Treatise on the Telephone

Ten-year-old Jeanne waits impatiently to hear the telephone ring five-shorts to talk with her Navy dad in 1943. Other rings sound: three-shorts-one-long and one-long-two-shorts. The only five-shorts ring is a neighbor with a church question for Aunt Belle. (This from my children’s novel about farm life during World War II.)

Most of you reading this never experienced a country party line in the 1930s and 40s. The telephone box hung on the wall and had a crank on its side. If I wanted to talk with my friend on the same line, I cranked three shorts and one long: zing-zing-zing-zzzinng. If I wanted to speak to someone not on our line, I picked up the receiver and cranked one long. An operator asked for the number I wanted and rang it for me. Should it be busy, she would tell me. For long distance, the operator took the name of the city and the number, and called back when she connected with it.

In cities, you only had to pick up the receiver of your black Western Electric telephone to get an operator. How modern and convenient! In the 1950s, Western Electric and ATT&T improved the system with dial phones. No more asking the operator for your number, you could dial it yourself.

Then came push button telephones—no more wearing your finger out dialing. Push button phones morphed into my favorite—ones that remember the number with a single button. The downside of these is that without the telephone in hand, I don’t know the number of the person I want. This is still true. If your cell phone dies, how do you call someone if you don’t remember the number?

Through the decades, communication by phone has gone from do-it-yourself party lines to calling anyone, any time, and expecting instant response.

What’s next? Constantly connected through our eyes? Brain?

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