Monday, March 3, 2008

Happy Birthday Mr. Bell!

We've come a long way since the days of "smoke signals" and "One if by land, two if by sea". Even Western Union no longer delivers telegrams. Communication has grown leaps and bounds since Alexander Graham Bell received the first patent (Patent Number 174,465 was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876 by the U. S. Patent office).

Alexander Graham Bell was born on this date in 1847. He died at age 75 in 1922. He saw a lot of changes and advancements in the 46 years after that first patent. I can't help but wonder what he'd think of all the new fangled phones and their gadgets on the market now and the so called improvements in phone services.

As you know, I grew up on a farm. I've heard my parents talk about the old days of having to crank the phone to get the operator. When I was a kid, we had what was called a party line. Several households would share the same line. Each home had its own ring. Ours was "two long rings". There were usually four to six homes on a line (2 or 3 on each side of the line to avoid a lot of confusing rings) as it was way to expensive to even consider having a private line. It eventually got down to two/line and private lines finally arrived in the early 1990's in our area.

It was a bit of a pain trying to call a neighbour. You had to dial their number, then hang up and let the phone ring until it quit ringing which meant the other person had answered. You had to try to remember to answer in the middle of a ring to give a clear signal.

The biggest disadvantage for most was that you could not have a private conversation without someone picking up the phone and saying "Is the line busy?" or "How long are you going to be?" The priority was supposed to be given to business, emergencies and long distance but not everyone was that respectful.

Eavesdropping was very common. Usually you could tell when someone else was on the line as the quality of the connection wasn't quite as good. Most eavesdroppers would hold their hand or a cloth over the receiver to prevent unwanted breathing noises from giving them away. My parents used to talk about one neighbour who loved to "listen in". He would be on his chesterfield listening and sometimes fall asleep and start snoring into the phone!

Radio often made fun of the telephone and the mostly women operators who helped direct all those phone calls. Probably the most famous radio "operator" that was never heard was on "Fibber McGee and Molly". Wikipedia has this to say;

"Myrtle, also known as "Myrt" - a never-heard telephone operator that Fibber is friends with. A typical Myrt sketch started with Fibber picking up the phone and demanding, "Operator, give me number 32Oooh, is that you, Myrt? How's every little thing Myrt?" Commonly, this was followed with Fibber relaying what Myrt was telling him to Molly, usually news about Myrt's family, and always ending with a bad pun. Myrtle made one brief on-air appearance on June 22, 1943 when she visited the McGee's to wish them a good summer--the McGee's did not recognize her in person."

Television also had some famous operators. Harriet Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" had great facial expressions as she listened in and got the latest town gossip from the people of Walnut Grove! "M*A*S*H*" had Radar O'Reilly and in later years Klinger to keep track of the goings on at the 4077th.

My favourite telephone operator, hands down is Lily Tomlin's
character "Ernestine" These quotes are from Wikipedia:
-One ringy dingy... two ringy dingy.
-Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?"
-The phone company handles 84 billion calls a year, everything
from kings, queens, and presidents to the scum of the earth.
-How may I, in all humble servitude, be of assistance?-What's that Mr. Veedle? Privileged information?... that's so cute.
-You're dealing with the phone company, Mr. Veedle. We are not bound by city, state, or federal regulations. We are omnipotent.

-You are not dealing with just anyone's fool. I am a high-school graduate.
-Don't hang up. You've angered me, and when you anger me you anger the phone company and all the power necessary to tie up your lines for the next fifty years. Do I make myself clear?
-Well Mr. Bush, it may be true that Mr. Kerry avoided being in a war, but at least he didn't start one.
(At a political event doing a sketch pretending to transfer a call by George W. Bush.

You can read more about Ernestine and Lily Tomlin at;
Somehow, I don't think this is quite what Mr. Bell had in mind!

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