Now known as AT&T, Indiana Bell was a telecommunications company that served Indianapolis and most of Indiana since 1920. Although Indiana Bell operated under that name after 1920, the telecommunications firm traces its origins to predecessors that began operating in the Hoosier capital in 1877, less than two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in Boston in 1876.

An old-fashioned saloon car with "Bell Telephone" on the side sits in a parking lot.
Indiana Bell Telephone Company workman truck, 1929 Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

Wales and Company, an Indianapolis coal supply firm, installed the first two telephones in the city in the fall of 1877 between its Pennsylvania Street office and its Market Street coal yard just west of West Street. A second coal dealer, Cobb and Branham, soon afterward installed a telephone line from its office at Market and Delaware streets to its coal yard on South Delaware Street.

Indiana District Telephone Company, the state’s first telephone firm, was organized in December 1878, and established the state’s first telephone exchange in March 1879, in Room 66 of the Vance Block Building at the comer of Virginia Avenue and Washington Street. The company reorganized and changed its name to Telephone Exchange Company of Indianapolis in January 1880.

Central Union Telephone Company, Indiana Bell’s direct predecessor, was organized in 1883. By that time there were three telephone companies serving Indianapolis and competition became increasingly fierce. In January 1920, Central Union and four other Indiana telephone companies were consolidated into Indiana Bell Telephone Company, which was part of American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T). The new company was capitalized at $15 million, had 4,930 employees, operated 90 exchanges, and served approximately 170,000 telephones in the state.

Indiana Bell operated from headquarters in an eight-story red brick structure completed in 1907 at the corner of New York and Meridian streets. In 1930 the company’s headquarters was set on rollers, moved 52 feet south, turned through a 90-degree arc, and moved 100 feet west. Local architecture firm Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller pulled off this internationally acclaimed engineering feat, making room for the construction of a seven-story limestone structure that was erected as the company headquarters in 1932.

An eight-story, brick office building with a balustrade is shown.
Indiana Bell Telephone Company building being moved, 1930 Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

Five stories were added in 1948, and a 14-story annex addition was completed in 1961. The company built a 20-story annex and 8-story addition in 1967 and completed its building project with the construction of a 20-story office building just south of the site in 1975.

Indiana Bell converted all its exchanges to dial by the mid-1960s and completed the installation of Direct Distance Dialing in 1973. In 1976 the company acquired 22 exchanges in Lake County in a property transfer with Illinois Bell. Two years later the company began offering Touch-Tone service to its customers. In the 1980s the company changed virtually all of its exchanges to electronic digital switching and became a leader in the installation of fiber optics technology.

Three women, with their backs to the camera, sit at a long counter and fill out paper work. On the wall in front of the women is a mural of Bell Telephone employees.
Indiana Bell Telephone recruitment posters targeting women, 1944 Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

In January 1984, Indiana Bell was divested as part of the judicially ordered AT&T breakup. The company became part of Ameritech, which was the Midwest holding company for the Bell operating companies in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Ameritech announced a major reorganization in 1993, which largely eliminated the use of the Indiana Bell name and divided the company into market segments for its business. Ameritech was acquired by SBC in 1999, which acquired AT&T Corporation in 2006, forming AT&T, Inc.

Revised February 2021

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