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Who made the first International Call?

Some things change, some stay the same

April 9, 2015

John W. Atkins made the first international call from Key West to Cuba on Christmas day. The year was 1900, the first year of a spiffy new century that brought us all the way from the horse and buggy to the cell phone. Atkins has been largely lost to history. Although he had a telephone cable laying wooden schooner named after him, his famous first words were not recorded. All we know is the response he got:

The Florida Times Union and Citizen quoted Atkins describing the conversation as follows: "For a long time there was no sound, except the roar heard at night sometimes, caused by electric light current." Finally the reply came, clear as day: "I don't understand you." Considering all of the cultural misunderstandings that still plague us in our era of effortless global communications, the new century seems to have started pretty much the way it closed!

Watkins was the manager at the International Ocean Telegraph Company (IOTC), a subsidiary of the Western Union Telegraph Company. He was sitting in his office in Key West at 9:55 am when he made the call, which he transmitted over an undersea telegraph cable. In 1900 international calls were rare, but dozens of competing companies and technologies were spreading the telephone around the world like wildfire, so we don't really know if Atkins placed the very first international phone call.

Other international calls may have gone unrecorded before that. Unrecorded calls may have occurred between two adjacent countries in Europe, or perhaps even between Canada and the United States. We'll never know without written evidence, sadly.

International calling is as simple and cheap today as conversation around the dinner table used to be back in Atkin's day. Companies like iRoam offer international SIM cards and wireless connectivity, enabling cheap, elegant communication while travelling. For those staying at home, telehop offers globe­encircling long distance for less than 2¢ a minute.

Our voices still sometimes travel across undersea cables like those laid down by the sail powered schooner "John W. Atkins", although the cables are fibre optic now. Sometimes they bounce off satellites, and relay from cell station to cell station. International calls help to link up a dispersed global population? they keep friends and family together by enabling people to share news and personal milestones. International phone calls help us move about and share our experiences, bringing people together, and building global cooperation.

There is still no substitute for an actual conversation in the age of Facebook and Instagram. Ideas bounce back and forth more naturally over the phone than any other medium. Frankly, calls are just faster than instant messaging, too. Get in touch with the people that matter without losing the personal touch that makes it all worthwhile.

So, who made the first international call of 2015? I like to think it was two bored teenagers who missed their New Year's call by a few seconds.