People were skeptical when MIT alumni proposed a gathering of 1,500 in Symphony Hall in 1916 that would link alumni from around the country with a complicated telephone circuit, especially since phones were still a novel technology. “You didn’t have telephone lines all over the country like you do today,” says Nora Murphy, archivist at MIT Institute Archives. “It was a very impressive display of technology.”
The event, which became known as the Telephone Banquet, was a grand dinner and the culminating event to celebrate MIT’s move to Cambridge. In MIT fashion, it couldn’t just be a black-tie event. The alumni needed to make it unique, involve technology, and they wanted to engage as many graduates as possible. Along with the 1,500 alumni that were present at Symphony Hall on June 14, 1916—each with a telephone receiver at hand—they connected via transcontinental telephone circuit with alumni clubs in 34 cities across the country and even received telegrams from alumni in Taiwan and Chile and other countries that weren’t able to participate.
“If you think about the scene, not just the cheers and the noise but the wires and the nail biting and the finger crossing like is this gonna’ work,” says Deborah Douglas, curator of science and technology at the MIT Museum. “There was nothing like this up to this point.”
Most of the infrastructure had to be put in place in each location across the country to make the telephone circuit possible. Fortunately, a member of the corporation, Theodore Vail, was the president of American Telephone and Telegraph.
“It was all scripted,” says Douglas. “Because if this telephone concept was to work, it had to start at exactly 7 o’clock. They had a listing of who they would call when so everyone was poised ready to answer the telephone.”
The successful event was not just a celebration for the MIT community, it was also a notable feat for the times—with prominent figures present, including Alexander Graham Bell, Orville Wright, and Thomas Edison.
“For alumni who participated either remotely or in Boston, they were very excited,” says Murphy. “This proved that MIT could do amazing things and could do something that nobody else had ever tried or accomplished before.”
Watch a video about the Telephone Banquet.