The 100-Year-Old Deal That Birthed the Modern Phone System Is About to End
One hundred years ago Thursday, one man sent a letter that would transform the telephone industry. The letter gave rise to the country’s last and most powerful monopoly. And like the Internet of this century, it gave millions of ordinary people the chance to stay in touch more easily than they ever had before.
The letter’s author was Nathan C. Kingsbury — a vice president of AT&T many have since forgotten. But his 1913 correspondence rapidly made its way from Kingsbury’s desk to the attorney general’s, and soon after, to President Woodrow Wilson’s.
Wilson’s administration was threatening a legal assault on AT&T. The telephone company had been aggressively buying up its competitors around the country — maybe too many. Perhaps AT&T should be broken up, Wilson mused. Perhaps the government should take control.
Then came Kingsbury’s letter. In under 900 words, Kingsbury smoothed everything over. It produced a miraculous result in Wilson and his deputy in the Justice Department.
“I gain the impression more and more from week to week that the businessmen of the country are sincerely desirous of conforming with the law,” Wilson gushed, “and it is very gratifying to have the occasion, as in this instance, to deal with them in complete frankness and to be able to show them that all that we desire is an opportunity to cooperate with them.”
The White House’s antitrust concerns were resolved practically overnight.