Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Telephone and television evolution through my lifetime

6-5-4. That was my home telephone number when I was growing up in the early 1950s. You may wonder how that was possible. I'll explain.

We lived in a small town. Telephones looked like this.
In order to place a call, you picked up the handset from its cradle, and an operator said "Number please."

You said the number, and she (operators were always women) made the connection for you via a switchboard.
Some folks in my town were on "party lines," which were less expensive but involved more than one household on the same line. If you picked up the phone in a home with a party line and it was being used by someone in another house, you could hear their conversation. You would have to hang up and wait until they were through before making your call. For incoming calls, the ring sequence was different for each household.

When I was about 10 years old, our town finally got rotary dial telephones, and all numbers were changed to seven digits.
A neighbor of ours couldn't get her new phone to work. When the repairman came, he noted that she was dialing too slowly because she was not letting the dial go. Her finger was impeding the dial's return. After a fair amount of practice, she eventually mastered the art of spinning and releasing the dial quickly enough.

Television was also in its infancy. Black-and-white reception was grainy and had a tendency to become unstable. A particular problem was the rolling of the picture up or down due to interference.
A "horizontal hold" knob had to be adjusted with the precision of a jeweler. There were no remotes. Over-correcting was common. You might have to start over after the slightest movement such as backing away from the set which disturbed the karma of the TV.

When color television was first introduced, you had to reset the picture's hue and color with knobs every time a color broadcast came on. This too took lots of fussing or the grass would be blue and the actors would have purple faces.

A picture phone, the combination of television and telephone, was the stuff of science fiction.
Today, I can facetime with my daughter who is 10,000 miles away or watch live football games on my iPad or iPhone with a picture clarity no one dreamed of 60 years ago.

In an instant, I can access information about almost anything though my phone.

What will millennials remember about their childhoods?


Anonymous said...

Switchboard operators were women for an interesting reason. Here's the relevant passage from http://www.mit.edu/hacker/part1.html.

"Within the very first year of operation, 1878, Bell's company learned a sharp lesson about combining teenage boys and telephone switchboards. Putting teenage boys in charge of the phone system brought swift and consistent disaster. Bell's chief engineer described them as "Wild Indians." The boys were openly rude to customers. They talked back to subscribers, saucing off, uttering facetious remarks, and generally giving lip. The rascals took Saint Patrick's Day off without permission. And worst of all they played clever tricks with the switchboard plugs: disconnecting calls, crossing lines so that customers found themselves talking to strangers, and so forth.

This combination of power, technical mastery, and effective anonymity seemed to act like catnip on teenage boys.

This wild-kid-on-the-wires phenomenon was not confined to the USA; from the beginning, the same was true of the British phone system. An early British commentator kindly remarked: "No doubt boys in their teens found the work not a little irksome, and it is also highly probable that under the early conditions of employment the adventurous and inquisitive spirits of which the average healthy boy of that age is possessed, were not always conducive to the best attention being given to the wants of the telephone subscribers."

Skeptical Scalpel said...

That is very interesting. I had not know about it before. Thanks for commenting.

Diane said...

My now adult daughters still don't believe that we had a party line growing up, I am still not certain they understand when I explain-they get the same blank I get when they try to show me a function on a cellphone. Or that we only got 4 channels with the help of one of us standing at the TV wiggling the rabbit ears with tinfoil extensions. No cable. That there were no remotes(those were called children), or even VCR's. That we really had no option but black and white, some how they seem to think it was just fashionable because they really cannot conceive of TV without color.. nothing digital, everything clicked.. Where if you had 2 TV"s in your house you had to be wealthy.. or 2 phones.. How an atari system was the most magical thing children experienced for a good 10 years before something better came out.. the good old days and you have a few years on me. :-)

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Diane, that sounds familiar. We only got 3 channels but we had an antenna on the roof. After a few years, we moved up to what I believe was called an Alliance Tenna Rotor which could be rotated for optimal (or so it was said) reception.

I had an Atari too. The original game was "tennis." In order to play, you had to put a piece of transparent plastic with a vertical line down the middle (the net) on your TV screen.

Anonymous said...

I not only remember local operators and party lines, but also long-distance operators. You had to get one when you wanted to make a call outside your local exchange, it took a while to go through, and the costs were quite expensive- so much so that most congratulatory messages from those at a distance were sent by telegram instead. (You DO remember telegrams, don't you?) I also remember that when rotary dial phones arrived, exchanges were designated by name, rather than number. Our local exchange in Uniondale, NY was Ivanhoe, so you dialed, say, IV6-5423, not 486-5423. BTW, this is why we have letters AND numbers for each key on our phone, a blessing when early cell phones allowed texting, and the only way you could text was to cycle through each key for each letter you wanted to send, which is still the case on "dumb" phones. It also allows commercial interests to get phone "numbers" whose keys spell out a catchy name when you want to remember how to dial them. It was only when the number of phones required enough exchanges that they couldn't find enough words to match all the first-two-letter number combinations that they did away with exchange names.

Anonymous said...

What is the DSM-IV code for
a) TMI
b) Complicated Bereavement Disorder

Time to stop grieving for the past. :)

Les said...

I'm too young to remember party lines but I remember the first color TVs. My dad and grand dad had a TV and appliance store so we always had the latest and best models of Zeniths and Whirlpool appliances.I worked in the local hospital as a nurses aide in high school then as a pharmacy tech during summers between university semesters. The doctor on call had to carry a walkie talkie radio that was slightly smaller than a brick. The control was in the nurses station. We would call him on that if we needed him to come in for emergency care. We had pagers by the mid 80s, certainly a step up from the bricks.

