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Telephone

In 1981 when I was seven or eight and on my way to visit my grandparents across town, I would always stop in the alley behind the phone company and jump up so that I could see across a fence and into an uncurtained window. What I'd see were banks of tangled colored wires. Tangled wires meant progress—you saw pictures of them in books about spacecraft or computers. Sometimes, in the window, a man would be standing on a ladder among the wires. What was going on in there? According to Telephone: The first hundred years by John Brooks (Harper & Row, 1976), in 1976 AT&T employed one percent of the United States and had $75 billion in assets (nearly a quarter-trillion dollars if you adjust for inflation). That was what was going on in there.

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Page 20—at a typical AT&T directors' meeting at 195 Broadway

Whatever matters require decision are discussed by the directors and then voted upon by them. If such a decision is of crucial improtance to investors—say, a change in the rate of dividend—a ritual of public disclusure is followed that, curiously enough, conspicuously avoids use of the telephone. The company secretary (not a board member, but of course a regular attender of board meetings) conveys the news in code to a company public-relations man in an office several floors below, by pressing certain buttons hidden in a drawer under the oval table. The PR man (falling back on the telephone at this juncture) immediately informs the New York Stock Exchange, where AT&T shares are traded; he then waits three minutes to allow the Exchange time to prepare for whatever deluge of buying or selling of AT&T may be occasioned, whereupon he gives the news to the wire services. The purpose of this procedure is to minimize the possibility of anyone's making improper use of inside information, and to prevent any disturbance of the even tenor of the directors' meeting.

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Page 38

[In 1863 Alexander Graham Bell] managed, by manipulating his Skye terrier's mouth and vocal cords, to make the dog utter something approximating the . . . sentiment “How are you, Grandmama?”

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Page 74

Late in 1879, telephone subscribers began for the first time to be designated and called by numbers rather than by their names. It happened in Lowell, Massachusetts, and it seems to have happened as a result of an epidemic of measles. When the epidemic struck that fall, it occurred to a local physician, Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, that if the ailment should simultaneously attack all of Lowell's four telephone operators, inexperienced substitutes would have so much trouble learning which name went with each of the two hundred jacks on the switchboard that service would be paralyzed. Accordingly, he recommended that numbers be used instead. The local Bell company management at first protested that its customers would consider their designation by numbers to be beneath their dignity; nevertheless, it saw the logic of the doctor's suggestion, and followed it. The subscribers were not outraged; the epidemic quickly passed, but telephone numbers did not.

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Page 110—from a Census Bureau report circa 1906

A group of farmers who lived within a reasonable distance of one another, having come to the conclusion that telephone service was an essential comfort of life . . . would meet together and arrange to establish a telephone system which should connect them with one another. The work involved . . . would be so divided that each member of the association would contribute an equivalent part of the material and labor . . . The work of stringing the wires and installing the instruments was taken up by the mechanically-minded farmers and their boys and in a very short time a complete telephone system was in operation. The switchboard was placed in the house of one of the members of the association situated at some convenient point, and the operation of the lines was attended to by the wife and daughters of the farmer in whose home the board was located.

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Pages 169-170

[AT&T President Walter S.] Gifford's office style was laconic and precise; his sartorial trademark was a neat bow tie . . . At home, he showed an intense dislike of social functions of all kinds. He habitually took telephone calls at all hours of the night, often using a carefully practiced accent to prevent callers from knowing, unless he wanted them to know, that they were talking to the president of AT&T. Among the telephone users with service problems who once called him after midnight—and succeeded in breaking through the disguise—was the humorist James Thurber. Thurber's phone was fixed immediately after the conversation.

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Page 202

Abe Pickens, of Cleveland, Ohio, at various times placed, and more or less completed, long-distance calls to Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain, Emperor Hirohito, and other world leaders at a total cost to him that he said was ten thousand dollars. In the case of Hitler, whom he called early in 1939, he was connected with the German Führer and said, “Hello, A. Hitler, this is A. Pickens of Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A.” Hitler, unable to speak or understand English, switched Pickens to an aide, to whom Pickens suggested that there should be a general election in Spain.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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