November 12th, 2015

Scotland Train

Remember The Phone Company?

I grew up in the phone company. Remember the phone company? Not your cellular carrier, but the giant Ma Bell, the Bell System -- the old American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and all it's subsidiary regional telephone companies, plus Western Electric, and Bell Labs? You know, the one who provided your home and office with a copper wire based telephone service that you used when you wanted to call people up and talk with them? The one back in the day when every house had just one telephone line and the whole family shared it, and it came on a wire from a pole out front, and you were tethered to the phone cord attached to the large heavy phone on the wall or table and couldn't wander all over the house?  Yes THAT phone company. My father, George Gardner, spent his entire adult life -- since before I was born and until he retired in the mid 1980s, working for one company, the old Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company, a.k.a. Mountain Bell. This regional company handled the phone service in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico. And although in the end it was US West -- after the Supreme Court broke up the Bell System -- it was still THE Phone Company.
Dad worked his way up through the ranks, starting out as a technician and eventually becoming a central office supervisor.  For those unfamiliar with phone company jargon, a central office is a local exchange which handles all the telephone traffic for a given prefix or set of prefixes. A prefix is the first three numbers of your phone number, and identified the local switching office that handled your call at first or sent a call to your home. I can still remember my phone number as a kid growing up in suburban Salt Lake City; 277-6629. The area code was 801 and one didn't use the area code unless you were making a long-distance call and that was a no-no since you paid by the minute for those calls. The old 277 and 278 prefixes were handled out of a red brick two story central office in Holiday, Utah, just outside of Salt Lake City, and along with the Sugarhouse C.O., was one of the offices in Dad's territory. Dad would often take me there when I was a kid. I thought the machinery and equipment were incredibly fascinating and cool and this place was a wonderland for me. I got to take a trip back in time to those days this last weekend with my friend and former colleague Rich Busch who, like me, is an old phone company geek. We were as giddy as a couple of kids in a candy store after discovering a local museum housed in an old phone company central office.  How we ended up there is another story though.

You never know what you are going to find when you start down a rabbit hole on the Internet, doing research on something or other. Somehow last year I had stumbled upon a book about the abandoned AT&T Long-Lines microwave network. This network was built in the 1950s and carried long-distance and television signals coast to coast and the remnants are still out there and someone like me who also loves old abandoned things had documented it. I shared the book with Rich while we were in Palm Springs this past winter, and I even rode out on Angus to a few of the sites out in the desert that are still there -- like this one at Sheeps Pass between Amboy and 29 Palms, CA out in the desert.
When i got back to Seattle this Summer I started looking into more phone company history on line and stumbled upon a link that took me to the "Herbert H. Wrick Jr. Museum Of Communications in Seattle." This really cool space is in the Georgetown neighborhood and is actually housed in the top floor of an old central office building from the Pacific Northwest Bell days --  a part of which is still used by what's left of the old phone company, now called Century Link. The museum is only open a few hours a week on Sunday and I called up Rich and said we had to go, especially when I found out the museum actually had working central office equipment from the days I used to go to work with my Dad. So on a rainy Sunday afternoon we headed over.

Rich and I both know a central office when we see one. Anyone who knows the old phone company can spot them. Windowless buildings built to withstand a nuclear bomb. Sure enough in Georgetown was a central office and on the sidewalk a sandwich board sign for the museum. We walked up to the door and went in to the small lobby with an elevator and a locked door with a window into the still functioning part containing the switching equipment for Century Link, and a sign for the elevator saying "Museum on Third Floor". We peaked in the window and saw nothing but racks and racks of computer equipment, which is what handles telephone calls today, and not what Rich and I came to see. The first thing that struck me was the smell. Smell is one of the greatest memory triggers of all and by golly this place smelled exactly like the central offices I visited with Dad. I can't describe it -- it's kind of an electrical, coppery, clean smell, but anyone who's been in one will recognize it. In the lobby was the same brass plaque that I saw hung in every single central office I ever went in:  "No job is so important and no service is so urgent that we cannot take time to perform our work safely -- Bell System"
And then stepping off the elevator on the third floor we walked into what, for Rich and I, was a step back in time to the days when The Phone Company was the one giant nationwide entity that dominated everyone and everything. The entire third floor of this building was filled, floor to ceiling, with actual working examples of central office switching equipment that dated to the days when I was growing up and when Rich was working for Pacific Northwest Bell and prior to that. To me it was stepping back into my childhood with my Dad, walking into the old Holiday Central Office and seeing racks and racks and racks of what appeared to be coffee cans, but in reality were the components of what was called a "Step-By-Step Switch", and best of all, they worked!"  And they were noisy!
This was how phone calls were routed in the 1960s and 1970s before "touch tone" and electronics and cell phones -- back when you dialed your rotary dial telephone. If you remember dial telephones you remember that they made a little click for each number as the dial spun back after you twisted it to the number you wanted. Back down the line in the switching office, these coffee cans essentially did the same thing, clicking and clicking as each number was dialed. Imagine racks and racks of these cans spread out in an entire building all going at once as people in the area served placed calls and you can get a picture of how noisy it was. Today it wasn't nearly as noisy, but we could dial calls and the machine would activate and click it's way through the sequence of numbers just as it did 50 or more years ago. It was incredibly cool!

