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#161 Harry Bates Thayer, Telecommunications Giant

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, This Week in History

The American Telephone and Telegraph Company— now known as AT&T—held a monopoly on American telecommunications for nearly a century. Established by Alexander Graham Bell in 1885, AT&T was essentially the only provider of phones and phone lines in the country until an anti-trust case broke it up in 1982.

Harry Bates Thayer, a member of the Norwich class of 1877, once ruled this empire.

Thayer was a Northfield native, like many sons of Norwich. He attended Norwich for two years, from 1873 to 1875. During that time, he was a member of Alpha Sigma Pi fraternity and pursued the “Classical” curriculum, studying primarily Greek, Latin, and mathematics in addition to the drawing and military instruction that were universal to all courses of study.

Norwich University was very small in the 1870s, and relatively little is known about this period in our history. The class of 1877, of which Thayer was a member, had only three graduates. He would go on to graduate from Dartmouth in 1879.

Thayer then embarked on a career that showed the classic trajectory of the American dream: from shipping clerk to president and chairman of the board. After college, he started working for the Western Electric Company in Chicago, around the same time that Alexander Graham Bell acquired a controlling interest in the company. Thayer worked his way up to branch manager and eventually became vice president of Western Electric, then president in 1908, making him a vice president of the parent company, AT&T.

In 1919, Thayer took the helm of AT&T, making him a telecommunications giant. He served in that post until 1925, then served as chairman of the board until he retired in 1928. His tenure at the company saw the sale of its broadcasting subsidiary to RCA, which paved the way for the formation of NBC, and the creation of Bell Labs, a research and development arm that would give rise to innovations like the transistor and the photovoltaic cell.

Thayer also served for many years on the board of trustees at his other alma mater, Dartmouth College. In 1937, the year after his passing, the main campus dining hall was dedicated in his honor.