Let’s talk telephone

By Robert Grahame


When was growing up in 1965, the telephone was a big black contraption that sat on a counter or table. Some were mounted on the wall. They were all hard-wired into the wall. We did not even own our own telephone. We rented it from the telephone company and a small rental fee charge was included on the bill.


If a big, black, ugly contraption that had a loud ring and could not be moved seems awkward, here is the thing that really amazes me today. We were on a party line. We shared a telephone line with several neighbours. What was that like? If you wanted to make a call, you would lift the receiver from its cradle ‘hook’ and listen to see if anyone was talking. If you did not hear a dial tone, someone else was on the line. One had to be careful what they talked about on the phone because a neighbour could be listening. Even in recent years, my wife would pick up the phone in our house and start dialling—that is, pushing buttons that made tones—without first listening for a dial tone. If I was on the phone, I and the person I was talking to would have wait for her to finish the number and for the tones to stop and then she would start listening. Then I could tell her she was interrupting my call.

We still use some terms that have traveled along the years. I just mentioned dialling. You can’t find a phone anywhere these days that has a dial. A phone dial was a disk with finger holes and letters and numbers underneath. To make a phone call, you would put your finger in the hole representing a single number in the phone number you were calling. You would rotate the dial until your finger stopped at a little metal flange. The amount of rotation told the phone what number you were making. You would repeat this process until the entire phone number had been dialled.

Why letters, you might be asking? In the early years, phone networks were broken up into exchanges. Ours in the district of Portland Oregon where we lived was the Multnomah exchange. Therefore, our phone number began with the first three letters of the exchange we lived in—MUL-XXXX. Later, the letters were dropped and the corresponding numbers were used, however, the letters remained on the dial and have become useful for entering data when calling in a phone system at a corporation. Have you ever encountered, “Enter the first three letters of the person you are calling?” Our phone numbers today still have the three number prefix similar to the exchange.

As cell phones came along, the need for more phone numbers began to make things a bit difficult. I remember how upset we all were when area codes had to used for all phone calls, not just long distance. We were upset because it would require us to push three more buttons.

Earlier, I mentioned the word ‘hook.’ The receiver with the ear speaker and the voice microphone, both in a handle connected by a coiled cord, sat on top of the phone where it pressed down a couple of buttons. This was referred to as being ‘on the hook.’ The phone was off. When you lifted the receiver, the phone was ‘off the hook’ and the phone was on. Sometimes the receiver would not be placed properly on the hook and the phone would still be off the hook and nobody could use the phone. One would have to find the phone that was off the hook. Inconvenient with a party line where you would have to run to the neighbours. Most houses had only one phone. Later several phones could be installed and often with a modular jack so the phone could be unplugged and moved to another room that had a jack on the wall.


So, what about mobile phones. Believe it or not, they were around in 1965 and had been around for many years. They were bulky, expensive and had some sort of transmitter that had to be installed somewhere in the car. They were not practical for the average person. These phones were more of a radio phone and connected to a mobile phone operator.


Today, I see icons used on signs to represent the telephone. Most of the icons look like phones I grew up with. They are recognizable, as least to someone of my age. For those born well after any of these sorts of devices have been common, they must have to learn what the icons stand for. This raises the question of what might be used in the future for icons when devices like phones no longer have a recognizable shape.



Phones have transformed in both shape and technology and along the way, they have transformed our lives. As with many of the technologies we have come to rely on, digital components have altered the phone to a piece of plastic with buttons and a screen. It now has a memory to store numbers and that one feature alone has caused a huge transformation. Just as the calculator has caused an erosion in our ability to do simple math in our heads, the built-in phone address book has caused us to lose our ability to memorize phone numbers.

I used to know quite a few phone numbers. They were sort of automatic. If someone asked me for a number, or if I was interrupted, I could easily forget the number. It had to be done as one step. Of course, it was easy back in the days when there was one phone per household, not several. Today, I know my house phone number and my iPhone. That is all I can remember, because I do not dial or punch in the numbers anymore. The act of entering the number produced a visual and motor skill activity in a sequence that assisted in the memorization of the phone number.

After fifty years, I wpid-iu-3-2014-08-13-11-49.jpegcan no longer recognize the phone. In 1965, if I could not remember someone’s phone number, I could call the Operator or Directory Assistance and get help. In small cities or town, the Operator might well know me and the person I wanted to talk to. Comedienne Lily Tomlin did a comedy bit about an Operator.

Telephone Operators sat in front of a wall where they plugged cords into the wall to make connections. This personal touch to the phone system is completely gone. There are telephone support systems with people, however, they might be in another country and only have access to information they have been trained with.


What about video phones? How about a Dick Tracy like wrist watch phone? These were promised for the future, but have not yet materialized. There were some attempts to do a video phone, however, they never caught on. Perhaps people did not want to be seen in their pyjamas. It would take a large-scale install base to make it practical. In the end, video might not add much to a telephone call. As phones became portable and other technologies like computers with video calling through software like Skype came along, the video phone loomed further into the future. Today, it might be closer than ever.

If the phone is no longer recognizable in relation to the phones I grew up with, it may well disappear one day very soon. Making telephone calls is now just one of many features of the smartphones that are more computer than phone. It is still a device that needs to be carried around and I can see it disappearing soon as the new wearables bring us a leap way past the Dick Tracy type of phone.

As our computers migrate even more to our phones, we may find that even a wearable can be left behind. So how long will it be until it migrates to something more permanent to our bodies? Remember, the phone has gone from the big black thing I started here with to the smartphone we all see everyday being used for a plethora of activities and done everywhere all the time.


Let’s talk telephone, © 2014 By Robert Grahame