Ed Albanesi: The simpler days of a princess phone

1 princess phone

By ED ALBANESI

My wife and I are beginning to succumb to societal, corporate, peer and dependent pressure to soon provide our rising fifth grader with a cell phone.

Rather than debate the pros and cons of doing so, I thought it might be interesting to briefly explore how telephones, and their use, have so dramatically changed in the last 50 years.

A reader warning here: There was no painstaking research completed by this writer in the formulation of this column. I have relied primarily on my recollections and experiences with telephones beginning in the early 1960s. So if said recollections and experiences are not universally accurate, please cut me a bit of slack.

I did, however, start off with an experiment. Having not dialed an “operator” in more than 10 years, I attempted to do so earlier today. We’ll discuss “dialing” in a moment.

I punched “0” on my cordless home phone and, after about 15 seconds of silence, finally got a busy signal. I tried this a few more times with the same result. Does anybody know when the demise of the telephone operator came about? Or does it depend on what phone company you use?

Speaking of dialing, do people under the age of 21 ever use that term when talking about the process of placing a call? If not, do they even know what we older folks are talking about when we say things like, “we’re gonna dial up the pizza place?”

I suppose there are enough old movies and television shows still being broadcast (we’ll discuss “broadcast” another time) that allow echo boomers and generation Z members to connect the dots when they see telephones containing dials and large finger holes.

By the way, call me sentimental because I have a dialer app on my cell phone. And yes, I sometimes use it.

I can remember when pushbutton phones became all the rage during the 1960s. You could rent them from your phone companies (yes, just about all phones were rentals back them) and the fee was higher than for dial, or rotary phones. Your wiring also had to be able to handle the tones fabricated by pushbutton phones.

When phone service began transitioning to having customers purchase their own phones, the early pushbutton phones had a switch on the side or back that allowed you to toggle between rotary (produced rapid clicks) and tones. Again, to use tones you had to have appropriate wiring and pay extra.

Directory assistance (if you didn’t have a phone book) used to be a free service provided by phone companies. You could dial 411 or, for numbers outside your area, enter 1-(area code) 555-1212 and tell them what city you wanted.

In the 1980s, home phones began transitioning from corded to cordless. At first, answer machines, caller ID software and speaker phone options came as separate pieces of hardware. As time progressed, all of these embellishments were built into a single piece of telephone equipment.

Car phones were around in the 1960s but were extremely rare and I haven’t the foggiest idea how they worked. They began to proliferate in the late 1980s and early 1990s as people adapted their portable “bag” phones for use in their automobiles.

In the mid to late 1990s the cellular revolution began taking shape with portable phones shrinking in size. Flip phones became popular and with the advent of iPhones and their ilk, phones started doubling as cameras, email, texting and gaming devices, and Internet browsers.

As I write this, some new feature is undoubtedly being formulated and/or introduced for the cell phone user.

As phones have become more complicated, certain aspects have become simpler. Long distance used to cost extra. Calling overseas used to be prohibitively expensive. You used to be able to charge a phone call to the person you were calling (with their consent). This was termed a collect call.

You could call someone “person-to-person,” and if they weren’t available, you didn’t pay for the call. If they were available, you would pay extra. Operators would assist with collect and person-to-person calls. Maybe that’s why I got a busy signal when I tried to dial one earlier.

The jury is still out as to whether we will get our daughter a cell phone as she enters middle school. The cellular companies have run the numbers and what is fairly certain is whatever plan we might choose will not be cheap.

If only our daughter would be happy (as my younger sister was) with a pink, pushbutton Princess phone. Not a chance.

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