Thanks to Alexander Graham Bell workers in the early days were kept busy installing telephone poles and switchboards all around the villages, towns, and populated areas in the hills of eastern Kentucky and much of rural America. Sharing news, calling for emergency help, or enjoying routine communication between friends and/or sweethearts, was a blessing and a curse by heretofore never imagined, telephone services. While telephones were invented at the turn of the 20th century and were in common use in large urban areas of the nation, it was not yet always available in many of the rural, backwoods communities. Progress for us, as usual, was slow in these foothills and mountainous regions. It was during my youth that work crews finally installed the necessary poles and service lines up and down the hills and hollers in Lawrence County and points south.
While main highways were lined with electrical poles, telephone service came to the more rural locations about the same time as electricity. Both often used the same poles that could support the necessary wires, transformers, and other equipment. The sharing of telephone poles made it easier and less expensive for both utilities. Phone service came to our little town a few years before I was born, and began when a switchboard was added on the second floor over one of the shops downtown. Lines then followed along the main highways and the railroad line. Finally, the poles went in on the rural roads, paved and unpaved, that allowed services to farms and rural stores and households. For a time people had to use a neighbor’s phone or go to the general store because of a lack of availability, or because the average family couldn’t afford the extra cost. As you might imagine, calling for emergency services was more difficult in those days, but it made a lot of difference to a lot of people.
Up until then we got urgent news from the mail, a newspaper from a nearby city, and by telegrams. We had no choice but to depend on mail service or whatever daily or weekly newspapers brought by train or bus. We had access to radio but rarely was news local in nature. People who traveled out of town were usually faithful to bring back and share the ‘latest.’ Our little town had a weekly newspaper that carried local news and announcements. It was full of local social affairs such as who was visiting whom and what families enjoyed company from out of town. We also saw the latest newsreels that were played at the local theater between featured films, cartoons and weekly serials. It was a good while before we experienced rudimentary television. It would be yet a couple of more generations before our town had the internet, or satellite services. Times have changed before our very eyes, haven’t they?
With the new phone lines installed life was wonderful. It had reached the point where even youngsters could talk to their friends after school or on weekends. Travel in those days was still slow and sometimes dangerous. The muddy roads, horseshoe curves, and fording of rivers and streams made it rough to maintain friendships with folks who lived out of town. Through the telephone we could now socialize with our relatives and friends. That came at a cost if it was considered ‘long distance,’ and that meant we had to wait for the weekend or evenings when rates were lower. I remember that they were cheaper on Sunday nights. We could, if we were willing to pay, call all the way across the country, to the west coast! For most people the extra cost prohibited long distance calls except in an emergency. Nonetheless, our lives were sweetened. Today we hold in our hands devices that can provide more information than whole libraries did in the past.
These early limitations were likely blessings, but by today’s standards perhaps a bit of a curse, too. I remember calling a girl on regular intervals who lived out of town. Her father really didn’t want her to talk to me for more than a few minutes. He policed her adherence to his ‘rules.’ We both knew that he loved her and was looking out for her good.
There was a group of girls from down river that I also used to call on occasion. Often several kids joined in giggling and laughing. We all had a good time. I was generally shy when talking with girls, but the telephone allowed me to talk and joke with them. It was less risky than face-to-face encounters, for sure. Frankly, I was flattered that they talked with me at all. One time when I called, a cousin of mine happened to be visiting with them. I was a little embarrassed when I found out she was there listening to me flirting with her friends. Those telephone visits have come up in conversations since. Apparently, they are not forgotten.
Some of my friends were on a party line, which tied several phone customers together on a single line. On several occasions neighbors joined in on the conversations. Sometimes they offered up snide remarks, telling us what they thought of what we were saying. On some occasions they asked us to get off the phone so they could place a call. Since I didn’t know who these people were, I was usually quick to surrender the line. After all, it might be an emergency or they might get back to my family with a complaint. Frankly, any idea that the conversations we had were private were clearly wrong. I had to remind myself that any comments I made were subject to be shared. Folks learned to be careful about what they said since it could be overheard and shared in the community. Today we can associate that type of sharing with Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Normally, homes that had any phones in those early days only had one. The first instrument I remember was a rectangular box that was attached to the wall and made of a dark oak. It had a funnel-shaped ear piece made of a black celluloid and another on the front of the box to speak into. The telephone earpiece had a cotton cord attached to the side of the box. There were two shiny metal bells near the top that rang loudly to announce incoming calls. One side had a small crank used to ‘ring’ the operator when you desired to make a call. This device became our line of communication with the world.
Because telephones were tied to a wire, they were installed in one central place in the home. The fact that the phone could not be taken into another room and the mouthpiece was well up the wall to accommodate a standing adult, I never was able to get as relaxed as I wished. This discomfort itself reduced the length of calls. With all things taken into consideration it was probably to my benefit that it was a little inconvenient and uncomfortable. Of course, over time families were able to add a second phone, and finally a wireless phone set. It was still a long time before rudimentary cells phones were available. The earliest cell phones looked like walkie-talkies and were heavy with a long antenna.
