Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Telephones from Bell to Cell

OSMOSE is a New York company that provides utility pole inspection and
treatment services. MITC-FUME is an anti-fungal chemical injected into
poles to combat fungal rot. Treatment every 5-7 years.
"Astounding" barely begins to describe how fast telephone technology went from invention to must-have. Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a U.S. patent in 1876. Operator switchboards were being set up in cities by 1878, and by 1881 close to 50,000 telephones were in use, mostly in east coast cities. One reason for fast implementation was that the telegraph, invented decades earlier, had become a mature industry with inter-city connections, telegraph poles, set fees, operators, etc. In many instances, telegraph companies adapted by adding telephone service, sometimes referred to as 'talking telegraph.'  

Telephone wires were also known as "Hello wires," and there is a mention as early as 1880 for "Hello" as the appropriate answer to a phone call. (Bell preferred "Ahoy," but he lost out to Thomas Edison.) In a 1889 book, Mark Twain wrote that switchboard operators were known as "Hello girls."

The mythology of telephone history has it that young men were the first switchboard employees, but their rudeness, impatience and pranks quickly led to this becoming a woman-only profession. Young women, preferably unmarried and living with their parents, were background checked, then taught the proper tone of speech and vocabulary for operators, as in "Number please." Unspoken was that this was a profession for U.S. born white women only. Not until 1944 did Bell Telephone begin to hire Negro women as operators. Jewish women were excluded for almost as long, as were immigrants in general.      

Locally, telegraph service had reached towns west of Concord in the 1850s. In Maynard, the first phone was installed at Johnson Pharmacy in 1888, in what was then the Masonic Building, on Main Street. All calls, in and out, were made from that location, and people paid by the call. The second phone, same year, was in the residence of Dr. Rich. By 1902 many local businesses had phones, including the newly relocated W.B. Case & Sons dry goods store. That was the year NET&T moved its switchboard office into the Naylor building, corner of Nason and Main (burned in 1917, currently site of Serendipity).      

Shared telephone pole: NET&T
Company and Boston Edison.
As phone networks expanded, most home phone customers were on a party line, meaning shared. A call would be put out on a line with four homes. The operator would signal with one ring for the first house, two for the second, and so on, so homeowners would know who was supposed to pick up. However, there was no means of stopping others on the line from listening in.

 Back in the early years, telephone, telegraph and electric power companies were each putting up their own poles. Arrangements were made to share, with each paying rent to the others on a pole-by-pole basis. We still call them 'telephone poles' even though much of what is carried is electric power and cable for out televisions and computers.

Most poles have lost their date nails, but this one still
sports a nail indicating the telephone pole dates to 1939.
Click on any photo to enlarge
Speaking of telephone poles, if your vehicle breaks a pole your insurance will be charged for a replacement. Poles at corners provide support for yard sale and lost pet signs, evidenced be the hundreds of staples and nails. One too-common sight is 'double poles,' old poles next to the replacements because some of the wires have not yet been transferred. Poles used to have spikes for climbing, but these have (mostly) been removed. Instead, workers use a hydraulic lift mounted on a truck. A scattering of older poles sport a date nail at eye height. Two digits on the nail head signify year installed. Oldest spotted so far reads "38."

The cell phone era began in the United States in 1983 with Motorola's DynaTAC 8000X. This larger than brick-sized phone cost $4,000 at the time - equivalent to more than $10,000 now - and provided only 30 minutes of talking time per ten hour recharge. Cell phones have gotten smaller, cheaper, smarter and common. According to a 2015 government survey, eight percent of households have only a land line, 47 per cent are only cell and 42 per cent have both. Three percent have no phone at all. The trend toward only cell is age driven - higher in younger - and interestingly also poverty driven, as poorer households are less likely to have a land line.  

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