Even though introduced in 1886 by Alexander Graham Bell; fewer than 50% of homes had a phone 50 years later in 1946. When I was a kid, our home still had ‘party line’ service, where 5 families shared a single line running down the street; until 1976. If you wanted to know what your neighbors were doing? No need to ‘friend’ them; just pick up your phone, and listen in on their conversation! The telephone was a great device to bring us closer, and connect us with friends and family and I was always fascinated by the technology behind it.
As early as the 1950′s, Ma Bell, as we lovingly called AT&T, tried to get away from operator dialed calls; and found ways to use a variety of clicks, tones and whistles to connect and route calls. A fascinating NPR story on Radio Lab on the sounds that drove Telco is here… The story speaks of a blind boy Joe Engressia, Jr. who could mimic these sounds to control phones with his perfect pitch voice.
The right sounds could cause a pay phone to connect calls to California without inserting money (and a trans-continental call was about $10.00 a MINUTE in today’s dollars. The clicks and whistles could connect a call in about a minute. Although most long distance calls were connected by an Operator, because without perfect pitch; you needed a perfect substitute– a helpful, American based Operator; who typically worked in the local phone company office down the street. What a great time when your voice could be heard thousands of miles away, after waiting just a few minutes to reach the Operator and have your call connected.
In 1964, AT&T (The nation’s only phone company at the time) introduced touch tone dialing at the 1964 NY World’s Fair. I was amazed by the ability to press keys and ‘dial’ a number compared to needing to call an Operator or slowly spin a rotary dial. It was ten years before the phone system nationwide (and in our home in New Jersey) was upgraded sufficiently to allow anyone to order touch tone service.
The now familiar DTMF (Dual Tone Multi-Frequency) tones you hear on virtually every phone, and replicated on many cell phones, were interpreted by telephone company circuitry as the numbers you dialed to connect the call. This was really cool leading-edge technology in 1964 and is still used as-is in every land-line phone.
Now I get impatient when the iPhone display says ‘connecting’ for more than a second or two; and technology introductions are seen as failures if they are not universally adopted by 80% of Americans within five years. Rotary phones, party lines and local operators have been replaced, several times over, as we seek ever more sophisticated and faster ways to connect with people, but the principle hasn’t changed. Information must be sent to others frequently, efficiently and smoothly. Messages are sent to Protect people, Inform them, and Engage them. We have so many new ways to send them, and to block, parry and avoid them.
I’m excited about the ever growing ways we have to make sure critical messages DO get through.