The Bell System's history stretches back to 1876, with founder Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone. Bell, Thomas Sanders and Gardiner G. Hubbard formed The Bell Patent Association in order to capitalize on the invention. In August 1877, the three members of the patent agreement formed the Bell Telephone Company to look after the telephone's interests, with Hubbard as Trustee. (See our "Patent Follies" article for more on Bell's patent struggles.) And in April 1880, they asked the Massachusetts legislature to allow the incorporation of the American Bell Telephone Company.

The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was a special company formed to provide long distance service; On December 31, 1899 capitalization of American Bell was transferred and AT&T became the parent company of the Bell System. (American Bell continued in existence for a few more years as a patent-holding company, and then passed out of existence.) The Bell System included Western Electric (manufacturing), Bell Laboratories (research and development), AT&T Long Lines and the regional Bell operating companies. The American telephone monopoly provided what was by all accounts the best telephone service in the world.

The system broke up into eight companies in 1984 by agreement between AT&T and the U.S. Department of Justice ("Divestiture"). From 1984 until 1996 AT&T was an integrated telecommunications services and equipment company. Today, AT&T focuses on delivering IP-based solutions to enterprise and government customers.

A detailed history of the Bell System is available at The Bell System Memorial.

Southern New England Telephone Company: The First Fifty Years

On January 28, 1878, two years after Alexander Graham bell was awarded a patent on his primitive telephone, the world's first commercial telephone exchange opened for business in New Haven, Connecticut. George W. Coy, Herrick P. Frost and Walter Lewis, with a great deal of courage, some makeshift equipment, and $600 of borrowed money, put Bell's invention to work. Their enterprise was called the District Telephone Company of New Haven. By 1882 it was known as the Southern New England Telephone Company. More information can be found at SNET's web site.


The following are histories and stories about some of the "legacy" companies that went on to become part of the Bell System, and some of the independent competitors to the giant monopoly. The stories are illustrated with stock certificates from the Telecommunications History Group's collection, and are taken from a previously unpublished description of the collection, written by Herbert J. Hackenburg.

Note that this is an evolving exhibit, and that changes and additions will be made to it over time.

Additional interesting histories can be seen at the following sites:

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PICTURED: (above, beginning of article) A 1970 stock certificate for AT&T (THG file photo).