Nine Of The Most Important Phone Calls of All Time

Modern life would be utterly inconceivable without the telephone. It is arguable that no other device has had as powerful a shaping influence on culture and society, and all of us depend on the telephone to keep up to date with our friends and relay important information to colleagues and family members. The lines that connect telephones were the first to connect computers and today many people still rely on dial-up modems and telephone lines to access the Internet. Yet even though telephones are important to us all, not every telephone call in history has been equally important and influential. Certainly, there are some telephone calls that stand out from others, and most of these have originated in or have been received in the United States because, after all, the telephone was born in America.

Choosing the most important telephone calls in history is not as easy as it seems because a call can be important for any number of factors. Perhaps it was the first time a certain element of phone technology was ever used. Maybe it had a direct influence on major world events or the development of culture. With all of these qualifications in mind, we might narrow down the list of the most important telephone calls ever made to the following ten.

1: (1876) The Very First Telephone Call Ever Made
Image of Bell Speaking into TelephoneWe all know that Alexander Graham Bell was the man who invented the telephone, so it is no surprise to learn that he also made the very first telephone call in history. In fact, even though Bell invented several other products and technologies, it is his telephone and his first telephone call that has earned him a place in our collective memory. A scientist and inventor, Bell was especially interested in advancing telegraph technology and in February of 1876, his financier filed the first patent for the telephone, beating another inventor, Elisha Gray, only by a few hours. After a few partially successful tries, Bell made the first telephone call in Boston on March 10, 1876 to his research assistant, Thomas Watson. Metaphorically, the call would soon be heard all around the world even though Watson was only in the next room when Bell said to him on the phone: “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.”

2: (1915) First Transcontinental Phone Call in North America
Image of the first transcontinental callOver time, the telephone technology that Alexander Graham Bell invented spread across the United States, but calls were only possible between people within the same city at first. As telephone carrier lines multiplied, people were able to make calls to those further and further away from themselves, but it was not until January 25, 1915 that somebody on the east coast of North America could telephone somebody on the west coast. Physicists worked on amplifying phone signals so that they could make the long trek across the country and still be received on the other end, which was a necessary advance because weakening telephone signals over long distances was the chief obstacle to transcontinental phone conversation. Scientists were able to develop methods to maintain a signal’s link over great distances and so construction was begun on a transcontinental phone line. In June of 1914 the transcontinental telephone line was completed in Wendover, Utah, about 200 miles away from Promontory, Utah, where the transcontinental railroad was completed almost fifty years earlier. Yet the line was not opened for use until January 25, 1915, when, appropriately enough, Alexander Graham Bell, who was in New York City, called his assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco.

3: (1926) First Transatlantic Telephone Conversation
Image of GBR VLF Telegraphy Transmitter 1926With the ability to call persons across the continent established, telephone engineers began working towards their goal of being able to telephone people across the great oceans. Transoceanic telephone contact had been in existence for many decades, so inventors knew that if they worked hard enough, they would also discover a way to make it possible for people on one side of an ocean to call people on the other side. As early as 1915, brief voice transmissions across the Atlantic Ocean had been demonstrated as viable, and it was not unusual for people on the mainland United States to call ships out in the middle of the Atlantic. In 1926, the very first telephone conversation across the Atlantic via radio occurred. Commercial transatlantic service was available in 1927 through shortwave radio, and the first transatlantic telephone cable was later laid underwater in 1956. With transatlantic service established, presidents could call their counterparts in other countries immediately, allowing for quicker negotiations between nations, for good or for ill. The world also became smaller as calls between ordinary citizens in different countries were made possible.

4: (1941) United States Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox call to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the Bombing of Pearl Harbor
Portrait of President Franklin Delano RooseveltThe United States had until December 7, 1941, remained largely out of World War II except for providing supplies to China and its Western allies. This all changed when on that Sunday in early December 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox phoned President Franklin D. Roosevelt early in the afternoon to inform the chief executive of the sneak attack, which decimated the Navy. The call would move Roosevelt to make his famous “Infamy Speech” the following day, a speech that would galvanize the American public into supporting Congress’ move to get the United States involved actively in the war. The emergence of the United States as a global superpower and the shift of the geopolitical stage that would endure in many ways to this day are all due to the United States involvement in World War II. But the U.S. would not have gotten involved if it were not for the attack on Pearl Harbour and the phone call from Knox to Roosevelt that informed him of the awful event.

(1946) First Call Placed from a Mobile Telephone: Today cell phones are increasingly prevalent the world over, and cell phone service is moving into new markets every day. The ubiquity of cell phones and mobile telephone technology is a relatively new phenomenon, but mobile phones have been around in some form or another for over sixty years. On June 17, 1946, a driver in St. Louis, Missouri, placed the first mobile phone call from a phone in his car, proving to researchers Alton Dickieson, H.I. Rimes, and D. Mitchell that phone service on the go was indeed possible. Reporters and truck fleets were among the first to use the early mobile phones, which were very expensive to buy and operate, and also very heavy. Limited dialling area was also an early weakness of the technology. But this early breakthrough paved the way for the development of less expensive devices with greater and greater coverage.

