Musing About Telephones

March of Telephone Technology

I made my first international telephone call about November of 1979. I called Mom from a public telephone in Rodman, Panama, after I learned by mail that my grandfather had died. To make this call required first calling the international telephone operator, providing the number I was calling to, the number I was calling from, and who was paying the charges. Then I waited by the phone chasing away anyone who dared try to use it for almost one hour. Finally, the operator called back and placed the call. It was expensive.

Telephones in the 1980s

An AT&T Push Button Phone
An AT&T Push Button Phone

Once I got my first home in San Diego in 1981 I leased an off-white counter-top version touch-tone phone that I hooked up in the kitchen. A leased colored phone still cost more then black. By now people could purchase their phones without harassment from Ma Bell but for me it was just cheaper to lease one. My roommate then bought a new-fangled wireless phone for a second phone in the house. Using his wireless, I could actually walk around the house while talking without tripping over the (non-existent) wire. This wireless phone operated in the UHF band and had a very limited range of merely a few feet from the base station.

Our home had phone jacks in the kitchen, living room and each bedroom; something that I found quite amusing. I mean, just how many telephones did one house actually need?

In early 1984, AT&T was broken up into multiple regional phone companies. As fall-out from this breakup the phone companies decided to get out of the phone-leasing business. I had the option of either buying the phone I had been leasing for several years or turn it back in. I bought the phone, and it served me well for the rest of the time I lived in San Diego.

Over these years, rotary dial phones pretty much became extinct and everything standardized on push-button phones. Decorator phone options exploded after the phone companies were broken up, and the features became dizzying. All those new features also left me amused. All I ever expected of a telephone was to be able to “reach out and touch someone.”

I did expand my telephone technology equipment with a telephone answering machine after my first wedding in 1986. The answering machine was the size of a portable cassette player and used a full-sized cassette tape that plugged into a wall phone jack. Before I owned an answering machine, people just had to take their chances on contacting me.

When we left San Diego for Italy, we knew the phone I had purchased from Ma Bell wouldn’t work in Italy so we gave it to my mother-in-law for her apartment. While living in Italy, we didn’t own a telephone due to the difficulty in dealing with the Italian phone system (and not speaking Italian). Many American expats didn’t have a phone then and we all seemed to do quite well without one. I made the first of many direct-dial international telephone calls while living in Italy using an AT&T calling card and public phones. Dialing direct across the Atlantic was a powerful experience.

Telephones of the 1990s

We returned to America in late 1993. After we moved into our new house in Mississippi we purchased a white wall-hanging phone for the kitchen. This phone had an elaborate mini-cassette tape recording system with a digital messaging feature and speaker phone option. Shortly afterwards, we purchased a telephone/fax/copier/answering machine unit; serious hi-tech. It used special thermo-sensitive paper to make copies and printed receive, faxes and weighted about twenty pounds. We put this new-fangled hi-tech device in an extra bedroom next to another hi-tech gadget; my first home computer.

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