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By The Way . . . July 16, 2011

Posted by Michael in Science.

The telephone business isn’t what it used to be.  I spent 28 years in this industry.

Who would have imagined this, ten years ago?:

Thanks to ScottW.


1. Jewel Atkins - July 16, 2011

My grandfather was a lineman for Southwest Bell in Kansas City. We were in awe of him, and thought, as children, that he ran the whole company. He was Mr. Ma Bell.

2. Michael - July 16, 2011

3. daveintexas - July 16, 2011

good “gay” call Michael.

4. Michael - July 16, 2011

Jewel, I started in the telephone business with Southwestern Bell.

In the Legal Department, not anything cool like being a lineman. But I knew those guys.

5. Michael - July 16, 2011

Analog hard-wired voice telephony is pretty much an extinct industry now. It’s just a cash cow maintained with modest amounts of maintenance dollars and an aging and dwindling labor force. The old telephone system is mostly a copper mine.

Back in the day, those copper wires were critically important, and the guys who kept them working were heroes. They used to give out an annual Vail Award to someone who had risked his life to restore a phone line during a flood, hurricane, blizzard or something.

6. lauraw - July 16, 2011

My dad worked for Ma Bell for years and years. We still have some of the little round paper cards with the image of the White House on them that were placed in the center of the rotary dial, when he wired the phones in the hotel Gerald Ford was staying in on a visit to Hartford when I was a littlun’.

Well, I think we still have some. We threw out stacks of them that he had horked. Have to check with mom. It was pretty funny to have those White House cards on our phones for a long time though.

When the Ma Bell monopoly was broken he worked for whatever incarnation for more years. Just retired a while back.

He still tells stories about how it was when he began. Wiring shared party lines out in the countryside. Your neighbors’ phone rang and yours would too! Funny.

7. lauraw - July 16, 2011

Analog was going out when I was still living in Hartford, but that’s what we had. “Press ‘3’ for such-n-such department” didn’t work so good when I was still going ‘scraaaape-shuff-shuff-shuff’ on the rotary dialer. Good times.

But it was nice to be able to call my Mom during a hurricane when the power was out.

Jesus Fuck when did I get so old.

8. Michael - July 16, 2011

Wiring shared party lines out in the countryside. Your neighbors’ phone rang and yours would too! Funny.

But you got a different ring. We had a party line when I was a kid. You had to listen for a click to make sure the neighbors had not picked up and were listening to your conversation.

9. lauraw - July 16, 2011

Yep! Hah, he told me that too. About the different ring.

10. lauraw - July 16, 2011

Do those little round papers in the center of the rotary dial have a name? Usually they just had your own phone number on them.

11. lauraw - July 16, 2011

They were notched to stay in place.

12. Michael - July 16, 2011

Jesus Fuck when did I get so old.

Oh please.

I’ve seen you. You could be my daughter. Give me a frickin’ break.

*trims nasal hairs*

13. lauraw - July 16, 2011

Seriously man, look at this post and think about how many people and how much expensive machinery (produced by the labor of even MORE people) it took to create multiple sound tracks, not too many years ago.
My pal Frankie had an electric four-track recording doodad after high school and that was hot shit! It was so small, only three feet long, amazing!!

14. Michael - July 16, 2011

Do those little round papers in the center of the rotary dial have a name?

Yes. We made up a special modern technical name for them. We called them “dial labels.”

15. Michael - July 16, 2011

I remember walking down the street with a friend who was talking on her cell phone, and the call dropped. She was annoyed. I said, no problem, we just walked under some power lines, so just call back.

She did not understand why power lines could be relevant, and gave me a funny look. I asked her if she realized she had a radio transmitter and receiver in her hand. She did not. She really did not know, or care, how her voice got from that little plastic case to someone else.

16. lauraw - July 16, 2011

YEAH, okay, well, that name sucks so I’m going to call them dialettes, since they are obsolete and nobody can give me shit about being wrong about something insignificant that doesn’t exist anymore anyway.

It’s a dialette. The specific name that *should* have been given to the little paper tag thingy but it was robbed of one because nobody cared. Fuck the world.

