The first public phones in Los Angeles, 1899


Seen at /r/HistoryPorn, additional information from Retronaut.

“228 So. Spring St.. The first telephone line between San Francisco and Los Angeles had just been opened, and long distance calls to the Bay City were being stimulated. The young man, Roy E. Jillson, was messenger boy then and was still an employee of the telephone company in 1934.”

Depending on which inflation calculator you use, 50¢ turns out to be hideously expensive for 1899. $13.78 per minute… that would basically mean you didn’t want to call San Francisco unless it were a matter of life or death.

For the curious, here’s what the area looks like right now:


It’s a neighbor to the LA Times building.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Just Imagine: Assembling a telephone

I had a wonderful few minutes watching this old stop-motion film from 1947 showing how a telephone was put together. The music was great (although I couldn’t help seeing Wilson, Keppel, and Betty dancing off in the wings somewhere.)

The old dial phones had quite a few parts, didn’t they? But on the gripping hand, they were built like tanks and lasted pert’near forever.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Hello Central!

Earlier this year I posted this essay about telephone operators; today I happened across this picture which brought back the same kinds of memories.


In an age of smartphones and global cellular service, this is an aspect of life that neither my children nor my grandchildren will never know. I used to think it odd that my own grandparents grew up in an era without airplanes or television, and now I am experiencing what that double-perspective must have been like for them.




The Old Wolf has Spoken.

Information Please: Always there when you need her

Cross-posted from LiveJournal

A post in Teresa Burritt’s Frog Blog (now sadly defunct) got me thinking about telephone operators.

Before the days of the internet, one of the earliest glurges I encountered – don’t ask me where – was “Information Please,” a heartwarming story of a telephone operator who befriended a young boy. has been unable to confirm or refute this story, so it remains out there as a tale one somehow wishes might be true.

In the days when Ma Bell had a virtual monopoly on the world of telecommunications, I am certain that this is just the image that AT&T would have liked to sear into the consciousness of every one of us. As it turns out, they tried.

The sentiment of the ad is so close to that of the story that I wonder if “Information Please” wasn’t going the rounds of the cork-board and water cooler network long before it showed up in the fax and internet world. What makes the ad of particular interest to me is the fact that the model is my mother, Margaret Draper.[1]

Before anyone gets the idea that life at home was like being raised by the Sally of the story, remember that the theatre is all about illusion. For most of my young life, Mom was single and trying to run a career as an actress, which meant that a lot of times I came home to a nanny or an empty house. There was, however, a telephone there – and in New York City, something called Artist’s Service. If Mom was away and I needed to contact her, I could dial SChuyler 4-5700 and be greeted by a pleasant voice who would get a message to her, or give me one that she had left. I only remember one individual’s name – Bill Butler – but I do remember that the folks there were invariably kind to a lonely young child, and it was nice to have a human on the other end of the line who cared. (Parenthetically, when I was really bored I could dial “MERMAID” – otherwise known as MElrose 2-6243 – and listen to “At the tone, the time will be… nine… forty-three… and ten seconds. *beep*” And yes, I did it more than once, for long spells of time.)

The Telephony Museum reports that “the first operators were boys, who turned out to be impatient and rude when dealing with phone customers. Their rudeness made them extinct within only a few years, replaced by females who were, ‘calm and gracious.'” In a nice summary of the history of telephone operators, the IEEE Global History Network reports that “the first female telephone operator was Emma McNutt, who was hired in New York City by a manager who happened to be a neighbor and who thought Emma was a “nice girl.” Little is known about Emma’s career, although she was in the vanguard of women who established telephone operator work as an almost exclusively female job.” Correspondingly, with the exception of Bill, every operator I ever dealt with in the 50’s and 60’s was female. However, that changed once again in the early 70’s, when AT&T responded to certain class-action lawsuits brought by both women and men, and in 1972 Rick Wehmhoefer became the first male operator in the Bell System.

Most of my contact with operators in the 1960’s took place when making collect calls home from the Cheshire Spa, a local greasy spoon in Cheshire, Connecticut just across from the Academy campus on Main Street.

The Spa was in the far-right space, currently occupied by Grand A Pizza.

It was run by Pete Karavites, had pinball machines and a couple of dark phone booths in the back, and a persistent schoolboy rumor that all sorts of unsavory business went on in the back rooms.

I can still remember the “ding” sounds as I dropped coins into the old rotary-dial phones, or asking the operator to place a station-to-station collect call for me. When my mom picked up, the operator would say, “I have a collect call to anyone from so-and-so, will you accept the charges?”

