Technology reigns, 1950s style

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

It was a long time before we got cell phones, and then only to be able to reach each other when one was on the lake and the other at home. And that’s only possible when the one on the boat bothers to have his turned on.

When we were first married, we didn’t even have a telephone. Borrowed a neighbor’s when it was absolutely necessary. Which it seldom was, now that we were each living with the only other person in the world we really wanted to talk to.

And before that, our parents’ phones were on party lines. For those younger than ourselves a party line is like a series of extensions, one in each household, and with a little practice, you could listen to your neighbors’ conversations undetected.

There were eight people on our line, which meant we heard four different rings and depended on no one else being on the line at that moment.

We may have upgraded to a two-party line by the time I got to high school, about 1950. I don’t know how else I got away with gabbing endlessly with friends I had left on the school bus just minutes earlier.

I saw this story in the genealogy web site, RootsWeb, and saved it because it is just too good not to share. It dates from the same era and illustrates the differences in technology in different parts of the United States. I’ll paraphrase where I can, but the quotes are from the original, written by a man named Dick Pence.

Pence was a novice sea hand on a cruiser based in the Philadelphia Naval Yard in 1950, a kid just out of high school and the plains of South Dakota. His story tells why he believes he inspired AT&T to upgrade its telephone technology.

Homesick on shore leave after a two-week training cruise, Pence headed for the pay phones lined up on the dock, deposited a carefully saved nickel, and dialed “O.” The following, he writes, is a roughly verbatim account of what took place after the Philadelphia operator answered.

In his best telephone voice, the young sailor said, “I’d like to place a station-to-station collect call to the Bob Pence residence in Columbia, South Dakota.”

The operator was sure she had heard wrong.

“You mean Columbia, South Carolina, don’t you?”

“No, I mean Columbia, South Dakota.” Pence had called home once before and knew what was coming,.

“Certainly. What is the number, please?”

“They don’t have a number,” Pence mumbled.

Philadelphia Operator, sounding incredulous: “They don’t have a number?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I can’t complete the call without a number. Do you have it?” Philadelphia insisted.

Pence recognized the voice of authority, and stammered, “The only thing I know is… two longs and a short.”

He remembers hearing a snort. “Never mind. I’ll get the number for you. One moment, please.”

There followed a loud click and a long silence. Philadelphia apparently determined that there was indeed a Columbia, South Dakota, and what she needed to do to call there.

First she dialed an operator in Cleveland, and asked her to dial one in Chicago. She had Chicago dial Minneapolis; Minneapolis dialed Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City got Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the operator there dialed Aberdeen, South Dakota. And at last, Aberdeen dialed the operator in Columbia.

Her patience worn thin, Philadelphia figured she was back in control when Columbia answered.

“The number for the Bob Pence residence, please,” she demanded.

With no hesitation, Columbia responded, “That’s two longs and a short.”

Philadelphia was taken aback, but only for a moment. “I have a collect call from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for anyone at that number. Would you please ring?”

“They’re not home,” said Columbia, again not missing a beat.

Philadelphia paused, but decided not to press the issue.

“There is no one at that number, sir,” she said, relaying the message Pence already heard. “Would you like to try again later?”

Columbia interrupted: “Is that you, Dick?”

“Yeah, Margaret. Where are the folks?”

Philadelphia was baffled, but her instincts told her the company comes first.

“Sir! Madam! You can’t…” she sputtered.

Margaret ignored her. “They’re up at the school house at the basketball game. Want me to ring?”

Pence knew he was pushing his luck, and told Margaret not to go to the trouble.

“No trouble at all,” said Margaret. “It’s halftime.”

Philadelphia made one last effort, Pence writes. In her most official tone, she declared: “But this is a station-to-station collect call!”

“You just never mind, honey,” said Columbia, “I’ll just put it on Bob’s bill.”

Ignoring Philadelphia’s protests, Margaret rang the phone at the school house.

“I have a station-to-station collect call for Bob Pence,” Philadelphia said, knowing at that instant that Ma Bell had somehow been had.

“This is he.”

“Go ahead,” whispered an astonished Philadelphia.

Pence said he was glad he couldn’t see her face when he began the conversation in time-honored Mid-Western fashion:

“Hi, Dad, it’s me. How’s the weather?”

“Jeez,” said Philadelphia, clicking off.

A friend of Pence’s who retired from AT&T insists that the company began to automate its long-distance service the following Monday morning.

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