Bell Telephone at the 1964 World's Fair

The first line of Robert and Richard Sherman’s theme to Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress contains an undeniable sense of optimism, stating, “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow/shining at the end of every day.” Technology is often about looking forward to a better tomorrow, and the Sherman Brothers’ song was a fitting theme for an exhibit that premiered at one of the largest expositions for technology and culture ever held in the United States.

From 1964 to 1965, Flushing Meadows Park in Queens was home to the New York World's Fair. The 646-acre site, formerly a place for dumping refuse, was dedicated to "Man's Achievement in an Expanding Universe" and "Peace Through Understanding." Over the fair’s two seasons, more than 51 million people passed through the 150 pavilions and exhibits spread throughout the site.

Many of the exhibits – including General Electric’s Progressland, from which the Sherman Brother’s song originated – followed the theme of “Man’s Achievement in an Expanding Universe” by displaying technological accomplishments and the latest inventions by the pavilion's host company. One such pavilion was operated by the Bell Telephone System, known to the public as "Ma Bell.” The story behind Bell reaches far back into American history, starting with Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.

After the invention of the telephone in 1876, Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company — later the American Bell Telephone Company — as a means of capitalizing on his creation. Because he held patents on the device, the field was clear of competitors and Bell was able to expand the company into what was known as the Bell System — a group of franchises that operated under Bell and provided service to major cities in the United States. Bell Telephone System and its licensees were the only companies that could legally operate telephone systems in the U.S. When the company's final patent on the telephone expired in 1894, competitors immediately swept in — more than 6,000 between 1894 and 1904 — to compete with Bell. But they faced issues with connecting to the national network: Subscribers using different telephone companies were not able to call each other.

In 1899, American Bell was acquired by its subsidiary, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), and in 1913 the United States government signed an agreement that formalized AT&T's monopoly on the national telephone system. AT&T president Theodore Vail had stated in 1907 that the telephone system would be more efficient if one company provided universal service — a principle that held for over 70 years. The Bell Telephone System lasted until 1984, when it was dissolved as the result of an antitrust suit by the U.S. government.

During the Bell Telephone System’s heyday, operating and making improvements to the national telephone system required the research and development of new technologies. In 1925, Western Electric Research Laboratories and part of the engineering department of AT&T were merged to create Bell Telephone Laboratories. The labs were used to design and maintain equipment built for the Bell Telephone System. The 1964 New York World's Fair was an opportunity for the Bell Telephone System to highlight some of Bell Telephone Laboratories' latest achievements and even conduct research on the public. The company published the following brochure to promote its pavilion.

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Here are descriptions of some of the exhibits that were featured in Bell Telephone System’s pavilion:

  • Visible Speech — This fascinating exhibit projects "pictures" of your voice on a television screen. Among other things it shows that our voices are as distinctive as fingerprints. It can be used to teach the deaf to speak by imitating the patterns they see.
  • Picture Phones — Talk on a picturephone and participate in an actual research project of the Bell Telephone Laboratories. These are experimental phones that will let you see as well as talk with another person.
  • Phones at Home, in business and in the community — see the complete line of modern Bell System communications equipment and services available to you.
  • Games — You can have your age guessed, translate numbers to Roman numerals or play tic tac toe in a series of logic and memory games. These games are challenging and fun, whether you participate or simply pause to watch.
  • Undersea Cable Routes — Learn how cables under the seas carry man's voice to the farthest reaches of the globe. See how "TASI" puts conversational pauses to work by feeding in other conversations with split-second accuracy without interrupting anyone.
  • Crystal Research — See the dramatic research developments on the structure of crystals that made possible the transistor and other inventions that have brought so many significant changes to our lives in recent years.
  • Vocoder — Watch this fascinating experimental machine sample your voice, take it "apart," put it back together again and play tricks with it.
  • Torsional Wave Machine dramatically demonstrates the behavior of waves and how they carry information, making the transmission of voice, music and television over great distances a present-day reality.
  • The Telephone Network Story — The dramatic story of the vastness of world-wide and space communications is told in a fascinating display of moving, multi-colored lights and pictures, which wrap almost halfway around a circular theater.
  • Machines Talk to Machines — Marvel at the great speed and distances over which machines can pass tremendous volumes of information to other machines. See how these machines are used in today's business world and the plans for their use in the future.

Of course the Bell Telephone System needed a pavilion that was just as impressive on the outside as all the inventions on display inside. According to the book The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair: Creation and Legacy by Bill Cotter and Bill Young, the Bell Telephone System Pavilion was a challenge to build. According to a company press release, the structure was designed to look like a "floating wing." The main building (seen in an illustration here) was 400 feet long, 200 feet wide and 87 feet wide and was supported by four pylons.

These days, there isn’t anything left of the Bell Telephone System pavilion – and very little left of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Cotter and Young note in their book that officials considered holding onto the underground portion of the pavilion, but they couldn't find a use for it. The building site, once located between the Avenue of Progress and the Promenade of Industry in Flushing Meadows, is now home to a soccer field. That's often how history works. As technology advances with each "great big beautiful tomorrow," the achievements of yesterday can be forgotten. But just like Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress and its catchy theme song (both of which can still be found at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom), the optimism that brought us to this point remains.