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American Telephone & Telegraph: The Art of Telephony, 1916

Hail to the Chief

The AT&T case file archived at The Franklin Institute is as much an encomium to Theodore Vail as it is a tribute to the AT&T Company itself. The file includes a biography of Vail, pulled from a work entitled History of the City of New York, written by John William Loonard in 1910. The biography details the history of Vail's family's involvement with the New Jersey Iron Works, and tells the story of Vail's own climb from a respected position in the Railway Mail Service to the Presidency of AT&T.

After conducting a study of the question of distribution and dispatch of mail, Vail successfully streamlined this process and was recognized in Washington DC and appointed to the position of Assistant Superintendent of the Railway Mail Service. Though the Service's youngest officer, he was eventually promoted to General Superintendent, having contributed significantly to the development of the Railway Mail System.

Uninterested in active political involvement, Vail left DC in 1876 to take on the position of General Manager of the American Bell Telephone Company. As general manager and eventually as President of AT&T, Vail helped to bolster the public's confidence in the telephone, and to establish the telephone as a permanent fixture in the daily life of American citizens. He and other leaders of American Bell and AT&T encountered numerous obstacles, from technological setbacks to patent lawsuits brought by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Western Union established itself as both a successful provider of telecommunication service and a fierce competitor with American Bell and AT&T. Some of Vail's most significant contributions to AT&T were his development of long-distance telephony and his work towards company standardization and reorganization. He encouraged the creativity of his employees while working to establish company standards for service and for technology. His policy was: "One system, one management, universal service."

In 1884, Vail resigned from work with the Bell Telephone Company, splitting his time between working his farm in Vermont and developing rail lines in Buenos Aires. After setting a rail company in Buenos Aires in working order, he retired to his farm. Vail met with tragedy in 1906, in which year he lost both his wife and his son. To overcome his despair, he reengaged with the telephonic field, and in 1907 he assumed the Presidency of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. As President, he extended AT&T's long distance service, and primed the company to respond more promptly to the constantly enlarging demands made on its facilities. In recognition of Vail's achievements and standards of quality, his biography proclaims: "Mr. Vail represents the highest type of the American corporate executive."