Further down in the museum were rows of teletype machines and racks of the old corded operator switched panels which dated from the time you couldn't self-dial a call, where an actual human connected your incoming call by placing a cord to a hole designated on the panel for the person you were calling. There were aisles of old phones and old phone company tools and equipment that could have been picked up from my father's workbench in our garage -- all labeled "Bell System". And there were even rows of more modern switches like the "Number 5 Crossbar" which replaced the Step-By-Step machines, and which Dad was in charge of replacing at several Salt Lake area central offices.
They even still had the rolling track ladders that workers used to climb up and work on the higher sections of the switching machines and that I used to climb on and push up and down the isles much to my Dad's annoyance, but what do you expect when you take a curious young boy to a place with rolling ladders and noise and cool things? All the equipment worked too, and you could dial -- yes dial -- a call and watch them click through their sequence to make a call. Granted it was a call to a phone on the desk in the building not to anywhere else, but they still worked. And back in the day you could take that dial, place a call, and talk to someone anywhere in the world that there was another phone. Anywhere! It's something I think we take for granted today and maybe did back then too -- but there was a tremendous amount of infrastructure involved in physically routing a telephone call over copper wires back then, and it took a large number of people like my Dad to maintain it.
The old marketing slogan for AT&T was "reach out and touch someone" to encourage people to pick up the phone and call. And this museum is a temple to the once vast infrastructure that used to exist to enable us to do just that. I kept wishing that Dad was still alive and could go here with me. I think that he would have enjoyed it.

But it reminded me of just how much things have changed in my own lifetime. How another industry has pretty much vanished in the course of my almost 54 years on this earth. First broadcast radio and TV and now the old Phone Company. Very few people still have wire-line phones, and if you do they aren't routed and switched like they used to be. Hell people don't talk on the phone much anymore anyway it's all "data" -- we text or we e-mail, and your cell provider doesn't count how much talking you do, it's how much data you use. And when we do talk the conversation is carried over the Internet, not switched through copper wires. The two industries -- broadcasting and telecommunications --  are similar in many aspects; fostering and enabling communication. In the day both were the only ways we had to do those things. I would have to wonder if we would have today's innovations in communications technology if the old Bell System hadn't been broken up in 1984. Would it have been replaced by cellular technology and smart-phones? Would the Internet have become what it is? Did that break up cause the innovation? I don't know, but it happened.

I am a child of the phone company and proud of it. I look back at those days and remember how proud I was of my Dad too, who was in my eyes a "big-wig" with the biggest company around -- The Phone Company. And while today I too have a smart phone that I can't put down, seemingly surgically implanted on my hand, I also have bits and pieces of the old phone company to remind me of those days of yore. Proudly sitting on the dais that holds my gigantic TV, and ironically kind of hiding my Apple-TV internet based device that feeds it, is this old relic from an ancient phone booth -- the light inside plugged into a lamp switch that turns on whenever I turn on the light in the room.
And out in the garage hanging above my work bench is an old blue and white porcelain on metal flange sign that once hung on the side of a building somewhere telling folks that here was a device that they could sit down at, plunk in a few coins, dial a series of numbers which would then send electrical impulses to a local central office and through a Step-By-Step switch and perhaps a few other connections, over a coast-to-coast microwave or coaxial cable owned by AT&T Long Lines, and connect them to a loved one on the other end, thanks to the one and only Bell System, and in a way, my late father, George Gardner.
They are all gone now -- the Bell System network, and my Dad. The copper wires, the step-by-step switches, the central offices, and the Long Lines microwave relay network have all vanished into history. Hell the traditional "phone" itself is gone pretty much, and will likely vanish entirely in my lifetime. As the courts were contemplating breaking up the Bell System in the early 1980s the company gave out bumper stickers and placed ads saying "One Bell System -- It Works."  You couldn't argue with that. That giant machine did work, and it was an amazing machine at that.
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