My Little Town 20111228: Telephone Calls

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River.  It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

One of the things that has really changed from when I was little is how telephone calls are made.  When I was little, the Bell System (AT&T) virtually controlled all telephone traffic.  It DID control all long distance traffic, and many local exchanges.  Where it did not care to run lines, AT&T would contract with local or regional carriers.

Some of the local exchanges were part of the Bell System, owned by AT&T, whilst others were independent and operated under contract.  The one in Hackett was a Bell System one, but in some even more rural locations independents ruled, and they often chose not to provide service to isolated areas because of the expense of running lines and maintaining them.  Remember, back in those days modern multiplex calls on a single line were just getting started, and in those analogue days were not all that good.

At the time, only equipment provided by the telephone company could be used.  They charged you for everything, because you leased the telephone.  Only the telephone company could run new lines in a house, and they charged for that.  As a result, most people had only one telephone.  It was a double whammy, too, because AT&T owned Western Electric, the sole manufacturer of telephones and accessories.  I remember that my cousin’s wife had an extra long receiver cord, and they had to pay a separate monthly rental charge for it, too!

Ours was in the middle hall downstairs.  It was hardwired into the wall, modular jacks being unknown at the time.  This was not quite Andy Griffith, because we actually could dial our own calls without an operator, at least local ones.  Our number was 336!  It had not been too long since when picking up the handset the operator would come on and say, “Number, please!”, but I do not remember that.

We could dial any other telephone in Hackett, but if we wanted to dial outside of that, we had to go through the operator.  There was no alternate.  To call to the next town, Greenwood, you would have to dial “O” (at the time that was the letter “O”, not the cypher “0”), give the number that you wanted to call to the operator, and tell her (operators were almost exclusively women) if you wanted to call “station-to-station” or “person-to-person”.  The difference was that if you used the first option billing would start as soon as the telephone on the other end was answered, but with the latter billing would only start when the specific person that you wanted came on the line.  However, station-to-station rates were much lower.

There were also party lines at the time.  We had a private line because my dad used the telephone extensively for business, and so could not be burdened with having to wait for others to finish their conversations.  At the time, there were two, four, and eight party lines, each with a unique number but with only one carrier signal for all of the telephones on the line.

My grandmother was on a four party line, and it was sort of a hassle because of having to wait to get a call made.  In addition, when you picked up a party line that was in use, you could hear the conversation that the others were having, and dishonest adults and curious little kids would listen in for hours.  People would even unscrew the covering for the transmitter coil and remove it so that they could listen in without being detected.

The reason for the party lines was as given before:  the lack of ability to multiplex more than one conversation on a single line.  The cost of running separate lines was significant, so private lines were expensive.  These days, hardly anyone would tolerate sharing a line with others, but it was the norm rather than the exception when I was little.

Calling someone on your party line was a problem, because when you dialed the call, their line was technically busy, because you had the receiver off the hook so all that you would get was a busy signal.  To call someone your party line, you had to dial the number and then hang up!  The ring signal was on a different level than the voice signal, so both telephones would ring.  When the ringing on your end stopped, you knew that the other party had picked up the receiver, so you could then pick up yours and talk.

Law were written to make it an offense to fail to relinquish a party line if the person desiring to make a call had an emergency, like calling the sheriff or other emergency personnel, such as there were at the time.  It was also an offense to pretend to have an emergency just to get control of the line for a nonemergency call.

The next advance was Direct Dialing.  By the mid 1960s most areas had been assigned seven digit numbers, and our 336 number became 638 8336.  With the area code, 501, our number was 501 638 8336 (all numbers in Hackett at the time had “8” as the first digit in the terminal series.  With direct dialing, it was then possible to make a long distance call by dialing (yes, dialing, touch tone was not yet available) the number 1 plus the nine digit number, much like is done today.

Direct dialing did a lot to eliminate many operator jobs.  With almost everyone able to used direct dialing, the operator was necessary only for directory assistance (free at the time), conference calls, collect calls, and the remaining person-to-person calls.  As far as I know, person-to-person calling is still available, but as cheap as direct dialed calls are now (very often unlimited and at no extra cost other than a flat monthly fee), there is very little demand for them.  In a sense, collect calls are a special case of them, because no one will accept a collect call from an unknown person.

