Chester Martin Remembers The Simple Telephone

Friday, March 4, 2016

I am titling this article that way so as to describe the telephone as I remember it: free of any "apps", or any degree of intelligence whatsoever - except it could hear, and it could talk. The old phones of my day were in no way "smart", and they sat on a desk at your home or office, tethered permanently and immobile to the wall, behaving themselves quite well. But it was impossible to have a private conversation unless you were alone in the room.

Some people who used their phone a lot had their homes wired with "jacks" so that the main phone could be moved, or a secondary phone could be plugged in temporarily. You can see some of these "un-smart" phones in old movies. The one I grew uo with at home had a heavy round base with a dial on top of it, then a vertical shaft supported the mouthpiece (transmitter) shaped like a bell, and just below the mouthpiece was a horizontal "hook" which held the "receiver". Other, newer versions existed alongside this style of phone - not so tall, and having both transmitter and receiver unified into a single handpiece. All these older phones had numeric "dials" where you dialed your number one number at a time. There were no beeps or chimes or other noises beyond the dial-tone and the clicking noise heard while dialing: one click per digit. It was years before you pressed a button for each digit, and much longer until everything became "digitized". Our old phone had a special niche of its own - an actual hole through the wall so it could be accessed either from kitchen or dining room.

Phones were regarded by many people as a "necessary evil", and I have personally known  businessmen who would duck out of the office to let someone "else" deal with an in-coming call. The incoming call meant a potential new headache, so all the better to let someone else answer. While working in Dayton, Ohio, one summer in the mid 1950's I remember how the boss was planning his entire vacation around the idea of being shed of the phone for two full weeks by taking his family to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he would be "50 miles from the nearest phone!"

All that has seemingly changed in recent years, and everyone now seems to have a phone attached to one hand at all times!  And I rarely see anyone look up from their phone for more than a moment! At the airport, the passengers de-plane with phone in hand, and those departing are saying their farewells by phone. Someone speaks, and no one looks up. (I have recently heard there is an "urban dictionary" word for that called "text-snubbing").    

I am guessing that Alexander Graham Bell would be absolutely astonished at the complexity and popularity that his invention has achieved - world-wide. It was such a simple device in its origins, where a few sharp ladies of the late Victorian era stood around their switchboards and manually connected the caller with the callee. My mother did that for a time here in Chattanooga; she was an "Operator". You would call her switchboard and give the number you wanted, and she would reach for the correct wire and make the connection. Later, the dialing system was introduced and operators were no longer needed except to solve glitches in the equipment, or for Long Distance service. That was before the days of area codes and direct dialing. St. Elmo was the last Chattanooga suburb to need operators for connecting purposes. (It was fun for me while visiting friends in St. Elmo to place a call: you would lift the receiver and wait for the operator to say, "Number ple-ase", and she would then connect you  manually). THAT was a real luxury, for in today's age I cannot get a single "live" person to assist me when needed!

I forget how many operators were normally on duty at any single time, but probably no more than a dozen. They were all provided with stationary slanting stools so that the operator (always a young woman) could never actually sit while working. It was OK to recline - very briefly - but NOT to attempt sitting. If you broke the rules, there was a uniformed, Nazi-like superintendent lady who would appear with a Marine Corps type of swagger-stick to tap any offender on the shoulder.

Sometime in the late 1970's or early 1980's I was walking the dog one evening and could not believe my eyes when I discovered a lady sitting in her front yard actually talking on a phone! I did a double-take! That was a real shock, as there were NO wires - just the lady and her phone. I soon had one of my own, and have believed in cordless phones ever since. "Cellular" phones followed by the mid '80's, but they were very large and bulky. Also, there were not yet enough cells for their signal to go anywhere. It took the country several years to get all the necessary cells open nationwide before they would work efficiently. The newer cell phones seem to all have been designed by Asian people with tiny little hands, as the buttons are so small that my big fat Gringo fingers usually hit more than one button at a time...

I had one of the new cell phones for a while, but never got the "hang" of it. I like a mouthpiece that is close to my mouth, and not to feel like I am talking into thin air. I feel much more comfortable with the simpler device - the "cordless" phone - so plan to keep one of those on hand from now on. Neither do I want a phone for photography - I'll keep my old camera. Just look what Dick Tracy started back in the 1940's with his "two-way wrist radio"!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )


Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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