Thursday, January 19, 2012

Black phone, dial phone, pay phone, cell phone

Is this the party to whom I am speaking?: After I received a telephone call I began thinking today.... that alone can be dangerous, But I began to think about the telephone anad how much it has changed since I was a wee wee tot when my mother put me on a wee wee pot to see if I'd wee wee or not.

One ring or two: My earliest recollections of a phone in the house was a black model with no dial or buttons. If you wanted to make a call you'd pick up the phone and a pleasant female voice would say, "Number, please." And you would tell her the two or three digit number of the place you were calling and she'd ring it. You could tell if the call ws meant for you by the number of rings.

Sometimes you'd pick up the telephone and somebody would already be carrying on a conversation. The proper thing to do would be to hang up but if the conversation seemed juicy or interesting you'd listen silently so they did not know you were on the line. Such a thing was possible because a private phone line (nobody else was on your line) was more expensive than a party line that could have several people on the same line but of course only one at a time could use it. If there was an emergency or if you had to make an urgent phone call you'd politely ask those using the party line to hang up so you could use it. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't.

Remember, during this era, post WW-!! most homeowners had lived through the Great Depression and were very frugal. The phone was an expense that was new to their budget so people often took the least expensive option - the party line.

Progress: Soon the antiquated black phones were replaced by phones with dials on the front. More people opted for private lines and you could pick up a phone, listen for the tone and dial the three digit number of the party whom you were calling. You could play tricks with the phone too. For example, instead of dialing the number two, you could hit the hang up button twice quickly. Ditto the number one, three, etc. But soon that trick became impractical as more private lines cam on board and an exchange was added. In my town of Clairton the exchange was CL3. Later the phone company found that multiple cities on the same exchange caused confusion so the city names were replaced with other exchange names. Clairton's CL3 became Belmont or BE3, and eventually simply 233 and the letters on the dial phone were ignored.

The pay phone: Many businesses provided pay phones for their customers. A nickel was inserted into the phone to get a dial tone. Later the rate went up to a dime then 20 cents and finally a quarter. When the pay phones cost a quarter for a call a famous gaffe occurred by a president when he asked one of his staff for a nickel to use the phone in a business he was touring. The media made a big thing about how out of touch he was.

The standard became three minute intervals and if you exceeded the time limit the operator would come on and say, "Your three minutes are up, please signal when through." That meant after the call was completed the operator would calculate how much additional money was required. It worked on the honor system, which usually became, "You've got the honor.... we've got the system." After the call was completed the caller would simply skip out leaving the phone ringing in a futile effort to reach the caller to let them know the additional charges. The phone company, aka Ma Bell, soon figured out that rather than trusting that they'd get paid when the call was completed, they could interrupt the call each three minutes and require additional payment in advance.

If you did not have a coin to put into the pay phone you could dial "O" for free and an operator would come on the line. You would tell her the number you wanted to call and the call would be "collect" or "reverse the charges" which meant the recipient of the call would pay for it on their next bill. You could also call for whoever answered (station to station) or ask for a specific individual (person to person), the latter was a more expensive call but if the person was unavailable there was no charge. Many a serviceman and college kid figured out that by going to a pay phone and calling home person to person and asking for himself, he could let his parents know he'd arrived safely and the call would be free.

No respect: Pay phones became the target of all sorts of shenanigans in an effort to make free calls or relieve the phone of some of its booty that previous callers had left. Sometimes a pay phone would malfunction and at the end of the call coins would drop into the coin return. Other times a person could trick the phone into thinking money had been deposited. This would work by opening a paper clip and inserting one end into the speaker holes until it touched the metal disc inside. The other end of the paper clip would touch a metal part of the phone and voila! A free local call. Others would tape record coins falling into the phone then when making a call, play the tape into the phone and the phone would "think" it had been paid. Then there was the "blue box," a contraption made famous by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It simulated sounds that allowed a person to make long instance calls for free. But the coup de gras for any young person was to stop as he passed each pay phone and check the coin return for one that might have been forgotten by a previous user. Kids today will never be able to enjoy that thrill.

Phone booths were a part of Americana whether for trying to cheat them, using them for their intended purposes, finding a coin in the return, or having a place for Superman to change clothes. But there are rarely found today.

Button, button whose got the button? In 1965 I moved to Pocatello, Idaho. All phones were dial phones then. When I went to arrange for a phone to be put in my house I was asked if I wanted to take part in a pilot study. A handful of small communities around America had been chosen by Ma Bell to try out a revolutionary new phone - one with no dial but buttons instead. I agreed and whenever I called friends or family across the country and told them my phone was a push button, they thought I was kidding.

Today Ma Bell is long gone, phone booths are extinct and pay phones are rare. Many homes have given up their land lines. We have come so far with telephone technology. But have we really? From the party line to the dial phone to the pay phone to the push button I can never once remember having a dropped call!

A little blogging music Maestro, "If the Phone Doesn't Ring, That'd be Me."

Dr. Forgot

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