Now, collect calls are alive and well now, but usually they are connected without the intervention of an operator.  In the US, collect calls are a significant source of revenue for detention centers, because those incarcerated have to give up their cellular telephones and are forced to make collect calls after their “one telephone call” has been used.  The institutions generally contract with a third party connexion service, and the surcharges, accepted by the recipient of the call, are shared betwixt the connexion service and the institution by whatever terms the contract specifies.  Personally, I think that this is kicking someone who is already down.

Interestingly, the use of automatic switches instead of operator intervention gave rise to the practice of phreaking, wherein unscrupulous persons would use tone generators to mimic the internal audio frequency tones that give various commands, including when a call was terminated, to the switches.  This is way beyond the intent of this piece, but for some time AT&T had a considerable loss of revenue because of that.  One notable phreak was called “Captain Crunch” because he used a toy whistle from a box of the cereal that just happened to provide the 2600 Hz signal that fooled the switch to think that the call was over, and then the still open line could be used to make new calls without charge.  Another notable phreak was a cat named Steve Jobs!

When I was little, the only telephones available were rotary dial ones, quite analogue in their function.  When the dial was used, pulses corresponding to whatever number would be sent to the switching equipment, and by electromechanical action the switching equipment would make the connexion.  In 1963, the very first touchtone telephones were introduced, but it took a long time for them to catch on much.  For one thing, a specially designed line had to be used, and AT&T charged extra for it.  That was sort of a neat trick, because the equipment is much cheaper and more rugged than the old electromechanical equipment was, so AT&T actually charged customers to help defray the cost of what was really a cost savings effort!

Rotary telephones are being phased out, and many exchanges have no provision to accept the old pulse signals.  As equipment is modernized, expect for rotary dial telephones to become useless.  Some telephones are being manufactured that simulate the old rotary dial ones, but they actually use touchtone technology.

I also remember the first telefacsimile machine that I ever saw.  I know for a fact that this had to be before March of 1973, because I got my driving license then.  Before that I would stay at in the break room at my mum’s office (she worked at the Fort Smith Employment Security Division office).  It was completely analogue and involved attaching whatever one wanted to send to a drum that then was put in the transmitter, the the receiving number connected, and then the machine would rotate the drum at high speed.  The image was scanned by a light and photocell, and those signals were converted into audio signals.  At the receiving end, those signals were built up into a copy of the image with a stylus, the position of which was determined by the audio signal that was demodulated to position the stylus.

As I recall, there had to be another voice line betwixt the sending and receiving end, the person receiving the transmission monitoring it until the image was dense enough to be legible.  Then the person on the receiving end would tell the person sending the transmission that they could stop sending.  It took several minutes to send or receive a single page, and the quality was not very good by today’s standards.  The old AP Wirephoto used either the same or very similar technology.  The reason for having FAX capability at my mum’s office was for the central office at Little Rock to be able to send new job listings in near real time, because mail service took too long for them to be current once the listings got to Fort Smith.  Likewise, her office would send the new ones from there to Little Rock for incorporation into what then passed as a database.

In these days of cellular telephones, smart phones, and more advanced technologies, the telephone system with which I grew up seems quaint and almost unusable.  However, for many, many decades service like I remember was the primary electronic communications method for just about everyone.  As technology improved, so did service and costs were reduced.  Even though modern service costs for wireless service may sound expensive, you have to remember that a $5.00 per month telephone bill in 1963 is pretty much in line with the cost of $36.97, and all long distance charges were added onto the basic bill.  Include the rental fees for the lines and telephones, and the actual cost has not changed that much, but the services are so much greater that the modern wireless telephone, in all of its variations, is truly a modern marvel.

Please feel free to add your recollections about how things were when you were growing up, whether in a small town or not.  The audience enjoys reading them.  This is the last My Little Town for 2011, but we will be back next year.  Happy New Year!

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

The Stars Hollow Gazette,

Daily Kos, and



  1. remembering distant memories?

    Warmest regards,


  2. I wish everyone a very Happy New Year and hope that both yours and mine have a better 2012 than 2011.

    Warmest regards,


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