The founding of AT&T starts with the invention of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher and inventor who was renowned for his work teaching deaf students. Alexander’s mother and wife were both deaf, and he had a personal and professional interest in helping deaf people communicate.
Teaching the Deaf
Born in Scotland, Bell emigrated to Canada in 1923 to work with deaf students. His first invention was a speech-reading device. It allowed deaf people to understand speech without having to rely on lip reading.
The telephone was not the only project Bell was working on. At one point, he lost interest in developing the telephone because he wanted to focus on other inventions. His father-in-law was his primary business backer, however, and he insisted they focus on the telephone. In fact, he made it a condition of allowing Bell to marry his daughter.
His father-in-law knew other inventors were hot on the trail of the telephone, including fellow inventor Elisha Gray in Chicago. Reluctantly, Bell went to work on what he called the “acoustic telegraph.”
What happened next serves as a warning to anyone who wants to patent an invention.
Bell finished his invention in 1875. On February 14, 1876, Bell filed a patent with the US Patent Office for his telephone. On the same day, Elisha Gray filed his own patent caveat for the same invention. Bell beat him by just a few hours, and the USPO awarded him patent number 174,465. Gray later tried to sue the USPO for disregarding his patent caveat, but he lost.
A Patently Foolish Decision
In 1876, Bell and his business partners held a demonstration that showcased two people talking to each other. They were five miles apart.
Bell offered to sell the patent for his device to Western Union, which controlled most of the telegraph business. In a decision it probably regretted later, Western Union declined, saying the telephone would never catch on with the public. Bell and his partners kept the patent, and it became the basis of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T).
Bells and Baby Bells
The company’s first logo was a tribute to the founder’s name. Designed in 1889, it featured a bell inside a triple square. The company’s name appeared on the bell.
In 1900, the company updated its logo. Now, it featured the words “Local and Long Distance Telephone” superimposed on the bell. A circle framed the words with the words “American Telephone and Telegraph Company” etched in the circle. The words “Bell System” appear under the bell. This is the first documented appearance of the “Bell System” logo that later became a key part of AT&T’s branding.
In the 1920s, regional telephone companies began forming. These regional companies used a modified version of the same logo. The bell in the middle read “Bell System.” In the circle, they placed their regional name in the top curve and “American Telephone and Telegraph Company” on the bottom curve. The regional companies soon became known as “Baby Bells,” and AT&T was known as “Ma Bell.”
In 1927, AT&T launched long-distance phone service to London. The five-minute service used a radio system and cost $75, which would be around $1,100 in today’s dollars. The company continued to offer this until it developed cable calling services in 1956. In 1964, AT&T launched the Transpacific cable service to facilitate calls between the U.S, and Europe.
In 1964, AT&T joined other established companies who went through branding makeovers. It emerged with a new logo that depicted its acronym, AT&T, with the words, “And Associated Companies” underneath. The acronym was the most prominent part of this new logo. The logo included a small circle with a bell and the words “Bell System” on the side. For its day, this was a modern-looking, streamlined logo.
In 1969, the company hired famed graphic designer Saul Bass to create a new logo. Bass was a designer and movie director who created film title sequences for directors that included Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and Otto Preminger. Bass also created well-known logos for the Girl Scouts, United Airlines, Geffen Records and the Dixie company.
Bass stripped the logo down even further. Now, a bright blue bell with no words on it hovered over the AT&T acronym in thick, bold font. The regional baby bells quickly adopted the same logo and slightly modified it for their own needs.
Related: Check out our guide on trademarking a logo.
Breakup of the Bells
In 1984, AT&T faced a whole new challenge. After many attempts, the U.S. Justice Department received a court ruling that AT&T was a monopoly. In the antitrust settlement, the government allowed AT&T to keep all long-distance telephone services. It prohibited the company from using the bell logo. The Baby Bells could keep local service, the Yellow Pages and the use of the bell logo.
Once again, the company turned to Saul Bass. Bass designed a completely new logo for AT&T’s new position. The new logo was a major change for both AT&T and the design world.
In this logo, the bell was gone and the AT&T wordmark was paired with a bright blue globe. The globe featured circling lines in various sizes that conveyed the idea of communications lines crossing the world. Company employees nicknamed this logo the “Death Star”.
The Death Star
The “Death Star” logo has changed only slightly. In the years since Bass came up with it, the 1985 design has had a few modifications. In 2015, the company settled on its current logo, which showcases the AT&T acronym paired with a bright blue and white globe.
The logo reflects the company’s many services. Today, AT&T provides telecommunications, wireless communications, long-distance services, video services, broadband, data, internet services and more.
AT&T continues to expand its offerings and its reach. In 2013, it bought Cricket to reach prepaid customers. In 2015, the company purchased two Mexican wireless companies, Lusacell and Nextel Mexico. The 2015 acquisition of DIRECTV makes AT&T the world’s largest pay TV provider. The current logo is the perfect symbol of the company’s global ambitions.