A 100-year-old multi-party call, and a new calling to connect the world


Andy Powers looks back to the birth of the industry and why "Voice where we want it" is so relevant today

The first recorded multi-party call took place just over a century ago, in 1915. This call was famous not because of the number of people on the line, but, because it was also the first transcontinental call – seamlessly bridging people from San Francisco to Boston.

Just 39 years after the first private experimental phone call between Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson, the 'behemoth' that was American Telecom and Telegraph had laid a single 6,800 mile copper circuit across the country.

This bleeding-edge technology required manual switching in each city between the origin and destination, and it could only facilitate one call at a time. But, it marked a turning point in the connectivity revolution in the United States. The participants in that first multi-party call – Bell, Watson, and dignitaries including President Wilson – surely must have internalized the importance of the mundane pleasantries.

Even after waiting the 10 minutes it took to connect the call - imagine having to listen to the hold music for that long, Wilson wouldn't have made it to his second term.

Great Expectations & Unfinished Symphonies

It's tough to be that inspired today, when connectivity is an afterthought. We expect to bridge Washington and Wellington seamlessly; for suits, shorts, abayas, and dashikis to be sitting around that virtual conference table, hopefully within five minutes of the proposed start time.

But still, 100 years after the world's first multi-party call, very few have gotten it right. Buffering, downloading patches, bandwidth issues and pins… those awful, awful pins. Many of us still spend more time trying to get on calls, praying for the 'ping' that follows the muzak, than actually accomplishing the purpose of the call - collaboration.

It was this frustration that drove me to create Clique 10 years ago. I had recently sold my fourth business and was crossing into my 12th year as an entrepreneur. 12 years isn't the longest career, by any stretch, but it does provide the time for hundreds of conference calls on too many platforms, and thousands of minutes of hold music.

As someone who works everyday to make life more efficient and rewarding for his customers, employees, and self, I just couldn't understand the business community's willingness to put up with so much waste. Not just the time wasted in inefficient bridging, but the waste of energy, of excitement that comes with having to wait to share your new idea or brainstorm with your colleagues.

We all have voice where we need it. Who has voice where they want it?

To create that first multi-party call, engineers had to invent a methodology for amplifying sound for 3400 miles, workers had to install thousands of poles across the Rockies on horse drawn wagons, and miners needed to excavate 730,000 pounds of copper from the earth.

This too was about 'Voice Where You Want It'; a dangerous project expedited so that attendees of a trade convention in San Francisco could pick up the line and listen to the Atlantic Ocean.

If AT&T could do this prior to the First World War, why can't we bridge voice between groups and individuals in Slack, SalesForce and Microsoft Teams?

We at Clique are committed to bringing that respect back to voice. We are giving voice a voice, because Voice is Important. It is the manner of communicating that is still most efficient, impactful, and interpersonal. Physicists, pipe-fitters, and Presidents knew this when they struggled for 100 years to lay cable under land and sea; and we know it now as we deliver seamless Voice experiences to 20 million people around the Globe.

These people's voices are heard because we are laying the metaphorical cable for them. It's no longer copper but in custom applications.

The ambition, ingenuity, and hours that went into that first call still inspires me. Like the team at Bell Labs at the turn of the 20th century, our voice tech experts at CliqueLabs work passionately to build or acquire the fun stuff – natural language processing tools, voice commands, and searchable transcripts.

Although this is cool and exciting, fun to talk about, and inspiring to interact with, I take to heart the same commitment that allowed Bell and Watson to build the system which you can still call me on today – focus on building a sound infrastructure.

We look forward to continuing to inject excellent tools into the voice stream to make our customers' lives more efficient, but our job is deliver a seamless Voice Experience, wherever they want it.

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