The history of AT&T spans over 140 years since Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1877, establishing the Bell Telephone Company which evolved into the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) monopoly that dominated telecommunications in the 20th century until its 1984 breakup.

After the breakup, AT&T focused on long distance service while the regional "Baby Bells" operated local phone networks until reunification by acquisitions in the 2000s, after which AT&T expanded into television and media by acquiring DirecTV and Time Warner.

This timeline charts the major events in AT&T's origins, growth into a monopoly, breakup, reconstitution, and recent media expansion.


One of the first telephones used by AT&T
© HIstory Oasis

1877 — The Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell is granted a patent for the telephone, which he invented in 1876.

Along with his financial backers Gardiner Greene Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, he establishes the Bell Telephone Company to commercialize the telephone.

1878 — National Bell Telephone Company

The company is renamed National Bell Telephone Company.

1879 — Network Expansion

National Bell begins buying regional phone companies to expand its network.

1880 — American Bell Telephone Company

The company is renamed American Bell Telephone Company.

1881 — 30,000 Telephones

There are over 30,000 telephones in service and American Bell buys a controlling stake in Western Electric, which manufactures telephone equipment.

1885 — AT&T

AT&T is established as a long distance subsidiary of American Bell to build and operate long distance telephone lines between cities.

1899 — The Fish that Ate the Whale

AT&T acquires American Bell's assets and becomes the parent company of the Bell System, providing local and long distance phone services.

1900 — 1.1 Million Phones

There are over 1.1 million phones in the U.S.

1907 — Theodore Vail

Theodore Vail becomes President & CEO of AT&T and begins pursuing a monopoly strategy for the company.

1913 — Telephone Monopoly

AT&T signs the Kingsbury Commitment with regulators, agreeing to divest Western Union and allow competitors to interconnect with its network in exchange for avoiding antitrust action.

This gives AT&T a de facto monopoly.

ERA OF MA BELL (1913-1984)

AT&T telephone wire expansion
© History Oasis

1915 — Coast-to-Coast Domination

AT&T completes a transcontinental telephone line allowing coast-to-coast calling in the United States.

This greatly expands its long distance network.

1927 — Transatlantic Service

Transatlantic telephone service between the US and Europe is launched, allowing phone calls across the Atlantic.

1956 — Refocus on the Telephone

As part of the 1913 Kingsbury Commitment, AT&T divests its stake in Western Union, focusing solely on telephone service.

1962 — First Commercial Satellite

AT&T launches Telstar I, the first commercial communications satellite, greatly expanding its long distance capabilities.

1968 — Modems & Fax Machines

The FCC Carterfone decision requires AT&T to allow consumers to connect devices like modems and fax machines to its network.

This leads to new products and services that run over telephone lines.

1970s — Eroding Monopoly

MCI and other competitors begin offering long distance service, eroding AT&T's monopoly.

1974 — Antitrust Lawsuit

The U.S. Department of Justice files an antitrust lawsuit against AT&T to break up its monopoly.

1981-1984 — Baby Bell

AT&T agrees to split into regional "Baby Bell" companies while retaining its long distance operations in the Bell System breakup.

This ends its telephone monopoly.


© History Oasis

1991 — Telegraph Exit

AT&T exits the declining telegraph business to focus on telephony and new technologies like cellular networks.

1994 — Mobile Expansion

AT&T acquires McCaw Cellular, kickstarting its wireless division as cellular phones begin rapid growth.

1995 — Rise of SBC

One of the Baby Bells, SBC Communications, changes its name from Southwestern Bell and starts acquiring other Baby Bells.

1999 — Giant Baby Bell

SBC acquires Ameritech Corporation, making it the largest Baby Bell.

2004 — More SBC Acquisitions

Cingular Wireless, a joint venture of SBC and BellSouth, acquires AT&T Wireless Services.

2005 — AT&T Acquired

SBC acquires the original AT&T Corp. and adopts the AT&T name and branding.

2006 — BellSouth

AT&T acquires BellSouth, reconstituting much of the former Bell System.

2014 — DirecTV

AT&T acquires satellite TV provider DirecTV as video distribution shifts.

2016 — Time Warner Merger

AT&T agrees to acquire media conglomerate Time Warner.

The merger aims to combine content and distribution.

2018 — WarnerMedia

Acquisition of Time Warner is completed and it is rebranded to WarnerMedia, becoming a division of AT&T.

2021 — Discovery

AT&T announces plans to spin-off WarnerMedia to merge with Discovery, forming a new separate media company.