The colloquial term Ma Bell (as in "Mother Bell") was used by the general public to refer to any aspect of this conglomerate as it held a complete monopoly over all telephone service in most areas of the United States and is still used by many to refer to any telephone company. Ma Bell is also used to refer to the various female voices behind recordings for the Bell System: Mary Moore (deceased), Jane Barbe (deceased), and Pat Fleet (still the voice of (the new) AT&T).
In 1877, the American Bell Telephone Company, named after Alexander Graham Bell, opened the first telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut. Within a few years local exchange companies were established in every major city in the United States. Use of the Bell System name initially referred to those early telephone franchises and eventually comprised all telephone companies owned by American Telephone & Telegraph, referred to internally as Bell Operating Companies, or BOCs.
In 1899, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) acquired the assets of the American Bell Telephone Company. Originally AT&T was created to make long distance calls between New York and Chicago and beyond. AT&T became the parent of American Bell because regulatory and tax rules were leaner in New York than in Boston where American Bell was headquartered. Later, the Bell System and its moniker "Ma Bell" became a term that referred generally to all AT&T companies of which there were four major divisions:
In 1913, under AT&T ownership, the Bell System became a government sanctioned monopoly regulated by the US FCC. Proliferation of the telephone allowed the company to become the largest corporation in the world until its divestment by the United States Department of Justice in 1984, at which time the Bell System ceased to exist.
Receiving a U.S. patent for the invention of the telephone on March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company in 1877 which in 1885 became AT&T When Bell's original patent expired 15 years later in 1894, the telephone market opened to competition and 6,000 new telephone carriers started while the Bell Telephone company took a significant financial downturn.
On April 30, 1907, Theodore Newton Vail returned as President of AT&T. Vail believed in the superiority of one phone system and AT&T adopted the slogan "One Policy, One System, Universal Service." This would be the company's philosophy for the next 70 years.
Under Vail, AT&T began buying up many of the smaller telephone companies including Western Union telegraph. Anxious to avoid action from government antitrust suits, AT&T and the federal government entered into an agreement known as the Kingsbury Commitment.
Following a government antitrust suit in 1913, AT&T agreed to the Kingsbury Commitment in which AT&T would sell their $30 million in Western Union stock, allow competitors to interconnect with their system, and not acquire other independent companies.
The Bell trademark pictured here was used from 1921 through 1939 by both the AT&T corporation and the regional operating corporations to co-brand themselves under a single Bell System trademark. The regional operating corporation's name was placed where "name of associated company" appears in this template version of the trademark. Bell system telephones and related equipment were made by Western Electric, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AT&T. Member telephone companies paid a fixed fraction of their revenues as a license fee to Bell Labs.
As a result, by 1940 the Bell System effectively owned most telephone service in the United States, from local and long-distance service to the telephones themselves. This allowed Bell to prohibit their customers from connecting phones not made or sold by Bell to the system without paying fees. For example, if a customer desired a type of phone not leased by the local Bell monopoly, he or she had to purchase the phone at cost, give it to the phone company, then pay a 're-wiring' charge and a monthly lease fee in order to use it. An oft-heard remark at the time was "Ma Bell has you by the calls".
In 1949, the United States Department of Justice alleged in an antitrust lawsuit that AT&T and the Bell System operating companies were using their near-monopoly in telecommunications to attempt to establish unfair advantage in related technologies, especially the fledgling computer industry. The outcome was a 1956 consent decree limiting AT&T to 85% of the United States' national telephone network and certain government contracts, and precluding the Bell System from extending its reach into the fledgling computer industry and from continuing to hold interests in Canada and the Caribbean. The Bell System's Canadian operations included the Bell Canada regional operating company and the Northern Electric manufacturing subsidiary of the Bell System's Western Electric equipment manufacturer. Northern Electric and Bell Canada were spun off in 1956 as separate companies outside of the Bell System proper. The Bell System's Caribbean regional operating companies were sold to the ITT Corporation, known at the time as International Telephone & Telegraph Co.
The Bell System also owned various Caribbean regional operating companies, as well as 54% of NEC and a post-World War II reconstruction relationship with NTT before the 1956 boundaries were emplaced. Before 1956, the Bell System's reach was truly gargantuan. Even during the period from 1956 to 1984, the Bell System's dominant reach into all forms of communications was pervasive within the United States and influential in telecommunication standardization throughout the industrialized world.
The 1984 Bell System divestiture brought an end to the affiliation branded as the Bell System. It resulted from another antitrust lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1974 alleging illegal practices by the Bell System companies to stifle competition in the telecommunications industry. The suit was settled on 8 January 1982, superseding the former restrictions that AT&T and the DOJ had agreed in 1956.
