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From party lines to smartphones in a half-century

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Realizing how cellphones and handheld mobile phone devices have come to completely consume and dominate our world in so many ways, it might be difficult for some — especially younger folks — to understand that until just a few years ago, these items did not even exist at all.

According to Wikipedia, the first wire-connected telephone conversation took place on Oct. 9, 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the phone, and Thomas A. Watson talked to each other over a 2-mile wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts.

These two men were also involved later in the first transcontinental telephone call made on Jan. 25, 1915 over a 3,400-mile wire between New York and San Francisco that required five intermediary operators, several days to prepare and almost a half-hour to connect by manually patching in the route when the call was actually made.

The first mobile phone appeared in 1973, then mobile phones went on sale in the U.S. costing almost $4,000 each in 1983 and by 1996, they had become mainstream.

Today, more than five billion people worldwide own a cellphone.

Using the 1950s as a random reference point, let us briefly examine some differences and similarities between telephones of that era and those of today.

Although two out of three households in America had at least one telephone by the 1950s, the biggest difference was that earlier phones only existed in homes or businesses and were not carried around with us on our person.

While all cellphones today have a basic, similar look, all phones from the 1950s looked alike as well.

They consisted of a bulky base, usually black in color, with a rotary dial on the front since keypads had not yet been invented.

The dial had 10 finger holes in it numbered 1 through 9 and zero. By winding the dial clockwise from the correct finger hole, callers could dial any number required.

Unlike now, whenever any long distance call was made in the 1950s, whether it was just a few miles away or to another state or country, it was first necessary for the caller to speak with an operator who worked from a centrally located switchboard.

The caller was not charged unless the requested party was reached. This method was popular when telephone calls were relatively expensive. A collect call meant it was to be paid for by the person being called.

Direct distance dialing, which allowed callers to directly dial long-distance numbers without the help of an operator, did not happen until the 1950s.

Except in rare cases, for many years all telephones and phone lines used, whether in homes or businesses, were owned by AT&T, which also provided all local and long-distance telephone service.

Before the advent of emergency telephone numbers like 911, operators identified and connected emergency calls to the correct emergency service as part of their job.

Other phone-related and now-extinct relics from this earlier period were phone booths, phone directories and party lines.

Phone booths were usually located in a station, hotel or a building where there was a public telephone. When a call was made from a phone booth, again with operator assistance, it required paying for the call by dropping coins into a slot on the phone after the amount, based on the length of the call, was determined.

A phone directory was a softback catalog that listed phone numbers of phone customers in that particular city, town or area.

This was also many years prior to such concepts as answering machines, voicemail and text messaging.

Today’s younger generation would not understand a party line at all. This was a local telephone loop circuit shared by more than one subscriber.

There was no privacy on a party line and if you were talking with anyone, others could pick up their telephones and listen in on the conversation.

Also, if anyone on your party line was using their phone, no one else could make a call at the same time — not even in an emergency. Party lines were commonplace during most of the 20th century, especially in rural areas.

Telling teenagers today, or anyone else for that matter, they would only be able to communicate from now on by means of a party line would probably result in either some sort of a global riot or possibly the end of the world.

Keith Barnes is a reporter and columnist for the Johnstonian News. Email him at