History Book – Telephone pioneers, and the Challenger disaster

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book. This week, a great victory for business and the consumer and a great loss for America and its space program.

And happy birthday to the Great One—the greatest hockey player ever to lace a pair of skates and grace ice rinks all over North America.

Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.


KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: We begin with the meeting of legendary minds: inventors Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Together, they formed the Oriental Telephone Company of New York on January 25, 1881. Scottish-born inventor Bell, of course, is credited with inventing the first practical telephone, while Edison—known for helping develop the electric lightbulb and inventing the phonograph—improved upon Bell’s telephone microphone and transmitter designs. 

Their business venture represented personal growth for the ambitious Edison in particular. A 2015 PBS documentary highlighted Edison’s cutthroat personality.  

PBS: For Edison, there were few more powerful catalysts than competition. “I don’t care too much for a fortune,” he once said, “as I do for getting ahead of the other fellows.”

And he was particularly enticed by competition with Bell. 

PBS: Bell—college-educated and bankrolled by his future father-in-law—was the ideal adversary. 

Ultimately, they found common ground, founding together a company that gained licenses to sell that burgeoning technology—telephones—in a handful of European and Asian countries. 


Exactly 34 years later, on January 25, 1915, Bell made the first transcontinental phone call, when he placed a call from New York to his assistant, Thomas Watson, in San Francisco.

Moving now from great inventors to The Great One: Wayne Gretzky. 

ANNOUNCER: Robitaille gets it back center, they score! Gretzky scores! And the Los Angeles Kings have beat the Maple Leafs… 

The hockey legend celebrates his 60th birthday today. While he made a name for himself on the ice, his start came as a little boy, passing the puck in his grandmother’s farmhouse. His dad, Walter Gretzky, told Newsworld about those early practice sessions. 

WALTER GRETZKY: Grandma Gretzky had a pinewood floor, and Wayne would slide around on this little floor, like he had skates on with a miniature hockey stick, and she would sit there, with a little stick and be his goalie. 

His talent turned heads from the start. He did an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company when he was just a child. 

INTERVIEWER: Wayne, how do you feel about all the publicity? Does it bother you, do the kids at school razz you about it? 

GRETZKY: Nah, they all just joke about it at school. Every day when I come back, they tell me all about it, as if I didn’t know about it. 

Eventually, Gretzky went from a small town in Ontario to 20 seasons in the National Hockey League. The former player and former head coach holds four Stanley Cup titles and 61 NHL records, including most assists and goals in NHL history…

ANNOUNCER: He’s done it! Wayne Gretzy is the all-time points leader in NHL…

…and he’s the only NHL player to score more than 200 points in a single season—a feat he accomplished four times. 


We’ll end today’s segment by remembering some of America’s fallen pioneers: the crew members of Space Shuttle Challenger, who died on January 28, 1986. CBS reported the disaster live. 

ANNOUNCER: Good morning, everyone. There appears to have been a very serious accident involving the Space Shuttle Challenger…  

After several delays, Challenger was cleared for liftoff. But just 73 seconds after it left the launch pad, onlookers saw a violent flash of light, then plumes of smoke and falling debris over the Atlantic. The accident claimed the lives of all seven on board. ABC’s Peter Jennings covered a memorial service at NASA headquarters in Houston. 

JENNINGS: Only yards from mission control, immediate family as well remember Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. 

That last person—a New Hampshire teacher named Christa McAulliffe—had earned her place on the crew after a nationwide screening. NASA hoped her selection would interest young Americans in high-tech careers. 

MCAULIFFE: I decided to overextend and fill out an application that I knew thousands and thousands of people were going to be filling in… 

President Ronald Reagan appointed a commission to look into what caused the devastating failure. Investigators found that NASA’s internal culture and processes contributed to the malfunction. The agency violated its own safety standards, particularly in regard to faulty O-rings. 

Reagan was set to deliver his State of the Union address the same day as the Challenger liftoff. But he changed course following the disaster, addressing the nation with words of comfort. 

REAGAN: The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, or the last time we saw them—this morning—as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. Thank you. 

SONG: “Taps,” The United States Army Band

That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

(Photo/NASA Human Space Flight Gallery) 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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