My Younger Days Memories of Old-School Telephony

Categories Meditation

Today, contacts of friends and relatives are neatly contained in a Smartphone. Back in my younger days, we carried a small book where we wrote telephone numbers and other contact details.

Today, there are many service providers and majority are private companies. Back in my younger days, there was only one service provider in the whole country and all phones belonged to that service provider, and were installed only by a person from the service provider, a Government agency.

Today, you can call and speak directly without an intermediary. Back in my younger days, every call had to be routed through a human operator at the central office, even when calling your neighbor. You would pick up the phone, dial zero to alert the operator that you wanted to make a call and to which number. The operator would then connect your phone line and that of the recipient. Once in a while you would be called by an operator to be asked whether you would want to receive a ‘reverse call’ from so and so. If you were calling another city, the operator would connect you through another operator at the city who would connect you with the telephone exchange of that person you were calling who would eventually connect you to your friend’s line.

Today, we can talk on the phone anytime, anywhere. Back in my younger days, phones were fixed to something by a cord. You could not carry them around. They were fixed in somebody’s house and most probably that was the only phone that existed within a radius of several miles. The phone owners of those days were so magnanimous that they allowed their phones to be used by all in the village. The phone owner and his/her family would receive calls belonging to, and deliver messages to, everybody in the vicinity, including those living several miles away. If the message was very private, it would be arranged that the owner of the message comes to the phone at an agreed time when the call would be made again. It became complicated when the phone operator was busy with other callers which resulted in the call coming long after the agreed time. Same as what happens today when you want to report a blackout and you call the electricity company but you have to wait because other customers who called ahead of you are being served.

Today, mobile phones allow greater freedom of movement. People can be contacted anywhere and anytime. You can even be contacted when you are at work. Back in my younger days, there was one phone extension serving like twenty or more people. A call would be received by the nearest person who would then search for the intended recipient. The calls were prepaid and the cost for every three minutes depended on the call distance. We all tried to give our message within the three minutes. If the recipient of a call delayed, he would find the call terminated when the three minutes expired.

Today, we can dial by saying a name or by pressing a button. Back in my younger days, making a call required serious preparation. First of all we had to dial a rotary dial phone similar to the one in the picture above. To call a number, you would pick the first digit and rotate clockwise, upon release the rotary dial would return to its starting position. You then picked the second digit and rotated it clockwise to the end, then release. This was repeated until all digits had been picked and rotated. If you messed up on the last digit, you had to start all over again.

The disconnect button (switchhook) on the telephone could also be used to call when the rotary was spoilt. If you wanted to call 999, for example, you would tap the switchhook nine times, pause, tap nine times again, pause, and then tap nine times again. Tapping ten times was equivalent to dialing zero and then the operator would answer.

Woe unto you if you called and got the busy-signal. It meant trying to call again and again, and this would sometimes take the whole day. Or if the last user left the phone “off the hook” whether accidentally or intentionally, which meant that that user could not be reached at all.

Those who could not access a home phone had to walk long distances to a telephone booth, a small kiosk which contained a rotary dial phone for public use. This would be inconveniencing when there were many people on the line waiting to call, some of whom talked for ages.

Telephone and Telephone Booths

Today, phones are locked digitally or using a code to prevent unauthorized access. Back in my younger days, phones were locked with a padlock on the dial to prevent unauthorized access and probably also to cut down on cost for those who used postpaid services whereby a phone-use bill would be received at the end of the month.

Today, phones are private. Back in my younger days, there were these party lines (or joint lines). That means multiple families (subscribers) shared the same phone line. If you needed to make a call, you’d pick up the phone and find out if your neighbors where using the line before dialing. 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. The party lines were later upgraded to private telephone lines.

Today, phones are repaired within minutes. Back in my younger days, the guys from the service provider took days, even weeks, to fix a problem which meant that if that phone was the only one that people of a certain village depended upon, the whole village was cut off from communication with the rest of the world.

I am an epic introvert, who quickly becomes an open book when I pen what’s in my significantly fertile mind; fertile as a result of bombardment by realities that are continuously captured by my inquisitive eyes, ears which are constantly rubbing the ground, through constant reading, and through dreaming too.

Writing provides an opportunity to ‘say’ what my unapologetic quiet mouth will not say; which not only soothes me, but also bequeaths to me a relief, a release, and a hope that the written words will change the world, even if only one person at a time.

And so should you seek, that’s where to find me; deeply tucked inside the blankets of reading, seeing, listening, dreaming, and then writing.

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