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In Loving Memory of the Telephone

Updated on July 19, 2019
a "vintage" telephone
a "vintage" telephone

Mounted or Plug In?

Growing up in the 1980's meant one thing when it came to telephones, a landline. The portable phones which are now ubiquitous and let you watch television programs broadcast from New Zealand were unheard of. They were items of the future.

In the 1980's you basically had two choices when it came to placements. Phones were either mounted on the wall or plugged in with a chord. The second option gave you a bit of mobility in case you felt like pacing in a circle instead of standing at the counter.

As inconvenient and primitive as it may sound, there was something magical about the devices. Their ring, the feel of holding an earpiece attached to a microphone, and being able to actually dial a number.

The one on the left is a wall mounted version.
The one on the left is a wall mounted version.

Ring Patterns and Rotaries

When the telephone rang, you really didn't have many options for the type of ring. You usually had your basic ring, which sounded like a bell clapping really fast. It was usually high pitched too.

Occasionally though, manufacturers would get creative. You might, for example, find a phone in the shape of Mickey Mouse. This would have a ringtone of Mickey saying "Hello" or something to that effect. I never owned one, so I can't really verify this from personal memory. But I do remember seeing them around.

There were phones which were clear so you could see the inner workings - the wires and diodes. Some phones had lights on them that either stayed lit or would light up when you had a phone call. The neon ones were pretty fabulous.

The other option you had with these phones were that they used a rotary dial where you had to select your number on the wheel and spin it around. The other dials were push buttons which are similar to what you see on the interface of today's cell phones. Each button made a unique sound. When were were young, we learned how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb. You had to be careful not to push more than seven notes because you might call someone.

Some phone designs

Click thumbnail to view full-size
a typical phone from the 1980sGarfield.  I think he meowed and his eyes open and shutPhones were designed with everything in mind.  M & M's for example
a typical phone from the 1980s
a typical phone from the 1980s
Garfield.  I think he meowed and his eyes open and shut
Garfield. I think he meowed and his eyes open and shut
Phones were designed with everything in mind.  M & M's for example
Phones were designed with everything in mind. M & M's for example

Secret Codes and Evenings at a Friend's House

One of the facts about a typical phone from this era is that you had no way of knowing who was calling. There was no caller ID - at least for most people.

This prompted some parents to use codes in order to let their children know that it was them calling.

I remember being at a friends house and there were four or five of us sitting around, watching television, talking about girls at school and trying to solve the world's problems from a 12 year old's perspective.

Suddenly, the phone rang. This was sort of scary being in a house where there were no adults.

"Sh", said David, "wait."

The phone rang once and then was silent. About thirty seconds later, it rang again. The rest of us were quiet and a bit nervous. We looked at each other and the TV which was playing a Peter Gabriel video in the background. We were scared.

"It's okay," he said. "It's my mom."

What he explained to us later was that his mom had a code. She would call once and then hang up and then a minute later would call back. That was their signal. A phone call from a stranger could prove dangerous. Someone might be trying to see if there were kids home alone. If they knew your phone number, they might know where you lived.

A Light in the Dark

Neon - or some sort of like luminescence
Neon - or some sort of like luminescence

Scary Movies

That brings us to many books and movies that were designed with the telephone in mind. Are You in the House Alone, by Richard Peck was made into a movie. This involved a stalker who used the telephone as a weapon.

Another movie, When a Stranger Calls, is about a woman who keeps getting phone calls and then they find out the calls are coming from closer than she thought. If you haven't seen the film, it's pretty scary - or was to us. I won't ruin it by telling you the ending.

Movies like this made us think the telephone could be a dangerous weapon, a source of fear, because there was a world on the other line that you might not be prepared for.

Do you miss the old telephones?

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Scene from When a Stranger Calls (1979)Telephone poles and wires
Scene from When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Scene from When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Telephone poles and wires
Telephone poles and wires

Technology and the End of an Era

Well it certainly is a different world now. Cell phones are everywhere and can do almost anything you want them to. They can open your doors for you when you come home from work. You can record your favorite television shows weeks in advance. You can show home movies to your Uncle in Terre Haute, Indiana when you are living in Bakersfield.

The phone is no longer a phone, it is part of us. And to think of all those wires that connected cities and towns and neighbors to each other. They've all been replaced by towers, some of them disguised as trees. Ironically, most of the telephone poles which were erected were cut from wood that was once living.

Somehow, the world is getting a little smaller and a little too close with this new technology. Robert Frost once wrote something about how good walls make good neighbors. There was some truth to that.

I am not sure what the future holds for us, but eventually I see blue tooth (did I write that right?) implants becoming an option. Then telepathy?

I think we should turn around now though, while we still have a chance, while there still are the poles up that line the roadways, welcoming you into town or guarding you while you leave it. There is something magical about wires, the electricity that converts a voice into a message that can be carried underground, over mountains and even across oceans.

Moving at comfortable pace, with a pause and sometimes with a face or name you've never known before. There was some peace in that.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Fin


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