Back in 1879, the British were ridiculing an American invention called the telephone.

Sir William Preece, chief engineer at the British Post Office, told a House of Commons committee that with a superabundance of messengers, errand boys "and things of that kind," the phone had little future.

"The absence of servants has compelled Americans to adopt communication systems for domestic purposes," he declared.

One century late, Britain remains without a first-class domestic telecommunications network, to which all citizens have ready access, as they do in America. There are fewer messenger boys "and things of that kind."

In a tribute to this country's technological accomplishment, the British finally are coming across the Atlantic to see how it's done here and try to match it at hoem. The communications advances and management they are studying reside in Amercian Telephone & Telegraph Co., a private enterprise. In virtually every othe country, including Britain, a government agency runs the telephone business.

Moreover, England is not alone in seeking some answers from AT&T. In an interview, company Chairman John D. deButts revealed that Egypt is considering establishment of a private or quasi-govenment telephone service. Even Russia wants AT&T to help build a telephone equipment manufacturing facility. And a delegation from China visited AT&T last year.

Faced with these requests for AT&T's brainpower, it's no surprise that deButts states: "Nobody can convince me that technology in this country is behind... technology is pouring out of U.S.. laboratories."

Such are the optimistic statements expected from a Captain of American Industry, but deButts offers sound reasoning. And, because he is one of the few truly outspoken leaders of this country's business community, people listen.

"Some day we will build up a world telephone system making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language, or common understanding of languages, which will join all the people."

That prdeiction was made by an AT&T engineer in 1907, when only an elite few citizens of the world had heard of telephones. It is the type of optimism which long has been associated with U.S. business people. To a large extent, the forecast is coming true in an age of satellites and electronic advances, many of them pioneered at Bell Telephone Laboratories -- owned by AT&T.

DeButts is an engineer, too, as well as a senior mamber of the American business Establishment. With an outgoing charm that many would attribute to his birth in Greensboro, N.C., and education in Southern schools, deButts also can be disarming despite a tough temperament and occasional burst of anger.

As he studies the past for clues about the future from an elegantly appointed anteroom adjacent to his 26th floor officer there, deButts gives the impression that it would be unseemly for a man in his position to be preaching gloom about America's future. But he doesn't hesitate or pick his words carefully; his expressions of optimism obviously are sincere.

Productivity has declined in this country, however, and deButts knows it. There are serious questions about whether U.S. innovation is dead. DeButts believes that the decrease in output has been caused primarily by the shift to a service economy from the production or manufacturing economy "that characterizes much of the western world." Innovation in managing services is the new challenge in a world of limited resources, he implied.

DeButts' optimism springs from a belief that his own business -- the communications and information revolution -- can "an, I believe, will provide a new impetus to progress in this regard."

As better and more rapid communications spread across not only this country but overseas, they should provide a vast extension of man's capacity to manage, a richer humanity, "the prospect of a renewed burst of productivity advance" and an unequivoca answer to one of the most troubling question of out times: Can man manage complexity?

Of course, deButts says, "Yes."

"Indeed, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that we might even see an improvement in the efficiency with which we are governed -- a prospect to which not everyone looks forward with unalloyed enthusiasm," he said in a typical, wry commentary on the explosion of government work forces, plagued like business with productivity problems.

Except for some summertime work in the Depression years on railroad construction gangs, John Dulany DeButts has had only on employer, and his views reflcect the success he has witnessed. Since July 1, 1936, he was worked for AT&T. In a pattern of internal job promotion that historically has translated the Horatio Alger myth into reality for the chosen few, deButts moved up the company ladder from student trainee in Richmond to corporate board chairman and chief executive at 195 Broadway, in Manhattan.

Although time at the top in the Bell System is limited to relatively few years by the rigid up-from-the-ranks concept, deButts has managed to become the best-known leader of AT&T since Theodore Vail took Alexander Graham Bell's initial creativity in the early 1900s and built an organization that has become the largest in free enterprise history.

DeButts today works out of the same office Vail occupied 60 years ago. The desk and panelled walls are the same. On Wednesday night, deButts will move out. He retires effective Feb. 1, ending a 43-year Bell System career.

He will have been chairman and chief executive for less than nine years but they have been among the most tumultuous in AT&T history. It was deButts who presided over a company whose past success breeded suspicion about its size and power, its billion-dollar quarterly profit statements, its pricing policies.