17. Michael - July 16, 2011

nobody can give me shit about being wrong about something insignificant that doesn’t exist anymore anyway

Oh Laura, you underestimate me. Even during the “slumberous warmth” of summer, do you think I will forget this?

18. Retired Geezer - July 17, 2011

“slumberous warmth”

Trouble Brewing

19. Retired Geezer - July 17, 2011

Here’s one in a Foreign Language:

It’s a different iPhone app called Everyday Looper.

20. lauraw - July 17, 2011

Why doesn’t my house phone have a dialette? Why did I have to write my number in nail polish on the wall next to the phone?

The world sucks without dialettes.

*mourns the passing of those little paper thingies*

21. BrewFan - July 17, 2011

So what have the Technology Gods wrought? The ability to create bad music in 3 minutes.

*Gets ready to yell at the Jimmy Johns delivery guy*

22. Retired Geezer - July 17, 2011

Why did I have to write my number in nail polish on the wall in the bathroom at the truckstop next to the phone?


23. lauraw - July 17, 2011


Geezer, I’m going to take your mother out for a nice seafood dinner and then NEVER CALL HER AGAIN.

*makes homemade dialette out of a 3×5 card*

*runs excitedly to phone*

*stares at phone for five seconds*

*shoulders slump*

24. daveintexas - July 17, 2011


25. Retired Geezer - July 17, 2011

*tries to figure out where to tape the dialette on the nifty iPhone, which is like Dave’s but never been wet.

*scratches bald spot*

26. daveintexas - July 17, 2011

*plants a dialette on that spot

27. Russ from Winterset - July 17, 2011

We had a party line when I was a kid. We moved out to the country when I was in 2nd grade, and our house was at the end of that particular line. If I remember correctly, we could have gotten our own dedicated service if we’d only paid for 3/4 mile of wire, installation & poles. Plus paying an extra $3 a month for our own line.

28. Michael - July 17, 2011

I remember when party line service became more expensive to maintain than single line service, and we forced people off of it.

Remember when you paid a premium for touch tone dialling? It was actually cheaper for the phone company than the rotary phones.

29. daveintexas - July 17, 2011

I remember two fast rings at my mom’s dad’s home. The long rings he said “not calling us here”.

Wow. 1965.

30. kevl - July 18, 2011

Making prank calls from a rotary phone was a serious workout I tell you.

31. daveintexas - July 18, 2011

The reason large metro areas have area codes with numbers 1-2-3 (back before cell phones exploded area codes) is because back in the day when you needed an operator to connect your LD call, smart engineers figured out it would save wear on switch-gear (the dial doesn’t have to move so far).

*goes back to drinkin beer.

32. Michael - July 18, 2011

Thus, Manhattan was 212, Chicago was 312, and Los Angeles was 213.

Dallas with 214 was kind of second class.

33. daveintexas - July 18, 2011

smaller city. If you had a zero in your area code, you were in BFE*

* Bumfuck Egypt

34. Michael - July 18, 2011

I wonder why 221 was not used.

35. Retired Geezer - July 18, 2011

If you had a zero in your area code, you were in BFE*

702 = Nevada.

No wonder Sobek moved.
Looks at Lipstick (hint hint).

36. Mitchell - July 18, 2011

In the mid-90’s the armpit I lived in was on a party line with two other armpits. We didn’t get our own fancy ring though so people had to call back if they didn’t get the right person the first time. It confused a lot of people and required a lot of explanation.

37. daveintexas - July 18, 2011

I remember when the whole state of Alabama was “205”

38. kevl - July 18, 2011

I do miss that big heavy Bell phone that was bolted to the kitchen wall. With the looooong phone cord. My mom could traverse the entire first floor of the house with that cord.

39. daveintexas - July 18, 2011

Older homes have that thing built into the hallway, in the wall. A shelf, inset in the sheetrock, which was the place for THE PHONE.

There was usually a shelf space underneat it for THE PHONE BOOK.