Which reminds me of an amusing and true anecdote from my family’s history: At one point, my mother’s youngest brother was in the navy, and apparently he found himself for some reason in Tonopah, Nevada. Needing to call home, he placed a collect call in the above manner to his mother in Salt Lake. The operator announced, “I have a collect call from your son in Tonopah, Nevada, will you accept the charges?” Grandmother promptly replied, “I have no son in Tonopah, Nevada,” and hung up. My uncle Delbert was not deterred, and tried again, instructing the operator to make it a person-to-person call, more expensive but more explicit. This time, it was “I have a collect call for Frances Draper from Delbert Draper in Tonopah, Nevada, will you accept the charges?” Grandmother, exasperated, is said to have responded, “I know no Delbert Draper in Tonopah, Nevada,” and hung up again. How the story ended was never told me, but I chuckle at Granny’s inability to put two and two together.

In the 1980’s and later, before the wide advent of cell phones, the pressures of competition resulted in operators who seemed largely concerned with getting their average response time down to 5 seconds or less. Dealing with them was about as pleasant as going in for a colonoscopy. But clearly, it was not always that way – once again, from the IEEE site, “In the 1880s and 1890s women telephone operators often served the same small group of customers every day. This created an intimacy between client and customer as customers grew to recognize operators’ voices and know them as people. In many areas, operators could be counted on to have all sorts of information at hand, such as the names and addresses of local customers, the latest news, weather, and sports results, the correct time of day, and even gossip.” It seems that given the long history of telephony an the size of our country, a situation like one reported in “Information Please” is more likely than not, particularly in a smaller rural area.

Sadly, those days are gone forever. With most people abandoning land lines for cellular networks where operators are virtually unknown, finding a friendly voice to talk to for no good reason would be about as likely as finding an attorney with a conscience. [2] As a result, while I never met a “Sally,” I’m grateful to have experienced a time when you could dial “O” for operator, and find a human being on the other end of the line.

1 As an added bit of interest, Bill Gold of the Washington Post wrote the following article about this advertisement:

The District Line

by Bill Gold
(The Washington Post – January 11, 1964)

Phone Company Adds Some New Lines

THE FIRST advertisement that hits your eye as you open the new issue of Life centers your attention on the face of a woman who is wearing a telephone headset. The woman has an appealing face. It’s not the Hollywood painted doll type of appeal, and you can see character in that face. Intelligence and understanding, too. There are a few lines in the brow, and just a hint of advancing years around the eyes and mouth.
But it’s a good face, and the reader learns from the text that this is the face of a Bell System telephone operator who is always “close by if you need her, no matter what the hour.”
It’s very comforting, very effective. But it’s disturbing, too. There’s something different here. This isn’t the bright-eyed girl of 19 we’re used to seeing in telephone ads. This isn’t the peaches-and-cream wholesome beauty to whom we’re accustomed; it’s a mature woman. And in the few seconds during which the reader studies her, he comes to the realization that one of the world’s largest corporations has made a deliberate change in its advertising policy.
I was intrigued by my discovery, and immediately put in a phone call to a company spokesman. My questions were bucked along to headquarters in New York, and the answers came back promptly and frankly: the Bell System has indeed made a basic change in its advertising policy.
Instead of the idealized beauties of the past, we’re now going to see more believable models. They’ll be “more realistic,” closer to the average, more readily identifiable with living, breathing human beings.
Attractive young people are fun to have around, and they’re often useful, too. But any large company must also have its dedicated old-timers – the folks who know the importance of dependable service and who can give training and guidance to the youngsters who are just coming into the employe pipeline.
So the Bell System has concluded that a more mature face in its ads will more truly depict the “average” employe. And because the emphasis in its ads will now shift from idealization to realism, the company hopes that the ads will be more believable, and therefore more effective.
This promises to be a fascinating experiment, and it may have far-reaching consequences.
Imagine the impact among professional models and advertising agencies. Think of the changes that may take place in TV commercials, in advertising generally, and in salesmanship itself, for that matter.
Will the public be as mature as this new breed of model? Will people respond to this kind of soft-keyed approach? We’ll have to wait and see.

2 I know two. You know who you are.

Telephones of Tomorrow – as seen from 1957

Surprisingly accurate predictions, despite a few misses (tape-recording of calls, for example).


by J. R. Pierce

Condensed from The Atlantic Monthly (December, 1957)

The telephone network is the nervous system of our civilization, carrying messages of demand and direction, of pain and pleasure, to collective enterprises and to individuals alike. The telephone itself is a mere end-organ which enables any of us to make use of billions of dollars worth of complex switching and transmission equipment.

