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June 13, 2009

Lost frames of reference… Part 1: reach out and touch someone.

Filed under: General,Historical Rant — Tags: , , , , , — Bryan @ 10:55 am

Here in the U.S. we have officially converted to digital broadcast and most stations (with the exception of low-watt operations) have turned off the broadcast of a signal that some have kept running for over 50 years. This got me to thinking about frame of reference and forgotten methods of communications.

Let’s talk about the telephone. To start with originally you didn’t own your own phone. Phones were leased from AT&T or one of the regional Bell operations until around 1982 when AT&T/Bell was forced to break-up as a monopoly.

In the early days of the Telephone you couldn’t actually dial direct, you had to speak with a switchboard operator for assistance. Have you ever seen the old phone that is simply an ear cup, a funnel to talk into, a bell on the top and a rotary crank on the side? Well to use this kind of phone you would pick up the earpiece (receiver) and crank the phone to send an electrical signal down the line to alert the operator that you wished her (men generally weren’t operators originally) attention. She would plug a headset cable into a jack that was bound to your residence to see what you needed. If you wanted to be connected to another local phone user she would disconnect with you, connect her headset to the other local users phone and ring that remote phone by sending an electrical pulse down the line. If the remote user picked up she would let you know that you are being connected and then run a patch cable between the two ports on the switchboard connecting the lines. That connection would remain open until she pulled the wire out (eventually switchboard had little lights on them to indicate active current so the operator could close the line when you were done).

In addition to the local switchboard operator, there were hub operators above them than handled trans-local calls. The same at the National level and even Internationally. Depending on the location and era there would be even more granularity. When you wanted to make a long distance call in the 50’s you hoped that the recipient was there to answer the phone because your local operator just spent an hour working with who-knows how many other operators requesting patch links between who-knows how many switchboards just for you to be connected.

Another lost aspect of early phone network distribution came in the guise of Party Lines (not the kind of “party” you’re thinking, it’s more like “the party to which your dialing is not available”), where you would share a trunk line with a number of other users. This also allowed you to share the cost making phone service more economical for early users. Typically you were sharing with your immediate neighbors. Party lines worked great for outbound calls but not so hot on inbound so you would have assigned ring patterns to listen for to know if the call was for you or someone else which solved the problem well enough. FWIW, you could eavesdrop on others calls if you were sneaky about it. A modern analogy would be an office where there is single shared outbound phone line but individuals call each others desks separate of that line using an on-site electronic switchboard.

Eventually automated switching came about which allowed direct local dialing but for many years long distance (especially International calls) still might have required an operator to patch your call through on a switchboard (physically and the electronically).

In fact it was the early electronic systems that some of the first phone hackers (called phone phreaks) exploited to do their work since everything was controlled by one company (AT&T) the system was a trust based network. If you layered onto that social engineering practices you could get up to no end of mischief.

Another bit of phone fun you could have during the early 70’s was to pickup your phone and dial your own number then quickly hang up. The latency in the early automated switchboards was enough that the automated switchboard wouldn’t issue a disconnect in time to stop the connect command and the system would attempt to connect the call to your now hung-up line (which of course would ring since it was disconnected!). When you picked it up you would have a dead line. Great fun for pranking friends and family.

Did you know that in the very early days of Touch-Tone dialing, AT&T distributed little song books that showed you how to play out popular songs on the key pad. The idea was to encourage adoption, but it was also great fun for calling friends and punching out Beatles tunes.

Can you imagine having to use phones like this? Check back for more soon…