. The largest part of the Bell System was the operating companies. If you had a telephone in your home or office, the local Bell operating company provided telephone service and sent you a monthly bill for this service. The operating company also owned the telephone and would replace or repair the telephone if necessary.
The local Bell operating company in Seattle was for many years The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company; later, it was The Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company.
By 1940, the Bell System included 17 operating companies nationwide. Of those homes with telephone service, roughly 80 percent were serviced by one of these Bell operating companies.
In addition to the operating companies, the Bell System also owned Bell Telephone Laboratories and The Western Electric Company. Bell Telephone Laboratories designed telephone equipment and researched new technologies. Western Electric manufactured most of the equipment used in the Bell System, including telephones, switchboards, telephone cables, and central office equipment.
The parent company of the Bell System was American Telephone and Telegraph, known simply as AT&T. For many years, AT&T was the largest private employer in the United States, with over 300,000 employees.
AT&T coordinated the activities of all other parts of the Bell System, including the operating companies, Bell Labs, and Western Electric. AT&T also owned the long-distance network that made long-distance telephony possible. Through its “Long Lines” department, AT&T coordinated the routing of all long-distance telephone traffic between the operating companies, including the independent companies not part of the Bell System.
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