The Saratoga Sun -

A phony article


There is at least one appliance I have yet to mention in my periodic discourses on such things.

It has become invaluable tool in our everyday life, but it didn’t start that way.

That device was … the telegraph!

Alright. No.

But the telegraph was the precursor to Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention, the telephone.

While the original telephones were not much more than an electrified tin can and string system, they soon became widespread and commercialized. In 1877 the Bell Telephone Company was founded and 3,000 private phones were active by the end of that year.

Party line meant something different

Phones, in the shortened version of the word we still use today, were generally wooden boxes with a voice collection funnel and a speaker the user put to their ear. Connecting with the intended person was a little different though. You might have to turn a crank that was connected to a magneto which powered the phone and thus the call. The signal then went to Mabel the switchboard operator (I think the phone company required switchboard operators to be called Mabel or Sarah). Mabel then listened to you tell her who you were trying to call and connected you appropriately by poking your line into the electrical pegboard in front of her. If you made a really long call, more pegboard was involved along with more Mabels and Sarahs. In 1946 there were 250,000 Mabels and Sarahs.

Another aspect of this was what was termed “party lines.” Groups of people used the same lines going to various switchboards. The upshot of this is that you might pick up your telephone and hear your neighbor talking to someone. Eavesdropping reached a different plateau in this era.

Round and round

Although you could stick your finger in the holes of a little wheel that corresponded with numerals and turn the wheel to dial the phone starting in 1919, it wasn’t until 1951 you could directly dial someone. You also had to stick your finger in this little wheel and turn it … for … every … single … number.

In the 1960s you could now use your rotary dial phone to dial someone whether they were next door or across the country.

Mabels and Sarahs across the country were devastated because they were out of a job.

The phone became a recognizable fixture in nearly every home and some homes even had alcoves built into them to accommodate the device.

Phones now had the speaker and microphone combined in one handset—a feature still recognizable to everyone (except possibly millennials).

Button up

The first touch-tone phones were introduced in 1963—but as I recall, other than pay phones (remember those?), keypad phones didn’t really become popular until the 1980s—along with bad hairdos, music videos and arcade games.

Now we could “press 1 for english” or “enter your credit card number now” … is it too late to go back to rotary phones?

800 and 900 numbers also got big in the 80s … but that was a completely different kind of “party line.” The internet largely replaced these kind of things, but if you watch enough late night television you know they are still around.

Cell, Cell Cell!

You most likely didn’t know the first car-based mobile phone was introduced in 1946. It weighed 80 pounds and even though it was big … it wasn’t all that big a hit.

It wasn’t until 1978 when that a true “cellular” system was tested. The system used a network of low power transmission towers that formed the “cells” of mobile phone coverage. In 1982 the Federal Communications Commission approved commercial cellular phone service and by the late 1980s service was available across most of the United States. In today’s Wyoming, that service is only now approaching reliability on good days.

So we’re off to the races.

The first cell phones you may remember were basically bricks with a keyboard and antenna. In 1989, the first flip phone was introduced with a price tag of $3,000—but it was the start of cell phone coolness.

I, personally, resisted getting a cell phone as long as I could, claiming I didn’t need an “electronic leash.”

When I finally got one it was because I got the phone and service free as part of the job I worked. I eventually learned that having a cell phone is invaluable in winter driving situations—especially if you get stuck somewhere.

At your service

Texting was the next big service introduced.

I resisted that too, saying, “If I need to talk to someone, I will call them.”

Eventually though I grew to know that in quite a few situations texting is actually preferable to a call. I am actually kind of ashamed to relate that most of my phone communications now consist of texting—ashamed because though it is easier, texting is much less personal than hearing someone’s voice and, like most writing, if you are not very clear, things can be misinterpreted because you have no vocal clues as to the writer’s true intent. I have had to apologize and explain things I wrote off the cuff because someone took my intent the wrong way.

Emojis (those stupid little characters like smiley faces, hearts, and sad faces) can help convey what you mean but sometimes I get one that doesn’t come through–and that is no help at all.

The mini tablet “smart” phones most of us carry in our pockets today have become indispensable. You can immediately look up the answer to a question on the internet from almost anywhere—or just use the internet for whatever purpose you can dream up.

You can run credit cards through them for your business.

You can take photos with them—then send those photos to anyone.

You can play games or watch TV.

You can get step-by step directions to a location. Just don’t forget, this means your phone, and therefore the companies that provide the information, know where you are at all times—this is generally more useful than creepy … but still creepy.

Virtually unstoppable

The newest cell phone craze is virtual reality or VR. High dollar phones can now be plugged into headsets that provide pretty convincing three dimensional views of whatever environment you want to plug in to. You can swim with sharks, glide through the Grand Canyon, go on a Star Wars adventure … and yes, I have been informed there is VR sex out there too.

The real thing is always better obviously, but there are some places you simply will not get to that you would want to go. There are some places that are impossible to go to any other way (like the Star Wars thing).

You can see the allure of being able to visit far away places from the comfort of your living room without having to go through airport security or messing around with hotels.

You can take a mini vacation every night.

Maybe you use it to preview a place you are traveling to.

The possibilities are only limited by available content and your imagination.

The problem

The only real problem I see with all this is that you cannot go anywhere without just a large portion of self-absorbed people checking their Facebook, their email or texting.

I have walked into bars to see everyone in the place on their phone. Don’t people go out specifically to socialize?

Don’t get me wrong, I have done it myself occasionally … but I try to keep in mind why I am out.

Let’s try not to let phones insulate us from actually talking to the people we are around.

Just remember … it’s all “phony.”


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