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Theodore Newton Vail

President, American Telegraph and Telephone Company

Centurion, 1914–1920

Born 16 July 1845 in Malvern, Ohio

Died 16 April 1920 in Baltimore, Maryland

Buried Vail Memorial Cemetery, Parsippany, New Jersey

Proposed by Thomas F. Clark and Thomas H. Hubbard

Elected 7 February 1914 at age sixty-eight

Century Memorial

Dr. Johnson once said of Edmund Burke that “if a man were to go by chance at the same time with Burke under a shed to shun a shower, he would say, ‘This is an extraordinary man.’” No one could give a passing glance at the stately presence of Theodore N. Vail, the penetrating eye, the massive head with its tumbled white hair, without placing him as a man of mark. The story of Mr. Vail’s long life is the story of the telephone, whose possibilities in the business and social machinery of America were his personal creed at a time when, shortly after the Centennial Exposition of 1876, he entered the Bell Telephone Company’s service for $5000 a year, irregularly paid. The telephone as he found it was a toy, sometimes connecting house and stable but commonly exhibited for the amusement of school-children, and when Vail not only prophesied its use as a necessity of business industry but insisted on a harebrained experiment of his own with what he called “long-distance connection” between Boston and Lowell, even his employers smiled indulgently.

Before he became the general manager, his company had offered to sell out its rights for $100,000 to the Western Union and had been refused. Thirty-two years later Vail, as President of the American Bell Telephone, bought up the Western Union itself for $30,000,000. To very few men does there come so dramatic a moment in their personal career as that in which, after having retired from a successful business life and having lived on his farm for nearly twenty years, he was urgently besought in 1907 by his old fellow-managers to come back and reëstablish the prestige of the enterprise with its customers and the investing public.

How he came back, and what his return meant to the telephone service of the country, is a chapter by itself in the country’s industrial history. To what extent the deterioration of the service, ten years later, was due to the fact that old age had compelled his second retirement from the close executive control which he always kept on the human as well as the mechanical and financial side of the undertaking, it is not possible to say. But in his prime, the existence of an obstacle or defect in the telephone service was always the signal for an immensely energetic personal grappling with the problem, before which what had seemed to be insuperable difficulties vanished.

Alexander Dana Noyes
1921 Century Association Yearbook