A new car is a complete means of transportation, but a new telephone can be only a small alteration in a massive electronic organism that seems to change with glacial slowness. For this reason it is far easier to see what sort of advances in telephony are technologically possible than to say when they may actually take place, and I doubt if anyone can make detailed predictions concerning the future.

Nevertheless, we are in a period of change. Phones now come in colors and in several new shapes. New services are available. We should expect many new things in the future. What may they be?

Let us consider first the field of new services. A friend of mine told me recently that he would like to turn off his phone while he is working on a novel. I explained to him that just disconnecting the bell would lead to repeated but uncompleted calls for which the telephone company would pay. There would be complaints that his phone was out of order. To all of this he agreed, but he asked if he couldn’t just throw a switch and have something in the telephone office say, “This telephone is not out of order; the subscriber has voluntarily disconnected the ringing signal.”

The suggestion seemed a sensible one, but I had to tell him that it was impractical at present. The reason lies at the heart of the possibilities and difficulties of any new services that might be valuable.

Fundamentally, an automatic switching system performs two functions. It interprets the dial signal as a demand for a certain telephone connection, and it sets up the desired talking path. The first function, that of interpreting the dial signal, might be thought of as a mental function, and the other, that of establishing a talking path, as a muscular act.

In the first sort of automatic switching system, the brains are of a very limited type. Further, in this step-by-step kind of switching system, the brains are scattered all through the body, like the complicated ganglia of dinosaurs, which were sometimes larger than the lump of nervous tissue in the skull. One can teach a step-by-step switching system to do even one new thing only by the most drastic and expensive surgery.

Common-control systems, which first appeared in 1921, represent a tremendous evolutionary advance. In them, a ”brain” carefully records the dial signal and then deliberates on what to do. When it has decided, it sets up the talking path by using physically separate equipment.

At present, the most advanced switching systems in use are composed primarily of relays, though a few vacuum tubes and transistors have been grafted onto them. However, work is progressing on switching systems made up of tiny transistors, which operate thousands of times as fast as relays. Such an electronic switching system will have a quick, subtle, and adaptable brain which can be taught many new tricks.

Electronic switching has opened our eyes to all sorts of new services which are technically possible, whether or not they ever come into actual use. Among these is certainly the phone-disconnect notice my friend wanted.

Other possibilities include the ability to dial a selected group of telephone numbers by setting a pointer, or by one or two pulls of the dial (by pushing one or two buttons, if pushbuttons replace dials); a central answering and recording service, in which there is no special equipment on the subscriber’s premises; ways of breaking into a busy connection in case of an emergency; and a host of other possibilities.

Which among these will come into being and when they may be available, no one can tell, but electronic switching will make them easy.

By using transistors, it has been possible to put a radio receiver as good as that used in mobile telephony into a case little larger than a pack of cigarettes, and which includes batteries for four days of continuous operation. If a person carries such a receiver with him in the city, it is possible to signal him selectively by making his receiver—and only his —buzz when he is wanted on the telephone. He can then go to the nearest phone and call to see what the message is. Indeed, commercial radio-paging services are in operation in some cities, and the telephone companies are trying them out.

Does this assure a two-way phone in your car or perhaps even in your pocket? Technically, it makes such things very near. By using transistors, we can build a tiny receiver which can operate 24 hours a day without a noticeable drain on a car’s batteries. Including a suitable transmitter, the whole car telephone could fit into the glove compartment or be incorporated with the radio. Further, pocket telephones are not technically absurd.

Will NEXT year’s car come equipped with a telephone as well as a radio? Not unless something changes. And that something has nothing to do with the technological limitations of ft radio, nor is it a matter within the control of the telephone companies.

Of the radio frequencies which are suitable for mobile telephony, those which extend from perhaps 50 to 890 megacycles, the government has allocated roughly 50 percent to ultra-high-frequency television, 7 percent to ordinary television, 25 percent for government use, 4 percent for amateur radio, 4 percent for FM, and only one-third of 1 percent for all mobile telephony. The continued assignment of these frequencies to other uses could keep the telephone out of your car, plane, or pocket, however great our technical know-how may become.

There will still be telephones in your home and office, however, and these are bound to become better in a number of ways. Indeed, one ambition which has been often expressed is to make the telephone so good that telephoning will be as satis- factory as a face-to-face meeting.

