Rerun: Telephone Talk

Telephone similar to ones in kitchen and basementIf you grew up in Cape, you were in the land of EDgewater. If you lived over in Jackson, you were a CIrcle person. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are probably also going to be surprised to see that the telephone has a round thing instead of buttons.

Here’s where you can find out a little bit about EDgewater, CIrcle, RAmond, LOcust, TUlip and GRanite.

See, back in those days, the phone company, Ma Bell, was the only game in town. You leased the phone from them (and because of that, they made it so bulletproof that telephones and cockroaches were going to be the only thing left after The Big One was dropped). You didn’t have modular jacks: the phone was wired directly to the jack and the phone company was responsible if anything went wrong with it.

Like with the other rerun posts, click on the links to see more photos and get the full stories.

Extensions cost extra

You were charged by extension, and the phone company could tell by the voltage drop how many ringing phones you had connected, and they would periodically run tests to check for bootleg equipment.

One of my buddies had an illegal extension in his house. The phone rang and a Bell tech asked how many phones he had in his house. Fibbing, he said, “Just one,” and he ran to unplug the extra one.

The phone rang again. Same tech. “You just unplugged it, didn’t you?” he said.

I acquired a couple of spare phones over the years, but I hooked up toggle switches on the ringer so they (a) wouldn’t wake up the kids and (b) wouldn’t show up to that sneaky tech.

It’s all AM and FM

Malcolm Steinhoff w buttset 08-10-2008Most of you think I was always a photographer. I spent the last 13 or so years of my newspaper career as a telecommunications manger, a job I really liked, but was totally unqualified for to start out. I got it because I was a good project manager, understood construction, got along with other departments, knew how to live within a budget and, most importantly, had a staff who really knew what they were doing to keep the phones humming.

When I was invited to speak at a telecommunications manager conference, I said that most kids want to grow up to be firemen or rocket ship drivers or other dramatic things; very few proclaim, “Mom and Dad, I want to hang a butt set off my belt.” Most of us fell into the job like I had.

My first crisis

I had Mike, my No. 2 Guy, to ease me into the job and to kick me under the table when I’d start to say something dumb in a meeting. My first big crisis occurred when we had a planned building power outage that caused the whole place to go dark. We had one critical phone switch that suddenly decided that it LIKED taking a nap and didn’t want to wake up.

About four in the morning, two hours before the call centers were supposed to open, I asked Mike the question that all techs hate to hear: “Any idea what the problem is?” The obvious, unstated answer is, “No. If I knew how to fix it, we’d have all been in bed two hours ago.”

Mike, one of the best troubleshooters I’ve ever worked with, turned to me and calmly spelled out the facts of telephonic life. In fact they apply to every aspect of real life, too.

You’re going to have to follow this link to read his words of wisdom.

 Before cell phones

Boys talking on tin can telephonesI was more comfortable with this level of technology. I mean, how can you beat unlimited voice and data plans and no need for batteries?

Dropping a dime

Pay telephone booths near Scott Quadrangle c 1967We didn’t have phones in our dorm rooms when I first moved into Scott Quad my junior year. If we wanted to call home, we had to find a phone booth that worked, a real challenge because the phone company wasn’t diligent about emptying the money out of them. When they were full, they were full.

Like Buddy Jim Stone points out, we didn’t have helicopter parents back in those days because we weren’t connected 24/7. By the time you were able to call home, you had probably already worked out the problem yourself (or had forgotten it).

If you look at a closeup photo at this link, you can see that the price of a call had just gone up from a nickel to a dime.

Car phones coming to Cape

Achievement Edition Car phones 02-26-1966The big news in 1966 was that car phones were coming to Cape.

How times have changed (I hope)

1944 Cape Telephone Book P32 Restaurants - coloredThe 1944 Cape County Telephone Directory contains a jarring classification. Follow the link to see the not-colored restaurants in Cape.

Cheating Death to make phone ring

Lester Harris SW Bell repairman over the Diversion Channel 08-18-1965I’ve mentioned Lester Harris quite a few times in this blog. He was one of those dedicated Bell techs we all took for granted.

There was a telephone cable that spanned the Diversion Channel just east of I-55. From time to time, some nimrod couldn’t resist the temptation to take a shot at it. If he was halfway accurate, phones in Scott City and the airport would go dead.

Lester would walk the roadway until he found fresh shell casings that would give him a rough idea where he was going to find the break. Then, he’d strap on his tool belt, and climbing spikes to shinny up a pole to where he could hook his cable buggy over a wire cable that supported the phone wires.