As I mentioned earlier, the local operator was in an office downtown. For long-distance calls she had to go through other operators along the lines to the destination network. Everyone in were beholding to the operator her for her help, as well as ethical behavior. She had her thumb on the business and personal affairs of everyone, but as far as I know she never took advantage.
As a young child that was barely able to reach the wall phone, I had to climb onto a chair to reach the crank. I spoke to the telephone operator who happened to be my best friend’s mother. I told her who I wanted, (we didn’t have to know those three-digit numbers in those days). It was also common for folks to call the operator to get the correct time. I really don’t know how she knew, but the operator time was considered the official time in our little town, except perhaps for those at the railroad station.
Pay phones were all around, too, but usually found at train or bus stations, filling stations, restaurants, and on main street corners. It’s rare to see pay phones today, but some are still out there, even if they no longer have a booth for privacy. One might wonder, without a phone booth, how could Clark Kent change into his Superman outfit?
Later, when I was in high school, folks in Louisa got all excited when we were finally given phones that had a dial like those we had seen in the movies. In spite of modernization, party-lines continued until more wires were added to the telephone poles up and down the byways. With the new dial phones people soon got stand-alone units that could be placed on a table instead of the wall. Kitchen phones resembled the first type by attaching to a wall, but otherwise, it became possible that multiple phones could be added within the home. I was just out of high school when I saw a ‘princess’ phone, and then a ‘Mickey Mouse’ phone. After I was married, I had an extension put in the bathroom! After all, the phone always rings when you’re in the shower.
Next came the push-button phones. This imitated the push-button gear selection devices newly installed on some of the modern cars of that day. In fact, the world was going crazy giving us various kinds of buttons to push. It was the buttons that got things started, so to speak. From that we came up with the saying ‘he’s pushing my buttons.’
When the use of air waves made it possible much later on, some wealthier people added ‘car phones’ in their rides that became both a status symbol and a convenience. The rest of us had to find a pay phone. The first mobile phones were so large that part of the phone was actually in the trunk, and a tell-tail antenna was mounted on the trunk lid. No self-respecting celebrity drove without being in touch with his fans, or the office, or a thousand other places.
Not suspecting where all this would lead, portable phones were designed for business use by executives, fire wardens, and police. As already mentioned, they resembled ‘walkie-talkies’ and weighed in at about five pounds. I remember that they had an antenna that might have extended up to two feet, or more. I even remember seeing someone breaking one of those off in a car door once. Whoops!
As portable phones became more common and lighter, functionality increased, too. Digital technology allowed for the phone to have memory that kept frequently used numbers and kept records of recent calls, whether completed or missed. This was handy if the number was busy on the last attempt.
Then came the rise of hand-held mini-computerized, cell phones, the ancestor of today’s smart phones. I wonder if Alexander Graham Bell had any idea what he started. A camera was added that replaced the film-based or digital cameras including recorders. Now we had a phone that could film short movies, and allow us to send text messages, and pictures.
I’ve mentioned before that the comic strip Dick Tracy was popular when I was a teen. The famous detective had a watch that had features that seemed way out there at the time. Much of that technology is in common use today. I’m just waiting for the magnetic cars like those featured in the strip. The cartoonist was a type of Jules Vern, predicting years ahead what would happen in the late 20th century. Now it has gone so far that I’m still trying to figure out all the things my phone can do. There are so many features and so little time to learn them, but I have grandkids that can help me if I get stuck. All I really must do when in a pinch is ask one of my grandchildren how to solve my dilemma.
I remember when people made ‘prank calls,’ to a business, like Simpson’s Gulf to ask, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” When Giles answered that they did, the jokester hollered “Let him out!” Stupid jokes abounded and we learned to answer the phone with wisecracks. “Joe’s morgue, you kill ‘elm and we’ll chill ‘elm.” As we grew more sophisticated, the pranks became tiresome and boring. In some cases we found out they could do harm to innocent people. Our kids are learning some of those lessons with the internet now, but the consequences of mistakes are much higher in terms of human tragedy or financial loss.
Mark Twain wrote, or maybe said, that he’d love to choke Alexander Graham Bell for breaking up the peace and tranquility of life. On the other hand, telephones have saved countless lives. So was Mr. Bell a bad guy, one of many bad guys, or maybe, a hero? Considering the lives saved and those emergency calls put through, I’d vote for ‘hero.’
As in most things, there’s good and bad, but our choice is to use our gifts wisely. If we misuse or abuse them, they could be a bad thing. Gifts should be appreciated and not misused. Communication isn’t bad, but some uses clearly cross the line. Misuse often reflects our lack of character. It’s not so much the telephone today, but mass media is now ‘out there’ lurking to lead us astray. Enjoy the benefits but use caution, my friends.