My parents wouldn't get us the Atari but got us a Pong game instead. We also had the hand held Mattel Football games I and II; those are making a comeback and I'm tempted to buy one.

Millennials will miss the joys of pagers and pay phones. University dorms always had pay phones at the end of the hall. Do they have pay phones in dorms any more? We had rotary phones in the rooms but could only accept incoming long distance calls. Collect calls had to be made through the pay phone. Do Millennials even know about collect calls?

Who remembers being in a hurry to dial a number and forcing the dial to go back? I actually miss that.

I don't miss not having a cell phone since I grew up in a rural area and can recall sad stories of people who would have been found sooner/survived if only they could have made a call. We no longer have the worry of trying to find the nearest ranch or farm to make an emergency call. There are still a few places with spotty cell phone coverage but it's much better than before. I don't know that Millennials can comprehend being out of cell phone range much less being alone on the road without a cell phone. Remember making detailed plans on meeting up at a restaurant or landmark then wondering/worrying what happened when the other party doesn't show and there is no way to call them to see what has happened?

Skeptical Scalpel said...

First anon, I was going to write about long distance and collect calls but the post was getting too long. I remember telegrams.

Second anon, either I wasn't clear or you misunderstood. I don't grieve for a return to 1952. I'm happy with today's technology.

Les, I agree. Don't forget about GPS. Remember stopping for directions at a gas station (also a thing of the past)? The guy would say "Go to the third red light. Make a left. Go two blocks. Then turn right." After the first turn, you'd think to yourself "Did he say left or right?"

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Europe: I am a millenial.:) I still remember having our first satellite tv channels back when I was 4.... Technology is good if you know how to use it and when to use it. I guess I will remember parents googleing diseases and then coming to the outpatient care...:)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Europe: Just another point on technology. I am streaming Chicago Med ( missing the old days) in Europe as I comment this...:)

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Yes, patients googling symptoms and printing out reams of paper they want you to read an explain to them.

Anonymous said...

Hey Skep,

Be careful what you don't wish for. You could be some of us who cite UpToDate and a few other citations. If you think uneducated is a problem, try some of us who have a clue. ;)

Hee hee hee

Anonymous said...

Things I remember:
- chalk boards.
- Saturday morning cartoons.
- Sitting in the front seat of a car as a 7 or 8 year old and the constant bickering about who got to sit there.
- recess at school and not being slammed with homework in 1st grade.
- brick-sized, temperamental cell phones
- car phones
- the Apple Newton
- waiting at the airplane gate to greet arrivals
- getting to see the cockpit
- schools being perceived as safe places

Thats what I came up with off the top of my head.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

I use UpToDate all the time.

Anon #2, that's a great list. Every time he braked hard, my dad used to put his arm out to stop me from hitting the dashboard, which was made of metal and had sharp edges. I still have an Apple Newton. I'm hoping to pass it along to my progeny.

frankbill said...

Not every one had a phone. This meant if there was emergency you went to one of the neighbor that had a phone to call for help.

Moose said...

Our phone was on the kitchen wall, but it was a rotary dial and a party line. Our number, as I remember it in the 60s, was 6 digits (and started with MOhawk). I remember when it became 7 and I had to start remembering a new phone number! Such frustration! But at the same time, that's when we got a single line. No more party line.

Which in turn reminds me of the first time I used a computer. It was 1977. 4 schools pooled money and bought a DEC TOPS-10 system, which was installed at the local Vo-Tech campus.

To access it we used a device called a DECwriter (like this: http://www.vintagecomputer.net/digital/PDP11-40/thm_DEC_Decwriter-II_LA36_front.JPG) which printed directly onto paper, and if we were connected, to the remote system at the same time. To connect we used a 300-baud acoustic-coupler modem, which required you to dial (on a rotary dial phone) a phone number and then if you made a connection, place the handset in the rubber "coupler" on top of the modem. The number for the TOPS-10 had a lot of 9s and there were only so many connections possible at once, so if you kept getting a busy signal your fingers would start aching from the re-dialing.

Although we were only supposed to be using it for schoolwork (programming in BASIC as part of math class), we played games. Mostly Hunt the Wumpus (I smell WUMPUS!) and an old, old, old text-based Star Trek game that had you hunting Romulans or Klingons and wasted a ton of paper.

Other ancient history: Of course, TVs with dials everywhere. Early remote controls for TVs that were mostly mechanical and went KER-THUNK. Reel-to-reel tape players. Tube amplifiers (nothing's ever sounded the same). Learning to type on a manual typewriter; the luxury of an electronic typewriter. (When I first went to college the school's library had little rooms you could book that had typewriters in them, so you could go type a paper. 15 years later I was working in that same library and my office was one of those rooms!) Passbooks for your bank account. Early ATMs and ATM cards. Needing an operator to call long distance. Long distance cards with special codes you had to use to call anywhere but locally, and/or having to "pick your long distance carrier." Cars without seat-belts, and before seat-belt use was law. Station wagons classified as commercial vehicles. (This was big in some places, where some roads were restricted to passenger-cars-only. Anon at 5:13 pm, a fellow 'Gislander, probably gets this.) When Tab and Fresca were pretty much the only "diet sodas" you could find. Heh.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Moose, thanks. That's some good stuff. I am envious that you had a 6 digit phone number but not about the party line.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Frank, just about everyone I knew at least had a phone with a party line. The houses were pretty close together though, so going next door to use the phone wasn't an issue.

frankbill said...

One of the reasons for some to have no phone was job dependability. Like jobs in the woolen mills. Since contracts for woolen goods went to the lowest bidder layoffs were very common.

There was no 911 system and not every town had ambulance service. Many times the ambulance and hearse were the same vehicle.

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