40. daveintexas - July 18, 2011

random, "telephone shelf"

41. Mitchell - July 18, 2011

Recent conversation with the Paternal Unit:
PU: Where’s your phonebook?
Me: The what?
PU: The phonebook!
Me: Lols. Yeah, if you didn’t leave one here then I don’t have one.
PU: What? Incredulous look. No phonebook?? Starts digging around in hall closet…Triumphant!HERE IT IS! Gives me stinkeye for contemplating a phonebook-free existence.
Me: lol


42. sandy burger - July 18, 2011

A few times a year, the phone company drops off a new phonebook on my front doorstep, so the old one goes in the recycling bin. I’ve never opened it once.

43. BrewFan - July 18, 2011

We should invite MCPO over to tell us what it was like before the telephone was invented

44. lauraw - July 18, 2011

I loved the classic clear, loud ringing sound my grandmother’s old heavy-ass rotary phone made. Every now and then I hear someone’s cell phone ring with that set as their ringtone, and it makes memories for me.

45. daveintexas - July 18, 2011

It’s amazing how many components of the Public Switched Telephone Network are still accommodating designs from equipment built 50 to 80 years ago, like the ringer in a phone. Nominal power on a phone line is -48 DC, to set off those heavy ringer bells in older phones, the phone company would shoot up to 50volts AC for the “ring voltage”. They still do that today, even though modern phones wouldn’t need it.

Whenever you see war movies where a soldier picks up a handset and turns a crank, he’s generating “ring voltage” – it’s a small DC generator which makes the bell in the next set down stream ring.

46. xbradtc - July 19, 2011

Dave, I’ve rung the phone that way many a time!


47. daveintexas - July 19, 2011

You could drive a nail with that handset.

48. Retired Geezer - July 19, 2011

Speaking of Nails…

49. lauraw - July 19, 2011

Way cool Dave! And interesting. I did not know that.

*winces as new wrinkle for holding knowledge is formed in brain*


50. daveintexas - July 19, 2011

I first learned about “ring voltage” when I was repairing a friend’s phone line to his house (buried line, cut it with a ditch witch). It was raining, and my hands were wet, and I was just about to connect the R wire, holding both ends, when somebody called his number.

Bit a hole in my tongue.

51. harrison - July 19, 2011

I’ve been hit hard a couple of times, too.
I have nothing but respect for electricity.

52. daveintexas - July 19, 2011

Hellooo, Newman. *hands you a wire* Here, hold this.

53. harrison - July 19, 2011


54. Michael - July 19, 2011

Lotsa people learned about ring voltage the hard way.

More than a few people learned about lightning voltage and the exposure of aerial phone lines the lethal way. They were yakking during a thunderstorm, when a lightning bolt went through the phone line, into their ear, through their body and exited by burning through the sole of their shoe, grounded because they were standing on a floor nail that touched a water pipe.

Whiny family members used to sue us about incidents like that where a loved one got fried and her head exploded.

Dangit, WE TOLD YOUR MOTHER to stay off the phone during thunderstorms. It says so in the phone book. Quit yer bitchin’.

55. Michael - July 19, 2011

Of course, there was a device on the side of your house that was supposed  to stop lightning surges. The problem is, it could corrode and fail over time. So, if Ma Bell was a little behind on the maintenance schedule, you could get zapped.

56. Michael - July 19, 2011

Meaning, a mom whose head got cooked is not really a case you want to take to a jury.

57. BrewFan - July 19, 2011

Speaking of ring voltage, there’s a way to use that field phone to obtain information from reluctant captured combatants. I’m just sayin’…

58. xbradtc - July 19, 2011

I never used a field phone to gather information.

I *did* use it to zap the shit out of unsuspecting assholes.

59. Michael - July 19, 2011

Jeebers. My pool water temp has hit 96° today. This heat wave is ridikulous, even for Texas. That pool is an algae bloom or bacteria outbreak waiting to happen. I’m working the main pump overtime to keep the free chlorine level OK.

60. Russ from Winterset - July 19, 2011

I grew up hearing stories about how my dad and my uncle used to take the crank generator from an OLD phone down to North River and shock catfish with it back in the late 40’s.

61. Retired Geezer - July 19, 2011

…shock catfish with it back in the late 40′s.

That’s just crazy talk. What kind of seekret information would a catfish know?

62. BrewFan - July 20, 2011

…shock catfish with it back in the late 40′s.

Sounds fishy to me…

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