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The telephone: then and now

September 26, 2013
Joyce Schenk , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

In the long-ago years of my childhood, the family's telephone was big and black and lived on the wall in the downstairs hallway.

A chair and stand... to house the small Ft. Worth telephone directory... completed our designated phone corner.

Calls were rare in the first few years we had the phone. Each time it rang, it set off a race from the far corners of the house to see who could be the one to say a breathless "hello."

In those days, we shared a party line with two of our neighbors, the Halls who lived on our north and the English family, to the south.

The calls meant for us were indicated by two short and one long ring. As kids, though we were sternly warned against it, we would often listen in on our neighbor's conversations. What we heard was boring adult chatter, but the act of forbidden eavesdropping made us feel like junior spies.

As time went by, our family phone finally graduated to a private line. For us kids, the upgrade was much more efficient and it was far less fun.

Eventually, the telephone service expanded to include long distance calls.

I still remember the day Mom settled herself in the designated phone chair, picked up the handset and talked with the operator.

Yes, there really were women waiting in some unseen office just to handle the task of connecting folks from one place to those in another.

Mom gave the operator my grandmother's phone number in St. Louis. Then she waited while the call was placed. It took a few minutes and the connection was marred by a bit of static, but at last the two women were chatting across the miles as though only the backyard fence separated them.

As an eight-year-old, the whole process seemed magical to me. Here we were in Fort Worth and somehow my Mom's voice was floating through space directly into my grandmother's ears in St. Louis!

That was 70 years ago.

By contrast, last week I took my small cell phone out of my purse, made myself comfortable on the deck and put in a call to my granddaughter, Rachel, a freshman at the University of Miami.

The call was to send special wishes to this lovely young lady on the occasion of her 18th birthday.

Unlike that long-ago call from Mom to my grandmother, this communication involved no operator. There was no long wait for a connection. No static distorted our conversation.

I caught Rachel, a very busy student, in her dorm room. As we chatted, the miles between us disappeared.

The call impressed me once again with how the telephone has changed. The contrast between that bulky early phone that served the family for so long and the small carry-anywhere telephones of today is nothing short of astounding.

For instance, if you're of my generation, do you remember one of the most widespread sights from years ago? They seemed to be on every corner. They were telephone booths! How long has it been since you've seen one of those little "calling rooms?"

Yes, today's telephones have come a long way from the first versions of Mr. Bell's bulky invention. And all of us who have our phones tucked into a pocket or purse are very grateful for the changes that have made this important part of our lives so much more user-friendly.



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