Modern Problems: Celling Out

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DEAR A.J.,
My cell phone keeps dropping calls in midtown New York. This isn’t Siberia; it’s the heart of a major metropolis. I’ve switched devices and providers with no improvement. What can I do?
—NEAL IN NEW YORK

That sounds awful, Neal. Maybe you should consider trading your faulty cell for a classic: the first mobile phone, which Bell Labs introduced in 1946. This sleek device weighed a mere 80 pounds (the equivalent of 300 iPhones or one baby giraffe), looked like a fridge, and required an operator to place calls. Or you may prefer the 1965 mobile phone, which tipped the scales at a svelte 40 pounds. And talk about convenient! If you were one of the 2,000 New Yorkers sharing the system’s three channels, you had to wait only 30 minutes for an open line.

Of course, our fore-callers could always resort to landlines, though those had their own challenges, like a total lack of privacy. In 1950, 70 percent of American callers shared “party lines” with eavesdropping neighbors. And even politicians weren’t immune to this nuisance. During the 1960 presidential race, candidate Hubert Humphrey hosted a TV call-in show, only to be interrupted by an impatient neighbor demanding Humphrey hang up and free the line. The ever-polite Humphrey followed orders!

Then there was the excruciatingly slow rotary dial. You could almost write a letter in the time it took to dial a friend. The higher the number, the slower the rotation, which is why the phone company gave low-numbered area codes to the biggest cities (e.g., 212 for New York, 213 for Los Angeles). Given that consideration, it’s still unclear why England chose 9-9-9 as its first emergency number. Perhaps it’s that famous British dry wit? But even the rotary dial was better than the alternative: Rural callers had to hand crank a generator to alert the operator they wanted to place a call.

The biggest improvement over the years has to be sound quality. When Thomas Watson was testing early phones, he had to shout so loudly that his landlady threatened to evict him. Since engineering is very tough if you’re homeless, Watson rolled himself in a blanket to muffle the noise.

Anyway, just think of all the time you’re saving by not searching for change for pay phones. Back in the day, even the rich had to dig for nickels! Miserly billionaire J. Paul Getty installed a pay phone in his mansion so he didn’t have to foot the bill for his guests’ calls. We’re guessing he wouldn’t be springing for unlimited minutes either.

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June 24, 2013 - 1:00pm
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