Federal Telegraph Laboratory Plaque

"World's first mobile phone call?"

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A Victorian cottage that stood on this corner housed the Federal Telegraph Company laboratory. Founded by Stanford graduate Cyril F. Elwell, he made a“mobile” phone call from here on August 29, 1908. Two assistants carried coils of wire (for the antenna), Leyden jars (for power) and a transmitter into the streets of Palo Alto where Elwell made radio telephone calls over a distance of almost a mile.

In an early example of Silicon Valley venture funding, Stanford faculty colleagues invested in Elwell’s start-up.  Federal grew into an important supplier of wireless communications gear in WWI and training ground for a generation of Bay Area radio electronic engineers.

Its most famous employee was Lee de Forest, inventor of the triode vacuum tube. Here the prolific inventor (over 180 patents) demonstrated its first application as an amplifier circa 1911. Holding his watch up to the microphone, de Forest claimed that the amplified booming tick-tock of his “trusty Ingersoll” nearly blew out his eardrums.

The self-styled “father of radio”, who also developed the electronic oscillator, sold the rights to his tube that he called an “Audion” to American Telephone and Telegraph for boosting signals in long distance phone calls.

California Historical Landmark plaque # 836 marks the site on Emerson St. where a developer razed the lab in 1978.

Photo: David Laws

Categories: See & Do: Historical |

At A Glance

913 Emerson Street
Palo Alto CA


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