I doubt that Alexander Graham Bell could have possibly dreamed how technology would advance his invention. Smart phones continue to move towards full-blown computers that happen to also make phone calls. We speak (and see) my son Josh in Japan every week, and yet it costs NOTHING. We have cell phones for emergency use, but we still have a phone system in our home. It is NOT connected to a land line however, it’s Voice over Internet. All my children have cell phones and I’m sure within a few years or so, my grand children will have them as well. How did we communicate when I was a kid?
Not everyone had a phone, but we had one at home and my grand parents had one as well. Here is a picture similar to the phone I remember (they were all black), the only difference is there was no area code. Our phone numbers had names for the prefix. You could tell the geographic area you were calling by the name that preceeded the number. Our home number on Cleveland’s South East Side was the Diamond exchange, while my grandparent’s exchange on Cleveland’s West Side was Woodbine. The geographical breakdown and exchange names probably was a great assistance when it became necessary to add area codes due to the volume of new lines being installed.
In addition to the rotary style of dialing, another little wrinkle existed back then, the dreaded “party line”. Depending on how much you could afford to pay, you had to share your line with other families. Can you imagine how frustrating that was for teenagers? Bad enough there was no privacy, but you also sometimes had to wait your turn to talk. Some things never change though as one of the largest monopolies in US business history, namely AT&T enjoyed many decades of looting and pillaging.
In 1984, AT&T was broken into 7 smaller companies, often referred to as the “Baby Bells” in exchange for the right to go into the computer business. Gee, I wonder if they had a sniff of an idea how huge the Internet would get one day. Despite competition from Sprint and MCI, the divested AT&T was still charging $ .35 a minute for long distance calls in the early 90’s. If you take a close look at how the current cell phone market breaks down, you’ll find that the “new’ AT&T is only one major competitor (Verizon) away from having it all back and then some. The profits on the cell phone market and Internet connectivity makes their monopoly of the 50’s look like chump change.
I was already out of the Air Force by the time touch-tone service was introduced, along with phones in many different colors. There were mobile phones in cars on some of the shows from the 50’s, but they became a reality by the 70’s although very pricey. And by the 80’s we started to see the first clunky “portable” phones which would evolve to the smart phones of today.
Another casualty of progress was the phone booth. I don’t think you could find one on every corner, but there were enough of them to be noticeable and when I was growing up, most of them worked. The first financial culture shock I can remember was when all these phones were converted to touch tone and new slots were added because the calls cost at least $ .25 and went up in price from there. The other thing that made phone booths so familiar to kids was the Superman comics, because Clark Kent often became “the man of steel” changing in a phone booth.
I don’t remember using the phone much at home, but I remember calling my friends from my grandparent’s house. I can’t say that I remember making or receiving a long distance phone call until I went into the Air Force in 1966. I do remember using phone booths, without fear I might add. Thankfully, times were just much safer back then. I did a lot of things (as you’ll hear about in future posts) that today would be considered crazy.
Based on how archaic communications in the 50’s seems compared to today how do you explain the Dick Tracy comic strip? I remember reading that strip in the “funny papers” every day. And it’s creator, Chester Gould introduced a far-fetched idea for Tracy in 1946 (before I was born) called the two-way wrist radio. How far ahead of the times was Mr. Gould? Can we hear him now?