"New York is Calling..."
The AT&T Exhibit
In "The World of Tomorrow," an essay on his experience of the New York World's Fair of 1939, The New Yorker's E. B. White named his favorite exhibit, which was, much to his surprise, the American Telephone & Telegraph Building. “It took the old Telephone Company to put on the best show of all,” he exclaimed. White’s thrill at
that “gay spot” was based on the experience of a long-distance phone call — not of making one himself, but of listening to someone else’s. “To understand the full wonder of this, you must reflect that there are millions of people who have never either made or received a long-distance call and that when
Eddie Pancha, a waiter in a restaurant in El Paso, Texas, hears the magic words ‘New York is calling … go ahead please,’ he is transfixed in holy dread and excitement.”
Roughly 150 calls were placed at the exhibit each day, and each was illustrated by
lights on a giant map and available for third parties to hear via earphones. (As AT&T's public relations office noted, one of the most interesting features of the exhibit was that participants were able to "eavesdrop" on the free long-distance call demonstrations.)
To most of us, reading this via a mobile app downloaded from the ether, a long-distance call doesn’t merit any level of
excitement. In 1939, however, the spectacle and experience were well worth waiting for: lines stretched out the door. How engrossing was the exhibit? According to White, “I listened for two hours and ten minutes ... and I’d be there this minute if I were capable of standing up.” It was, as AT&T put it, truly a "wonder-revealing" exhibition.