Thursday, September 10, 2009

I sure miss Ma Bell...

Photo Creative Commons 2009 The Fuddler.
Non-comm, attrib, no derivs.

Last week, I found an mid-1970's-vintage desk telephone. It was sitting out at the curb next to boxes of trash, and an old steel record caddy full of 45 RPM records (which I also glommed). Needless to say, it needed cleaning, and I did a thorough job (didn't the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy remind us of the importance of telephone sanitation?). I lightly spritzed some contact cleaner into the phone's base cord and handset cord jacks as well as the modular jack on the receiver. Half an hour and a new base cord later, I was ready to test it. I connected the base cord to the phone, then plugged it into the wall jack. I picked up the receiver and heard the dial tone. Good sign. I called up a friend, who was kind of blown away by the fact that I was calling her on a 31-year-old phone!

As you can see from the photo, this relic of the disco era has no controls other than its keypad. No redial, no mute, no LCD screen counting off the number of minutes I've been talking, just the numbers 0 thru 9 and the usual star and pound signs. How lovely it feels to press those keys which give when you press them, so luxurious compared to dialing the keys of modern phones, which make you feel as though you were stabbing your fingertips into the wall or the desk on which the phone rests. It's solid too. Your cat will not be able to knock this baby off the table, unless your cat's an ocelot or a leopard. When it rings, there's no missing or mistaking it, for under that sleek black plastic enclosure reside two 2-inch-diameter bowl-shaped brass bells. Not a ringer, not a ringtone, bells, which are struck by a vibrating electric hammer when someone calls. They're loud too!

The phone's receiver is primitive by today's standards. The technology of its carbon-button microphone capsule and dynamic earphone is almost a century old. Yet, people that I called had no problem hearing and understanding me. I heard them loud and clear too, even the ones using cell phones with speakerphones. What does that say about today's high-tech digital cell phone system over which some conversations simply cannot be heard clearly, period?

This simple, cleanly-designed, almost-indestructible device from a bygone era was the industry standard for telephones until the breakup of the old Bell System in 1984. It was purpose-built for just one thing – making and answering telephone calls, something which it did without fail. No touch-screen, no camera, no MP3 player, no video games, nothing but an unfailingly dependable communication device. These phones were built to be rented to subscribers for decades, and their build-quality shows it (if General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had borrowed The Bell System's playbook, seeing a Toyota, Subaru or BMW's on the road would be a curiosity rather than commonplace). Compare that with the pocket-sized toys of today which are designed to be obsoleted in a few years by newer models with more gee-whiz features and ever-more-annoying ringtones.

Call me a Luddite if you want, but I'm starting to take a shine to this piece of old school technology! I might never break out my cell phone again!