To critics of the 1970s, deButts will be remembered as the AT&T leader who defended aggressively the status quo -- seeking to halt a wave of new competition in communications service by Capitol Hill lobbying and endless speaking service engagements in which the topic always was the same: The current system is the best, so why change?

But future historians may regard the deButts years more favorably, for he has put in place a reorganized management designed to compete with others in selling services. This is no small accomplishment in a corpoation that for a century was a government-blessed monopoly, with thousands of managers trained to operate their Bell System enclaves as public service utilities that also happened to make profits.

In a sense, by his defensive public posture, deButts bought time for AT&T to change internally and become more of a competitive venture. He was a bridge internally and become more of a competitive venture. He was a bridge from the past to a new era in which the government is changing the rules and opening up intercity communications to many firms. What's more, you don't have to have a Bell System telephone in your house any more. You can buy one from any of dozens of new manufacturers and distributors.

Through it all, technological advance has continued, although critics said more innovation could have resulted earlier if the edge of competition had cut AT&T's hide sooner. Such non-telecommunications giants as International Business Machines Corp. are getting into the business, with satellities of today and the future capable of transmitting more and more complex electronic date, voice communications and broadcast signals.

Since 1967, AT&T has been developing what it calls a Business Information Sysem, which could be commonplace within a decade -- providing individualized computer systems for each customer and permitting more time for managers to manage; deButts calls it "the greatest freedom of all... to deal with people as people."

DeButts sees the day when each single customer will subscribe to a different assortment of services. Some will call up library information or entertainment. Others will have incoming calls screened. Calls will be forwarded automatically. Information may be stored in distant computers for calling up in the home in terminals. Transmission by optical fibers -- carrying many more messages than cable -- exits today in Atlanta and eventually will spread out between those switching centers where volume is greatest.

DeButts says he thinks the institution of the corporation also has been in the midst of a revolution. He sees profound changes ahead for the relationship between business and the American public. Among his observations:

"Business leadership... can't just sit in an ivory tower and operate its own business. There are too many constituencies we have to pay attention to. The chief executive today needs to be a good manager but also a good spokesman for the business cmmunity at large... an seek solutions that are in the best interests of the total community."

"I think I sense a shift in the opinion of people generally... that they're tired of too much government regulation... the business reputation has improved but it's not what it used to be," with business and consumer groups becoming more cooperative in reaching goals, often similar.

Relationships between business and government have improved "immeasurably" under presidents Ford and Carter. "Now there is no real (difficulty) talking to people in government."

Corporation governance is changing "very rapidly," with the most responsible firms changing boards to include a mojority of outside (non-management) directors, naming outside directors to audit committees and new corporate public policy committees, and recognizing an "obligation" to provide more company information to the public at large.

A few final words about John deButts. He is leaving AT&T one year before he had to retire and moving back to Virginia, to a home being built in Upperville. He wants to play some golf, hunt some and resume a youthful hobby of horsebackc riding.

It's a good time to leave AT&T, with a new marketing-oriented management in place at the top. But will deButts find it easy to just relax in Northern Virginia while the technological revolution continues? Or will he move into government to help bring about some of the effciencies and improved productivity that communications can yield?

There is speculation the deButts will join the Carter administration in a top position. And deButts has been a firm supporter of Carter's ecnomic policies, partially out of a belief that any president who asks for business cooperation and support should get what is sought, to help the general welfare.

"I'm not looking for a full-time job," said deButts. When pressed, however, he added: "If there is an offer, I would give it serious consideration... I have indicated I will do anything to help the administration, if it's best for the country." John D. deButts

graduated from Virginia Military Institute with BS in electrical engineering in 1936

took a job with railroad construction gangs in summers of mid-1930s

started career with Bell System on July 1, 1936, as traffic student with Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone in Richmond

stayed with C&P through 1949, when he was district traffic manager in Lynchburg; AT&T moved him to New York as an engineer at that time

was back with C&P in Richmond in 1951-1952 as a manager and was an AT&T vice president starting in 1955 (government relations in Washington, 1957), a C&P vice president here from 1959 to 1962 and president of Illinois Bell Telephone from 1952 to 1966, when he was named AT&T executive vice president

became vice chairman in 1967 and chairman-chief executive in 1972 AT&T

had revenues of $40.7 billion for the 12 months ended Nov. 30. Earnings were $5.24 billion

the company is the largest American utility firm, providing most intercity as well as local telephone communications; AT&T also owns a large manufacturing firm, Western Electric, and one of the largest U.S. research companies, Bell Telephone, Labs