The Bell System trademark (as diagram) and service mark (as the words Bell System in text) was used before January 1, 1984, when the AT&T divestiture of its regional operating companies took effect. Currently, the Bell word mark, logo, and other related trademarks, are held concurrently by each of the remaining Bell companies - namely AT&T, Verizon, Qwest, and Cincinnati Bell. International rights to the marks, except for Canada, are held by a joint venture of these companies, Bell IP Holdings.
Of the various resulting 1984 spinoffs, only BellSouth actively used and promoted the Bell name and logo for its entire history, from the 1984 break up to its merger with the new AT&T in 2006. Similarly, cessation of using either the Bell name or logo occurred for many of the other companies more than a decade after the 1984 break up as part of an acquisition-related rebranding. The others have only used the marks on rare occasions to maintain their trademark rights, even less now that they have adopted names conceived long after divestiture. Examples include Verizon, which still uses the Bell logo on its trucks and payphones, and Qwest, formerly US West, which licenses the Northwestern Bell and Mountain Bell names to Unical Enterprises, who makes telephones under the Northwestern Bell name. Qwest also has a rural subsidiary in Oregon, Malheur Bell, that continues to use the Bell name and logo.
Cincinnati Bell, a local franchise of the Bell System that was never wholly owned by AT&T and existed separately prior to 1984, also continues to use the Bell name. It stopped using the Bell logo in the summer of 2006, though it is still seen on some bills, vehicles, and other literature.
In 1984, each regional Bell operating company was assigned a set list of names they were allowed to use in combination with the Bell marks. Again, aside from Cincinnati Bell and Malheur Bell, none of these Bell System names are currently in use in the United States. For example, Southwestern Bell used both the Bell name and the circled-bell trademark until SBC opted for all of its companies to do business under the "SBC" name in 2002. Bell Atlantic used the Bell name and circled-bell trademark until renaming itself Verizon in 2000.
Telephone Companies outside of the Bell System that use "Bell" in their names include PBX telephone dealer near Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, called Missouri Bell Telecom which was established during 1991, and Liberty Bell Telephone.
Of the various resulting 1956 spinoffs, only Bell Canada continues to use the Bell name, although cessation of using either the Bell name and circled-bell trademark occurred for some of these companies multiple decades later. For example, for the multiple decades that Nortel was named Northern Telecom, their research and development arm was Bell Northern Research. Bell Canada and its holding-company parent, Bell Canada Enterprises, still use the Bell name and used variations the circled-bell logo until 1977, which until 1976 strongly resembled the 1921 to 1939 Bell System trademark shown above.
Before the 1984 break-up, the Bell System consisted of the companies listed below. These companies were divested from AT&T in 1984, except as noted. The former operating companies of the Bell System listed below are organized according to the current owners of the companies (or their successors). All of these companies, except for Cincinnati Bell, which remains independent, and parts of New England Telephone (infrastructure located in the states of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont), which was spun off by Verizon and purchased by FairPoint Communications in 2008, belong to AT&T, Verizon, or Qwest, the three remaining Regional Holding Companies (RBOCs). Also, in 1998, Ameritech sold 19 Wisconsin Bell exchanges, primarily located in central and northern Wisconsin, to CenturyTel.
Beginning in 1991, the Baby Bells began to consolidate operations or legally rename their Bell Operating Companies according to the parent company name, such as "Bell Atlantic – Delaware, Inc." or "U S West Communications, Inc.", to "unify" the corporate image. To this day, the only remaining Baby Bell that has not renamed its operating companies is AT&T, formerly SBC Communications. Since 1995, there have only been 19 Bell Operating Companies, following the mergers of US West's and BellSouth's operating companies. Only 9 of those 19 have retained their original corporate name since their incorporation before 1984.
Before the 1956 break-up, the Bell System also included the companies listed below. Bell Canada, Northern Electric, and the Caribbean regional operating companies were considered part of the Bell System proper before the 1956 break-up. Nippon Electric was considered a more distant affiliate of Western Electric than Northern Electric, where Nippon Electric via its own research and development adapted the designs of Western Electric's North American telecommunications equipment for use in Japan, which to this day gives much of Japan's telephone equipment and network a closer resemblance to North American ANSI and Telcordia standards than to European-originated ITU-T standards. Before the 1956 break-up, Northern Electric was predominantly focused only on manufacturing without any significant amount of separate telecommunication-equipment research & development of its own. The post-WWII-occupation operation of NTT was considered an administrative adjunct to the North American Bell System.