Telephones, the Good and the Bad.
Back in the day, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell, a ton of workers were kept busy installing telephone poles and switchboards all around the town and back in the hills of eastern Kentucky. The sharing of news, calling for emergency help, or for routine communication between friends and/or sweethearts, was a blessing, or a curse, during mine and my parent’s generation. While telephones were invented at the turn of the 20th century, and were in common use in the large urban areas, it was not yet always available in many of the rural areas. Progress was slow out in the country. It was during my time that work crews finally installed the necessary poles and service lines up and down the hollers I knew.
In some cases, telephone service came about the same time as electricity. Since both required poles, wires, transformers, and other equipment they were installed almost at the same time. The installation of the one thing made it easier and more economically feasible for the other. At first, phone service was added in town. The switchboard was added on the second floor over one of the shops on Main Cross. After that lines followed along the railways and highways. Finally, it slowly expanded to the farms and smaller, more rural communities. For a time people had to use a neighbor’s phone or go to a store along the highway. Many folks couldn’t afford the costs, so party-lines became a more affordable option.
Up until then we got news from telegraphs, and before that by mail, newspapers (brought in by train or bus), radio, and by word of mouth. Our little town had a weekly newspaper that carried local news. Now, with phone lines installed, it was reaching 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 horseshoe curves, fording of swollen rivers and streams, and muddy roads made it hard to maintain friendships with folks who lived out of town. Through the telephone we could socialize with our relatives and friends. Our lives were sweetened.
Today the communication resources far outdo what we had available back then, but still, what we had then was a new concept at the time. My Great Grandmother saw but never understood how radio, and then TV, worked. She left this world still wondering how that man got into the box in her living room. I used to kid her about her being so old that she was able to read smoke signals. Texting would have blown her mind. Even so, back then we were pretty well limited to calling people we actually knew and that lived within our district. We had to be careful not to run up costs with ‘long-distance’ calls.
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 was looking out for her good, though it seemed a little restrictive at the time.
There was a group of girls from down river that I also used to call on occasion. Often several other kids would join in, each giggling and laughing and having a good time. It was fun to talk and joke around and somehow less risky that face-to-face encounters. I was flattered that they would talk 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 visits have come up in conversations during past reunions.
The friends I called often had a party line. On several occasions neighbors would join right in the conversation. Sometimes they offered up snide remarks, telling us what they thought of what we were saying. On some occasions they would ask us to get off the phone so they could call someone. 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 I had were private was clearly wrong. It was better from the privacy viewpoint than our social media today. Still, our comments were subject to become public.
Homes in those early days only had one phone. The instrument was a rectangular box made of a dark oak. It had a funnel-shaped ear piece made of a black celluloid and another sprouting out of the front of the box that was a microphone. There were two shiny metal bells on top that would ring loudly to signal for incoming calls. The telephone earpiece had a cotton cord that tied it to the side of the box. The opposite side had a small crank used to ‘ring’ the operator when you desired to make a call. This device was our line of communication with the world.
Because telephones were tied to a wire, they were installed in one central place in the home. Having a private conversation wasn’t always possible. The fact that the phone wouldn’t travel into another room and the solidly attached mouthpiece was well up the wall to accommodate a standing adult, I never was able to get as comfortable as I would have 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.
The local operator was housed in an office downtown, but for long-distance she would have to go through other operators on the network. Everyone knew her and was in some way beholding to her. 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 telephone, I climbed upon a chair to crank the phone. I spoke to the telephone operator who happened to be my best friend’s mother. I told her who I wanted to talk to. (We didn’t have to know those three-digit numbers for everyone. She sometimes put our calls through to where the person actually was instead of their home phone). It was also common for folks to call to get the correct time. I really don’t know how she knew, but operator time was considered the official time in our little town, except perhaps for those at the railroad station.
While long-distance calls were possible, they were expensive and charged by the minute. I remember that they were cheaper on Sundays nights. Pay phones were all around, too, but usually found at train or bus stations, filling stations, restaurants, and 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?
It was later, when I was in high school, that 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 would often be placed on a table instead of the wall. Kitchen phones would resemble the box type, but otherwise, it became possible that multiple phones could be added within the home. That never happened for us. 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 the modern cars of the day. In fact, the world was going crazy giving us various kinds of buttons to push. It was the buttons that would get 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, 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-tale antenna was mounted on the trunk lid. No self-respecting celebrity would drive 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. They resembled ‘walkie-talkies’ and weighted in about ten pounds. I remember that they had an antenna that often extended up to two feet, or more in length. I even remember 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 as well as voice recorders. Now we had a phone that could film short movies, and allow us to send text messages and email.
I’ve mentioned before that the comic strip Dick Tracy that was popular when I was a kid. 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 Jules Vern type of the 20th century. Meanwhile, 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. I have grandkids that can help me if I get stuck. All I really must do when in a pinch, is to ask one of my grandchildren how to solve my dilemma.
I remember when someone would make ‘prank calls,’ to a business, like Simpson’s Gulf to ask, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” When they answered that they did the jokester would holler “Let him out!” Stupid jokes abounded and we learned to answer the phone with wisecracks. “Joe’s morgue, you kill ‘em and we’ll chill ‘em.” 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 find Alexander Graham Bell and choke him for breaking up the peace and tranquility of life. On the other hand, telephones have saved countless lives. Was Mr. Bell a bad guy, or maybe a hero? Considering the lives saved and those emergency calls put through, I’d vote for ‘hero.’
As with most things, there’s good and bad but our choice is to use gifts wisely. If we misuse or abuse it, it 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. While these amalgamated systems are often good, they also provide porn, and fields that are ripe for stealing identities and perpetrating scams. As a result, nearly every business call we make must be supported by PIN’s, or layers of identification to ‘protect’ our privacy. The rub is, I spend more time proving who I am than doing business, once I’m established.
A pet peeve I have is when I return calls, or make new calls relating to business and get put on a telephone tree only to listen to their choice of music, forever. Rather than pay people to help their customers they elect to ignore good customer service and make us listen to script recited by an electronic recording. Never mind that a trained and intelligent person could solve a customer’s problem in minutes and create ‘good-will,’ but upper management is counting the dollars saved in payroll by using ‘systems.’ Grrrrrrr! I have to admit that when I ever do get a warm, human voice I could reach through the phone and give them a kiss of gratitude. When I can, I avoid these in-human electronic systems and the organizations that support them. The businesses that choose to actually speak with me will be friends for life. They save me loads of time and lots of frustration.