Telephone

by William S. Morse

The modern day computer hackers who break into files and obtain private computer information are nothing new; they had their forerunners years ago when telephones and party lines first began to come into use. The modern electronic snoopers are much more sophisticated and dangerous than the nosy old magpies whose worst crime was to listen in on everyone's conversation. According to reports there are people today who have managed to steal credit card numbers and money by way of the Internet, and some day some smart cookie may find a way to screw up the electronic highways and bring the world to a standstill or to disaster. When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he said that it was an invention which would never be completed. Its marriage to the computer has opened up a Pandora's box, the entire contents of which are as yet unforeseen, and some of its results may not be beneficial. Our dependence on too much technology could someday backfire.
I cannot remember the year when we got our first telephone. It was probably sometime around 1910. The adjoining village of Pike, with which our small village was more or less intertwined, was a world manufacturer of scythestones and had the most modern advances as they became available. Their early telephone system had been extended to include a few places in our small hamlet, and I can remember when people in our district had to go down to the village to make their phone calls.
We did not consider a telephone to be a necessity in those days, and our calls were few in number and were usually made only in case of emergencies. In time the telephone became something more than excess baggage to us, and its line began to be extended up the hills into our area. As I recall, it was sort of a piecemeal extension which was made as different people subscribed for the service. I do not believe that there were more than a dozen places in our district that eventually hooked up to it.
The telephone at that time was an instrument whose innards were enclosed in a cabinet of beautifully grained wood that hung on the wall, and one had to use it while standing. Like most other things in those days it was activated by turning a crank, which caused its bell and all of the other telephone bells on the line to ring.
Most of the early telephone lines were party lines, and our entire district was on the same line. All that had to be done to call anyone who was on the line was to ring their number. If a person's number was 13 it meant that one had to make one long ring and then three short ones to alert them that someone wished to talk with them. Sometimes those numbers created great confusion to the old-timers who were not familiar with such a code. Our number was 21, and when an old codger, whose farm was on the mountain in the Limekiln area, first got his phone he called us by ringing the phone twenty-one times.
If someone on a different line wished to talk with you, the call had to go through the central's office where the central operator connected the two lines and did the ringing. The results were the same whoever rang the phone. When one's number rang to alert him that he had a call, it also alerted everyone else on the line to the fact, and there were a number of old busybodies who spent all of their spare time with their telephone receiver glued to their ear listening to other people's conversation. It was called "Rubbering," and if one had anything of a confidential nature to discuss, he didn't want to do it over the telephone. It was no place to converse with a girl friend either. Those old hawks made it a point to learn all that they could of everyone's business and make it a matter of gossip. If my father thought that some old newsmonger was listening on the line, he got a kick out of injecting some outlandish rumor into his conversation and then waiting to see how long it would take for it to be spread around town.
The line was in use a large share of the time by the women of the neighborhood who spent much of their spare moments gossiping with each other. Sometimes there would be three of them conversing together on the line. They were years ahead of the modern telephone conferences, and they were usually long-winded. If one needed to make a call he had to find some way to kick them off the line. Sometimes turning the crank so that the bell rang in their ears would give them enough of a hint. If that didn't work more drastic measures had to be used. At times my grandfather would get so exasperated that he would swear at them. The last resort was to take the receiver off its hook and place it over the mouthpiece of the transmitter. The resulting racket and noise of their own gobbling would literally blast them off the line. The performance usually resulted in a complaint to the central who would call and give you hell for making the interference.
The telephone exchange was located in a small room which was over the store in the adjoining village of Pike. It had a switch board against one wall that sported a number of cables; one for each line that it served. The exchange was manned twenty-four hours a day by central operators who were almost always women, and they usually knew of everything that was going on throughout the countryside. If you were unable to get hold of the doctor the central could tell you where he was, and she would contact him for you. Sometimes she performed heroic deeds in emergencies. If someone's house was on fire, the central would arouse the neighborhood to help fight it.
The exchange room was across the hall from the barber shop, and for a long time there never seemed to be anything very private about it. The door was usually open, and it was interesting to stand at it and watch the central operator manipulating the cables in and out of the holes on the switchboard. She had to be quite dexterous when the lines were busy.
The openness of their operation had an abrupt end when an attractive and friendly young lady was hired to take over the night shift. She had other talents besides running the switch board, and there was a lot of scrambling and competition among the boys vying to be the one who kept her company during the evening hours. After a while people began to complain about the time it took to get her attention. When an investigation by the company uncovered the reason, the operator was replaced and the central's office was put off limits.
Those first rural telephone systems with the overcrowded party lines and the battle to keep one's conversations from becoming public property were much different from the instantaneous electronic procedures that are commonplace today. The results obtained by present technology are amazing, but the operator's voice is probably canned. There is no night operator to spend the evening with, and everything is much more impersonal than it was in the old days. It is not at all as much fun.

From A Mix of Years, copyright 1998 by William S. Morse. Excerpted by arrangement with Moose Country Press. A few copies are available by calling toll free 800-34-MOOSE (346-6673).


William S. Morse has been called a "different kind of old-timer" by Noel Perrin, and indeed, Bill is a genuine old Yankee who completed his first book at age 90 -- A Country Life -- an excerpt, "Landmarks," appeared in Grand Times, April, 1998). Bill writes with a dry but honest humor that all ages will enjoy. Mike Dickerman writes: "If nothing else, A Mix of Years is a celebration of this New England Yankee's first 93 years of life. And it's been a life many of us probably wish we'd had the privilege to live." -- Robert W. Averill M.D.