Partly, what is called for is a better voice signal. A good telephone call is perfectly intelligible, but hardly hi-fi. However, for special uses, such as conference use, a higher quality of speech can be provided by means of special circuits.

Of course, if we are to confer satisfactorily by telephone, we will have to transmit pictures as well as speech. Television transmission facilities are available, but they are at present too costly for anything but very important conferences or very large meetings. For some reason, however, they haven’t been used much for either.

I feel certain some day pictures will be sent not only in connection with conferences but in connection with some telephone calls as well. A couple of years ago the Bell Laboratories experimented with a device called Picturephone, which sent a series of still pictures, one a second, over an ordinary telephone connection. However, the pictures proved too fuzzy to be of any real use. Perhaps a picture intermediate in quality between Picturephone and present-day television is called for.

To provide picture transmission to telephone users, new and more economical ways of sending electrical signals must be developed. Happily, great advances have been made in the electronic art of signal transmission. One of these is the transistor, which in amplifying a signal uses much less power than a vacuum tube. In fact, the power consumed by a transistor amplifier can be sent over the same wires used to carry the signal itself.

Another advance is a new way of sending signals over wires, called pulse-code modulation. Ordinarily, we send a voice or picture signal as a smoothly but rapidly varying electric current which must be transmitted and amplified repeatedly with no distortion. However, a way has been found of representing such signals as sequences or patterns of off-on pulses. Such pulses can be amplified simply and cheaply without any degradation in the ultimately reproduced voice or picture.

Further, such signals can be sent great distances through pipes called waveguides. They can travel as electromagnetic radiation having a frequency perhaps 50 billion cycles per second through thousands of miles of a metal tube around 2 inches in diameter.

I believe that ultimately such transmission by means of off-on pulses will make television as an accessory to the telephone economically possible, for some uses at any rate.

Such electrical pulses as I have mentioned above are the natural language of computers and business machines. These electronic brains have never used pen and paper, nor human speech. They write upon and read from magnetic tape in a language consisting of sequences of pulses. One can speak to them or hear from them, control them or be controlled by them at a distance, by transmitting such pulses by wire or radio. Sometimes such machines translate their internal language of pulses into printed English characters, but this is merely for the benefit of their human associates.

We usually think of such machines as huge giants chattering away at a superhuman rate. Indeed, they do talk back and forth over communications channels, but the world of tomorrow will be full of a host of electronic machines of all degrees of size and complexity. In fact, today’s teletypewriter is an early member of that race. Cash registers and other business machines often punch a record of their operations and conclusions into paper tape, which can be transmitted electrically from point to point.

Future machines will almost certainly record on and be operated from magnetic tape. We can imagine a time when small machines in stores and offices will store up a tape record of each day’s operations. Then a big machine at a bank or an accounting service will call the little machines up during the night and record what happened during the day.

I like to think of a time when each secretary’s typewriter will produce a magnetic record as well as the usual typescript, a record which can be filed, reproduced, sorted over, or transmitted to some distant concern by quick electronic means. Indeed, an experimental device the size of a typewriter has already been built which will transmit text recorded on a magnetic tape over a telephone circuit at a rate of about 800 words a minute.

I see communication between machine and machine and between man and machine as an important part of the business of the’ telephone companies in the not-distant future.

Beyond this there are more distant and less concrete possibilities. .The design, construction, and installation of the transatlantic telephone cable, in which 104 delicate and precise vacuum-tube amplifiers function on the bottom of the ocean, beyond the reach of human adjustment or repair, was an engineering feat of a scope comparable with that of establishing an artificial satellite.

In the future we may have manned as well as unmanned satellites, established in their orbits for scientific or military reasons. If manned satellites come to be, they will provide valuable radio relay sites for spanning the oceans with television as well as voice. Perhaps later on we will have to face the problem of communicating with men on the moon, or on Mars.


Calculations show that the electronic techniques used in the telephone system will do even this job. But when will men go to Mars? And will they perhaps go there to get away from the ever-present and insistent telephones?


An electrical engineer, John Robinson Pierce took his B.S. from California Institute of Technology in 1933 and his Ph.D. three years later. He then joined the Bell Telephone Laboratories where he has risen to be director in research of electrical communications.

What’s next? Will our own predictions of what is likely 60 years from now seem equally quaint, or will the imagination of today’s soothsayers prove more accurate? Given the exponential development of technology within my own lifetime, I think it’s safe to say much of what my grandchildren’s grandchildren will see has not yet even been dreamed of.

What a brave new world that will be… if we survive.

The Old Wolf has spoken.