Saturday, August 23, 2008

More Things My Grandchildren Will Never See - Telephones from My Early Years

My first experience with the telephone occurred when I was around 3 years old. My family lived in an apartment. The black rotary dial phone was in the dining area on a table.

One day I picked the phone up and listened to the dial tone just to see what would happen. After about 15 seconds it stopped and made a different noise. Then a lady came on the phone and said, "Get off the phone little boy!" I jumped up and slammed down the receiver. I stayed away from the phone until I was much older.


We moved to a house when I was five. Most families at this time had telephones that were hooked up to what was called a Party Line. This shared service was cheaper than a private line. The downside of the arrangement was that you could not use your phone when your neighbor from up the street was talking on his or her phone. Occasionally you would lift the receiver and hear a conversation. Then you had to gently place the receiver down as to not appear to be eavesdropping.

The family next door had a father that refused to have a phone in the house. Subsequently their teenaged daughter would frequently stop by and ask to use our phone.


Did I mention rotary dials? All phones had a wheel on them with with 10 holes cut out in which you placed your finger. You first had to dial the correct letter for your area prefix then the number of your area and then the four digit phone number by twisting the wheel clockwise to the finger stop and then wait for the dial to spring back to it's standard position.


What happened was that each space on the dial corresponded with electrical pulses that were sent to a switchboard that recognized by the amount of pulses where to route your call.

Number 1 was the shortest distance with the fewest pulses. The next was ABC - number 2 was next followed by DEF number 3 and so on. The handset had an ear piece and a mouthpiece. When you were done with the call you hung the handset or receiver up by placing it back in the cradle that had a spring operated button on each side. Depressing the buttons turned the phone to the off position.

When telephones became common place in the home the areas of each community were given alphabetic prefixes. Common place prefixes would be the first two letters of a name. For example BEechwood, COlumbia, PArkway, HEmlock, HIghland were all common prefixes.
For a local call you would dial BE4-5789. Long distance calls required operator assistance. For that you just dialed "0".

The problem with dial phones was dexterity. If you were in a hurry and didn't move the dial all the way to the finger stop you would enter the wrong phone number.


The mystery is why rotary telephones used only 24 of the 26 alphabet characters. There was no Q or Z on the dial. 1 was left without characters because it was used for internal telephone company signals and 0 was used to contact the operator. The history of Ma Bell tells us the company had to decide on which letters were least used and Bell engineers decided on Q and Z.

This was pretty much overlooked until texting became a telephone function and anyone using the standard 12 key telephone would have to use 7 for Q and 9 for Z.

Of course there were people of that day that didn't want to bother with dialing a phone or even calling out. So you could have a phone without a dial. It was less expensive. If you had to call out you merely clicked the receiver buttons several times and the operator would answer. These phones were popular in rural areas with not much service. You were assigned a specific bell ring or series of rings to let you know the call was for you. All phones of this era had an actual bell inside that would alert you to an incoming phone call.


In the 1960's Bell engineer experimented with the phone using a key pad instead of a dial. The key pad phone used differing pitched tones or frequencies instead of a series of electrical pulses. The key pad included a # or octohorpe which is commonly referred to as the pound key and a * or asterisk commly referred to as the star key. The mystery of this phone is that the keypad is reversed from most calculators.

Touch tone phones did not become standard until the early 1980's. Prior to this most people rented their phone from the phone company. The rent was minimal and was included on your phone bill. Sometime in the 1970's companies began to sell phones to the public. Eventually most of us own our phone. Virtually all phones connected to wires are touch tone phones.

At first most of the public was informed why the key pad included the # and *. We were told it would be useful in the future and please just sit down and be quiet.


There was a comic strip called Dick Tracy about a detective. He had all sorts of gadgets including a car phone and a wrist two-way radio.


These were usually noted by the artist, Chester Gould, with a small sign that said two way wrist radio and an arrow pointing to Tracy's wrist, because we were way to stupid to remember from strip to strip that the character used these communication devices.

Although the artist and author may have been somewhat condesending, he did have vision. Although wrist radios never caught on, Cell phones are all the rage and some have built in walkie talkies. I suppose you could duct tape them to your wrist if you were so inclined.


I knew people in the 1970's that had car phones. They were more on the order of long range walkie talkies than phones. Owning and using a car phone in that era required an FCC license. You could not say anything vulgar or an operator would come on the phone line and remind you that your license could be in jeapordy. I could relate to that.

These were a precursor to the cell phone of today.



We had to get a cell phone in the early 1990's. It was supposed to be reimbursed by the company my wife worked for, however due to her illness she had to quit work and we were stuck with this big ol' phone and the bills for a year. The phone was actually built for a car. But we didn't want it installed. It was the size of a box of tissues and weighed about 2 pounds. It had a receiver/headset connected by the usual coiled phone cord to the base. The key pad was on the back side of the receiver. This was definitely nothing you could carry in your purse or pocket. Once again it was rented and not owned. Each minute on the phone cost over a dollar. It did not get much use.

This brings us to the modern cell phone that is tiny and relatively cheap to use. No need to explain. I do not think anyone misses the rotary phone.


Although it is surprising, but there are many rotary phones still in use.

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