5: (1962) Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s Call to John F. Kennedy Regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis
Image of Cuban Missile CrisisThe closest the world has come to nuclear war was in 1962 when the Soviet Union began placing strategic nuclear missiles on Cuba to defend against a possible U.S. invasion of the island. Several events followed, including the shooting down of spy planes and a near destruction of a Soviet Submarine that would have initiated the launching of missiles had it actually been destroyed. Dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union was tense and all but non-existent, but things began to move rapidly toward a peaceful resolution on October 26 after a phone call between President Kennedy and his brother and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy. The conversation ended with the president telling the attorney general that the US was willing to remove missiles from Turkey as part of a bargain to get the missiles out of Cuba. The attorney general took this information to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, which paved the way for the ending of the crisis. The Soviet Union removed its missiles from Cuba and the United States got its missiles out of Turkey a few days later, but the war was likely averted as a result of the conversation between President Kennedy and his brother during this important telephone call.

6: (1968) Alabama Speaker of the House Fankin Fite’s 9-1-1 Call to United States Representative Tom Bevill
Image of U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill at the Haleyville police stationOne of the first telephone numbers that anyone in the United States ever memorizes is 9-1-1, the digits that we dial whenever there is some kind of police, fire, or medical emergency. Prior to 1968, there was no single, nationwide emergency telephone number that would be good in any locality in which it was dialled. President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice made a recommendation that such a universal emergency number be established in 1967, commissioning the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to put the plan in action. Partnering with AT&T, the FTC soon announced in early 1968 that the universal emergency number would be 9-1-1. Robert Gallagher, president of the Alabama Telephone Company decided that he wanted to beat AT&T’s implementation of this number and put his people to work to make the first 9-1-1 call within the service area of his company. On February 16, 1968, Gallagher’s company proved successful when Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite called U.S. Representative Tom Bevill using the 9-1-1 number. This occurred in Haleyville, Alabama, and 9-1-1 has been the universal emergency number ever since.

7: (1969) President Richard M. Nixon’s Call to Neil Armstrong on the moon
Image of TV showing Nixon's call to ArmstrongNeil Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on the surface on the moon on July 20, 1969 was one of the most momentous achievements in history. For the first time, human beings had escaped the earth’s atmosphere to land safely on another planetoid. What better way to follow up this achievement on the same day? Why, with a telephone call from the president of the United States himself, of course. From the White House in Washington, D.C., President Richard M. Nixon was able to call Neil Armstrong on the moon and congratulate him and his fellow astronauts Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. not long after Armstrong had done the impossible and first stepped on the moon. With such cross-space communication possible, the idea of universal telephone access took on a whole new meaning!

8: (1972) Bob Woodward’s Call to W. Mark Felt Looking for Information on the Watergate Burglary
Image of WatergateThe burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Office Complex on June 17, 1972 would set in motion a chain of events that would end with the first and only resignation of a sitting president in United States history. A string of articles by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post newspaper would help bring the scandal of President Richard Nixon’s cover-up to light and prompt his resignation of the office on August 9, 1973. The information for these articles was provided through an inside informant named W. Mark Felt, whom Bob Woodward first contacted about the burglaries by phone on June 19, 1972. Few other calls would prove to be as damaging to the powers that be or more important for a public concerned to make sure its politicians are honest. Felt’s contacts with Woodward and Bernstein through telephone calls and other means would shape American culture and its view of politicians up until the present day.

9: (2001) President George W. Bush’s Call to National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice on the World Trade Center Attacks
Image of President Bush's call on 11th September 2011No one expected to wake up the morning of Tuesday September 11, 2001 to footage of airplanes flying into the World Trade Centers in New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The phone calls that would be made on that day would prove to be historic, especially the one United States President George W. Bush made to National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice in order to find out what was going on. Bush had been at a photo-op event in Florida when the now famous terrorist attacks happened, and he needed to be briefed on the events that occurred as he was occupied promoting a literacy program. That phone call ignited the Bush administration’s response to terrorism. Whether you agree with his rationale and methods or not, the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, 2003 invasion of Iraq, creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, torture controversies, and many other things associated with the U.S. War on Terrorism would not have occurred without the terrorist attacks or Bush’s initial responses that were motivated, in part, by important telephone conversations. One could even argue that the attacks, phone calls, and later policies based on them paved the way for the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States due in large measure with the dissatisfaction of the American people with President Bush.

There you have it, our suggested list of the nine most important phone calls ever made. Feel free to agree or disagree, but please do not ever underestimate the significance that the telephone and the conversations it facilitates has had on world history. Just remember that the next call you make could just possibly end up changing the entire world.

One Response to “Nine Of The Most Important Phone Calls of All Time”

  1. Trevor says:

    Brilliant background to a topic we’ve used in our creative writing group featuring telephone conversation as the source of ‘stories’. Many thanks. I would have included also the call Neville Chamberlain never got from Herr Hitler that took Britain into war with germany for the second time in the Twentieth Century.
    Many thanks.
    Trevor