The Number You Have Reached

Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.” ~ Ambrose Bierce

The telephone was born in 1876.  Despite some minor modifications, the technology generally remained unchanged for more than a century.  Then, without warning, phones became…different.  Nothing makes you feel older than realizing a technological change that occurred in your own lifetime.  Suddenly you can “remember when” and people ten or twenty years younger than you cannot.

In last week’s “Memory Monday” about our address book, I mentioned telephone exchanges – the first two letters of a word that was used for the number-equivalent (Pennsylvania 6-5000 was PE6-5000, or 736-5000).  But I was surprised at how many other things related to telephones that are different today.

For example, I recently watched a movie made in the late 1980’s.  Since I was in college at that time, I wouldn’t necessarily consider a movie from that time period to qualify as a “classic” film, but one aspect of the movie made it seem more outdated than things in films from the 1950’s.  In the movie, the main character was trying to navigate across the country to meet a deadline, and he continually had to call and check-in as he met obstacles along the way that delayed him.  Because cell phones weren’t prevalent back then, he kept stopping at pay phones and phone booths to make the calls.  Today I couldn’t find a phone booth if I tried!

Donna on the telephone, 1979

When I was in 3rd grade (1975-76), the telephone company – for there was only one, and her name was Ma Bell – sponsored a contest for students to design the phone of the future!  We had to draw a picture of it and briefly describe its features.  The majority of our designs focused on one of two ideas: a phone that you could carry with you, and a “video-phone” that allowed you to see who you were talking to and vice versa.  I can’t remember who won or what the prize was, but we had fun designing these future phones.  Imagine taking a phone with you in the car!  It was pure science fiction.  It is amazing how far we have come in such a short time with mobile phones and video-teleconferencing over the internet.

But it didn’t happen overnight.  Take, for example, my very first “mobile” phone in the late 1980’s.  I didn’t really want or need one, but my mother was fascinated by the concept of being able to call me and discover my whereabouts wherever I was.  Thank God GPS tracking came into being well into my adulthood.  So, she invested in a mobile phone.  Well, the word mobile is relative.  It could be carried with you, but definitely not in your pocket.  The phone was in a very large carrying case (around 8”x10”x4”), weighed at least 5 pounds, and the receiver was connected to the heavy base with a cord.  I felt like a Secret Agent with a spy phone, but an agent that was too low on the totem pole to get the good Bond-esque equipment. But it worked, and it was a novel idea at the time.

That first mobile phone seems as ancient today as rotary phones did in my childhood.  My very first paying job was working in the church rectory answering phones and the door in the evenings.  In the beginning, 1981, the rectory had a rotary phone.  I don’t remember if we ever had one at my house, but I had to have used one before since I knew how it worked.  What I wouldn’t give to have one installed in my house and ask my 14-year-old niece to dial a number for me…her exasperation at the slow dialing pace would be priceless!  The phone also had a cord, so she would find it unbelievable that I had to get out of my chair to answer it (I won’t even attempt to explain life without a tv remote to her).

Funny! They still make toy rotary phones! This is my nephew Luke, Christmas 2009, wondering what the heck it is.

I guess even the fact that I had a job answering the phone would be a quaint idea today thanks to answering machines.  In my childhood, an “answering machine” would be defined as someone other than the person you were calling writing down a message.  The only machine-voice I remember hearing on the telephone was when you would call the official number at the phone company to hear the correct time or the weather.  I wonder if they still have these lines operational now that the internet has taken command and control as our sole information source.

One technological improvement that took some fun out of the telephone was Caller ID.  The suspense is now gone – we know who is calling before we answer the phone.  And someone knows when we are calling.  This feature has taken away a fun pastime of our youth – making prank phone calls.  I never made such calls myself, but my brother and his friends made some hilarious calls to unsuspecting strangers.  Today, they would be busted thanks to Caller ID.  So would scores of lovelorn souls who would get up enough nerve to call the boy or girl of their dreams only to hang up when the Dreamboat actually answered – or Dreamboat’s father.

I’m not that old but I remember when you got a busy signal because there was no call waiting, all phones were “landlines”, and there was no need for a “Do Not Call” list.  But I’m young enough to remember my parents talking about changes in their own lives that involved the telephone.  The biggest change?  Neither had a telephone in their house while growing up.  My father remembers that the only telephone in the neighborhood belonged to the corner drugstore.  When it rang, the owner would send him or another boy to run to the house of the call’s recipient.  The boys would sometimes get a nickel as a tip, but the calls were often “important” news such as a death in the family, so it wasn’t a fun task to report the news of a call waiting.

