“This is your operator. May I help you?” Boomers remember those days, when a real person would say that to you if you dialed a “0” on the phone. And I do mean dial. 

Alexander Graham Bell would not believe the evolution of the telephone since he made the first telephone call in 1876. Sometimes neither can we, although I notice we’ve all pretty much adapted to every mutation and metamorphosis we’ve seen.

My first memory of the telephone is a black rotary dial phone with the numbers going about three quarters of the way around the phone, starting with number 1 and ending with 0. It had a little silver notch that stopped your finger once you had completed the number and I think it made a lot of noise as you dialed. It had a long, black, coiled cord that stretched. That was in the 50s. 

I also remember my grandmother, who lived on a farm in North Dakota, had a black rotary wall phone. And a party line. When I was a little girl I thought they called it party line because everyone had so much fun talking to each other   like they were at a party.

For anyone reading this who doesn’t recognize the term “party line,” it was a system where multiple telephone subscribers were connected to the same land line. Each subscriber was assigned a certain number of rings so you could tell if the call was for you. It was assumed, for the most part, you would not listen in on anyone else’s conversations but that’s exactly what everyone did, covering the mouthpiece with their hand so the intended party couldn’t detect they were listening in. Today we would call those people “hackers.”

When we visited grandma, my sister and I would listen in on all the phone calls, delighted with our own naughtiness. Sometimes people who were listening in got ahead of themselves and interrupted the conversation, thus exposing themselves. It was a ridiculous honor system, come to think about it. If you wanted to place a call outside of your party line you had to call the operator and have her direct the call. There was no charge for that. And the operators were all friendly and motherly.

I don’t know if they still have live operators today; I don’t think so. We may miss that friendly voice, just as we miss Ernestine, played by Lily Tomlin on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, when she was the “one ringy dingy operator.” 

Today we are resigned to automated voices and menus that prompt us to find whatever information we might need.  About the only real person you can call and be guaranteed to speak to is the dispatcher at 911, and you best think twice about that unless it’s an emergency.

Today those black rotary phones are vintage and are sold on eBay and in antique stores for quite a price.

When my parents bought their first home we had a black rotary wall phone in the hallway that led to the only bathroom in the house and all three bedrooms. It was a small hallway and there could not have been a less private place in that little bungalow for a phone used by four kids and two adults. As we became teenagers we would monopolize that phone, talking to our friends day and night, in conversations that lasted so long we sprawled on the floor and would have to be stepped over by anyone who wanted to use the bathroom or go to a bedroom. I think the placement of that phone was designed with lack of privacy in mind, because if I talked to my high school boyfriend late at night — in the softest of whispers — my parents could still hear me from their bedroom. They monitored every word. Eventually my dad would shout out, “Get off that phone.”

I don’t know when touchtone phones showed up. I’m guessing in the 60s but we thought that was modern technology at its most sophisticated. It made dialing so much faster and I think that was how multi-tasking got its start. That phone eventually became the basis for the number keypads on today’s cell phones.

It was also about that time that phones came in colors — white, beige, yellow — even pink if you were spoiled. What teen-aged girl didn’t want a pink Princess phone, I ask you? Few of us had them. I knew no one who did.

And then came cellphones. I had to rely upon Google to see when the first generation of cellphones was rolled out. It was 1973 and the first call was placed by a Motorola employee named Marty Cooper who called AT&T to tell them they had done it. Cooper then appeared on “60 Minutes” and said he made the call as he was crossing the street in Midtown Manhattan and was almost hit by a cab. People are still almost getting hit by cabs because of cellphones.

Those first cellphones were huge and came in what looked like a piece of small luggage. 

Since then the cellphone movement has created much smaller, lighter, sleeker phones that perform just about any task except shaving your legs. You can take photos, read and send email, watch videos and television shows, read a book, monitor your health, check your online accounts, shop, order food, pay bills, adjust your thermostat, watch your house get burglarized or check on your dog to see what he’s up to. The list of applications (apps) is limitless, but is estimated to be 12 million. 

Oh, and I almost forgot — you can even call someone, or receive a call, what used to be the most basic and fundamental use for a cellphone. Nowadays that’s just one more function, as it seems like texting has become a preferred mode of communication.

I can’t imagine what’s around the next corner, but we know development of new communication tools is always going on. Meanwhile, our addiction to the cellphone grows. We take them everywhere. Many people sleep with their cellphones, and almost everyone checks them even before they make coffee in the morning.

How many times a day do you check your cellphone? I’m embarrassed to count, but I’m betting there’s an app that will tell us.




(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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