10 Aspects of Old Telephones That Might Confuse Younger Readers
If you've grown up with smartphones, you've probably never carried around a tiny personal phone book to keep track of all your various contacts. You’ve probably never gotten your hair tangled in a coiled phone cord while holding the receiver with your shoulder, nor have you dialed 411 for directory assistance. What other aspects of old-school telephony do you remember that would absolutely stump younger readers?
1. Busy Signal
As a rule, these days if a person is currently engaged on their telephone, any incoming calls will be automatically bounced to some sort of voicemail system. There are not only consumers today who have become so unaccustomed to being thwarted by the stentorian tones of a busy signal that they are temporarily flummoxed at the concept of having to hang up and dial again later, there are also younger users who have never heard a busy signal. If you're one of those people, take a listen to the video above.
2. Off-Hook Alarm
It’s much harder to accidentally leave your telephone “off the hook” these days, since most folks using land lines have cordless phones that require different buttons to be pushed to start and end a call. But back when receivers had to either hang on the “hook” (wall phones) or be placed in the “cradle” (desk phones) to be disconnected or “off-line,” it was all too easy for a line to be left open whether accidentally or intentionally. In fact, it happened often enough that the telephone company had a special tone to alert customers that their phone was off the hook. After the dial tone had timed out and a recording advising you to “Please hang up your telephone” played, a grating “howler” alarm would blast.
3. Party Lines
Party lines were very common in the first half of the 20th century, especially in rural areas and during the war years, when copper wire was in short supply. A party line was a local telephone loop circuit that was shared by more than one subscriber. There was no privacy on a party line; if you were conversing with a friend, anyone on your party line could pick up their telephone and listen in. Also, if anyone on your party line was using their phone, no one else could make a call—even in an emergency situation. (There were laws that made it mandatory for all parties to hang up if someone announced they had an emergency, but that didn’t mean everyone complied.) Subscribers could pay an extra monthly fee to upgrade to a private line, and once services such as call waiting became available, most of the switching equipment required to maintain multi-party lines was rendered obsolete—and private lines became the standard. Want a good laugh? Check out this comic book that AT&T produced explaining proper Party Line etiquette.
4. Pipeline/Jam Line/Beep Line
Thanks to a quirk of the old analog system, savvy phone customers had access to “chat lines” long before that term was coined. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Bell System started implementing their new Electronic Switching System, and during that lengthy and elaborate process, the modern switches were installed parallel to the old mechanical devices already in place. As a result, a loop was created so that when a circuit was overloaded, people could talk to one another either between the beeps of a busy signal, or during the spaces between a repeating “Your call could not be completed as dialed” recording. It didn’t take long for teens to exploit this easy and cost-free (you didn’t get charged for an incomplete call) way to talk to a whole horde of people. The key was that a lot of people had to dial the same number in order to properly overload the circuit. Radio station request lines were a popular choice; they were almost always busy, and their phone numbers were easy to remember. This phenomenon was called different things in different locales—the Jam Line, the Beep Line, and the Pipeline—and it was fun while it lasted. Once the updated technology finally took over, consumers had to spend upwards of $1 per minute to dial a 976 number to talk to random strangers.
5. Dial Plate Number Cards
If you’ve never owned a rotary dial telephone, then you’ve probably never seen a number card installed in the center of the dial plate. (Touch Tone phones had a slip of paper at the bottom of the keypad.) This enabled anyone who was using the phone to immediately know what number they were calling from. In later years, however, law enforcement officials warned folks against having their number on display like that; apparently, plenty of people had copied down phone numbers and then used them later for nefarious purposes—like making sure no one was home and the coast was clear for a quick robbery.
6. Large Print Dial Overlays
Large print plastic dial covers were a common promotional giveaway item in the 1960s. They served a dual purpose: making the numerals easier to see for those with aging eyes, and also keeping the number of your local pizza delivery place (or 24 hour plumber) extremely close to the phone.
7. Telephone Numbers with Exchange
You can still hear people asking for a telephone number using the exchange in older movies and television shows (“Operator, give me MUrray Hill 5-9099”). Back when exchange names were still in use, you could even tell what neighborhood a person lived in by the first two letters of their telephone number; for example, despite the name, the location that belonged to the telephone number PEnnsylvania 6-5000 was not in the Keystone State but rather in New York City, near Penn Station. Even though all-digit telephone numbers were pretty much the norm by the 1970s, my Dad still stubbornly (and confusingly, when the person asking was under age 20) gave his phone number as “Slocum 8….” well into the 1980s.
8. Talking Clock
Every local phone company had a number you could dial to get the correct time. (In the Detroit area, our number was GR [for Greenwich] 2-1212.) It was an easy way to synchronize the clocks in your house after a power outage, or if your watch had run down.
9. Tapping the Switchhook to Summon the Operator
Those “click-click-click” noises you hear when a rotary dial is released and returns to its starting position are called “hook flashes.” They were what told the switching equipment down at the phone company what numbers were being dialed. The disconnect button (called a “switchhook”) on the telephone could also be used to send hook flashes; that is, if you wanted to dial 411 without using the rotary, you would tap the switchhook four times, pause, tap once, pause, then tap once again. Tapping it 10 times was the equivalent of dialing “0,” which is why in old films you’ll often see a character frantically hitting the disconnect and yelling “Operator? Operator!” into the receiver; once they’d hit it 10 times the operator would answer. (Using the switchhook to patiently tap out a full seven-digit telephone number also foiled those spoilsports who installed telephone locks on their dials to prevent unauthorized personnel from using their precious instrument.)
10. Four-Prong Phone Wall Jack
Until 1976—when the FCC set the wheels in motion for consumers to purchase their own telephones with the Resale and Shared Use decision—telephone customers didn't own their home telephones; they technically rented them from AT&T and were charged a monthly fee for the privilege. (Funnily enough, as of 2006 there were still 750,000 people renting rotary phones from one of AT&T’s baby bells.) If you wanted an extension in another room, you couldn’t do the drilling and the wiring yourself; you had to call the phone company and have a technician install the necessary four-prong jack in the wall. When designer Princess and Trimline phones came on the market, the phone company obligingly offered color-coordinated casings on the bulky jacks to match the trendy new instruments. Thanks to the jacks, now you could move a phone from one jack to another instead of having them connected for life but it still took a visit from the Telephone Guy to install one in another room.