You are at least my age or older if you remember:

  • calling the phone company for the correct time or the weather
  • rotary phones
  • pay phones and phone booths
  • telephone exchanges
  • phones with cords
  • Ma Bell
  • “mobile” phones that you couldn’t fit in your pocket
  • no “answering machines”
  • busy signals instead of call waiting
  • no need for a “Do Not Call” list
  • all phones were “landlines”

You are probably older than me if you remember:

  • party lines
  • talking into a receiver while holding the earpiece up to your ear
  • asking the operator to dial the number
  • not having a phone in the house
  • phone numbers with less than seven digits

You are probably younger than me if you’re scratching your head wondering what all of these things are.  To find out, Google the terms on your G3 mobile device and text the answers to your blog or Facebook.  Or you can actually pick up the phone (please, not while driving) and call one of your old relatives to find out!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

[ I borrowed the “Memory Monday” concept from Greta, and I believe that today she will also post a telephone-related memory.  Read about the Texas Telephone Call here! ]

[ I guess I am getting old, because after I wrote this I realized I already used some of these memories in a post from 2008 called When Times Change! ]

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9 thoughts on “The Number You Have Reached

  1. My parents were on a party line until the mid 80’s…maybe even late 80’s. It was after I left home in 1984 for college. This is in Northeast Washington.

    I still don’t have caller ID. That’s what the answering machine is for!

  2. Indeed telephones have come a long way, who would have thought only a few years ago that there would be such a thing called a smartphone which not only lets you make a call but surf the net on the go. But we don’t have to look back to far I would say approx 5-6 years when phone booths were still visible everywhere but not anymore.
    Phone booths indeed sound so ancient now. I remember when I was a kid my parents had to call the operator to place an international call .
    Even a fax machine technology is now getitng obselete. Telecommunications and the recent innovation behind it has had a tremendous impact in not only our social lives but economic lives as well

  3. OK, it’s finally up (sorry for taking so long): http://gretabog.blogspot.com/2010/03/memory-monday-texas-telephone-call.html (I had to wait until my homework-doing daughter got out of Word to get to my draft post). My brother and his friends loved making prank calls, and I thought they were hilarious. I remember people in the country around Seymour (Texas) having party lines up into the 1960s-70s, and in those years we only had to dial four digits to connect to any other household in Seymour. However, they were actually seven-digit numbers to anyone calling from outside.

  4. We had a party line well into the 80’s, you couldn’t get a private line in the rural area where we lived. My mother still has a corded phone. Do you remember how you could balance them on your shoulder and talk while you did other things? Because the cord was attached to the phone the phone was never lost in the couch cushions or disappeared under one of the kids beds. We left for school and did not talk on a phone all day long. Long distance calls were rarely made and you’d better have a very good reason for reversing the charges!

    Syracuse still does have a time and temp number. Since I still remember it I just called. These days you get a commercial, date, time, temp and forecast. I was startled that the woman’s voice that I expected had been replaced by a man’s.

    Fun memories!

  5. Though I am a few years younger, I do remember almost everything on that first list. I remember when my grandparents got rid of their rotary phone and got a “new-fangled” push button model, probably in the late 1970s or very early 1980s. My great-uncle, now in his 80s, still has a rotary phone that is hard-wired into his house and it still works. He uses it every couple of weeks to talk to my grandma.

    My mom worked for the phone company as an operator in the late 1960s and I’ve always found those stories pretty interesting. Even more interesting is listening to my husband talk about his grandma going to work for Ma Bell as a telephone operator on roller skates!

    Amazing how technology has changed.

  6. We still have a big black rotary dial phone next to the computer. When my daughter was little her friends used to try to dial it by pressing the numbers, now they all want to take photos of it and dial home when they visit (she’s in college now!) Several have told me that our phone was one of their best childhood memories! It’s just a phone with a dial and a long black kinky cord!

  7. You are so right about Caller ID taking all the fun out of answering the phone! I had never thought about it before. And dialing “0” for Operator when we were kids.. and bored.. trying to get a conversation going. Today’s technology has pretty much killed “Do you have Prince Albert in a can” and “Is your Refrigerator Running?”. Thanks for a great post – I really enjoyed it!

  8. Thanks, everyone!

    fM, that’s hysterical. I chose it from a list of telephone quotes because I just love Ambrose Bierce. But, I’m sure it was still in the back of my mind from reading your article, too. Of course, there’s that one-brain theory I mentioned to you, too… 😉

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