Let’s put this in perspective. Phone wire is softer and more delicate than steel cable, but what is to say that some stray bullets haven’t nicked some of the wire strands that are holding Lester 60 feet above the Diversion Channel? In a perfect world, they would catch the shooter and send him out of the cable buggy to make sure it was safe before Lester got on it.

Lester was featured in the stock car racing post the other day.

Microwave towers

ATT microwave tower - Ridge Road - Jackson 08-09-2014The horizon used to be dotted with long-haul microwave towers like this one on Ridge Road in Jackson. Fiber optic cable has made them obsolete, and many have been torn down or repurposed as cell towers.




Transformers, AM and FM

Looks like someone is getting a new transformer or other high-voltage piece of equipment. These photos were on the same roll as the Scott City fire truck, so they may have been taken somewhere around there, but I don’t know that for sure. Click on any photo to make it larger (but don’t look too closely. This film is scratched up pretty badly).

Telecommunications: squirting electrons

I spent the last dozen years of my newspaper career as the telecommunications manager. That sounds a little odd, but telecom is all about managing projects helping people communicate. It was pretty easy to understand: you squirt electrons in this end and they come out way over there. I had installed enough two-way radios to have that principle down pat.

Lucky for the paper, there were two guys already in the department who knew what they were doing. My Number Two guy, Mike, had two main responsibilities: keep the phones running and kick me under the table if I started to say something dumb in a meeting.

My most important lesson came one night when the building’s electrical crew had to kill all the power to make some repairs. We had a telephone switch that we called The Cash Register because it handled the classified and circulation department call centers. It was an ancient box that was so old we couldn’t get new parts for it. We had to go out on the secondary market for used and abused stuff that had a failure rate of about two out of three.

The Cash Register didn’t wake up

Old equipment runs fairly well as long as you don’t shut it down. Unfortunately, when it came time to wake up The Cash Register when the power came back on, it decided that it LIKED napping. I was there that night, not because I was of any help, but just as a sign of support to my troops. About four in the morning, two hours before the call centers were supposed to open, I asked Mike the question that all techs hate to hear: “Any idea what the problem is?” The obvious, unstated answer is, “No. If I knew how to fix it, we’d have all been in bed two hours ago.”

Mike was the calmest, best troubleshooter I’ve ever seen. The world could be blowing up around him and he’d keep working through the checklist until he found out which hamster needed kicking.

It boils down to AM and FM

He turned to me and said in quiet, measured tones and with great patience, “What we have here is AM and we need FM.”

We’re in my arena now. This is language I understand. “Amplitude Modulation instead of Frequency modulation? Those are radio terms. What does that have to do with a phone switch?”

“No,” he explained. “What we have is AM – Almost Magic. What we need is FM – Freaking Magic (except he didn’t say “freaking).”

That’s the night everything there was to know about telecommunications and most of life in general became crystal clear. It all boils down to AM and FM.

Can you keep it going another year?

The first year I was telecom manager, I went into a capital budget meeting with a request to replace The Cash Register. Management asked if I could milk one more year out of it. Mike, unfortunately, wasn’t there to kick me under the table, so I said we’d try.

The second year, I went into the hearing with the same request, only more urgently worded. When management asked the inevitable question if I could keep it running one more year if they increased my maintenance budget I was ready.

“No, in fact, you can cut the budget to 25 cents if we don’t replace The Cash Register. That’s about enough to buy one bullet. It’s gonna be a toss-up whether I use it on the switch or me if it hiccups one more time.” They gave me the quarter-million bucks I’d asked for instead of two bits, so life was good.

Staying away from sparky stuff

Our universe was divided into Low Voltage and Sparky Stuff. Management must have known about my limitations because they put me in charge of the low voltage data stuff. Oh, sure, you might get a little 90-volt buzz if you happened to be holding onto a telephone pair if someone happened to be calling it, but that’s minor compared to what the Sparky Guys worked with.

From time to time we’d have to venture into the building’s power vaults. Newspaper presses and elevators and the like take a lot of juice, so our switch gear was almost this big. When you’re dealing with stuff like this, you don’t just push a button to connect to the outside world. We’d watch the Sparky guys pull down down a big lever attached to springs like this, then they’d beat feet to get out of the vault. After a few seconds, the spring would fire the connectors into the grid  with an impressive CRACK!! and the smell of ozone. The spring-loading was to minimize the  time and distance that an arc would jump. A human couldn’t do it fast enough.

After that impressive display, we’d slink back to our safe telephone switch room to see if we could find someone who could be persuaded to hold the two ends of a phone cable while somebody in another room dialed the phone number. Hey, even low voltage guys have to have fun.