slices of life: Evolution of the telephone

When I was a kid, the telephone was important stuff. Like most families, we had one phone number. Can you imagine an entire family sharing one phone number? Yet, we lived through it. When the phone rang, it was a mystery. No one had caller ID. Yo...

Jill Pertler
Jill Pertler

When I was a kid, the telephone was important stuff. Like most families, we had one phone number.

Can you imagine an entire family sharing one phone number? Yet, we lived through it.

When the phone rang, it was a mystery. No one had caller ID. You had to answer every call. It was usually a race because we all wanted to be the one to get to the phone first.

Phone calls were exciting!

When you got a call, you were stuck - in the room with the telephone. In those days, all phones were reliant on a power source known as a cord. These old-fashioned cords shouldn't be confused with charging cords. No. You had to stay plugged into the wall for the phone to function.
If your phone was in the kitchen, you were forced to talk to your boyfriend right there - in front of your mom, who was stirring up the Hamburger Helper with her big ears all listening.


That wasn't the only lack of privacy. All the phones in your house were connected. If you were talking in the kitchen, your little sister could pick up the extension in the living room and quietly eavesdrop until you heard her breathing and screamed for her to get off.

Things like that used to happen all the time. Really.

If you were on the phone and someone else tried to call they heard a beeping noise called a busy signal and they'd have to hang up and call you later. If you weren't home, the phone would continue ringing until the person on the other end hung up. There were no messaging features, no record of missed calls.

When you called someone you had to dial the number manually. You likely had dozens of phone numbers memorized. There was no auto dial. Your address book consisted of an actual book - can you believe it? - where you wrote in the names and numbers by hand.

If you didn't have a particular number, you'd look in the thick and hefty phone book supplied by the telephone company. Everyone had one. They were valuable and extremely useful commodities. If you needed a plumber or dentist you looked in the phone book. You'd never think of throwing your phone book away or using it as a doorstop.

Calls were limited and defined by distance. If someone lived in a different state, you had to use a service called long distance. Long-distance calls were expensive and were often reserved for holidays and birthdays.

When you left your house to go to the mall or to school or wherever, your phone stayed tethered to the kitchen wall. If you needed to call someone, you used a public pay phone. Calls cost a quarter.

Finally, phones were uni-tasking units. Not even the most expensive phone came with the option of any sort of camera feature and video capabilities were out of the question.


That was then. This is now. While phones are more important - not to mention, smarter - than ever, our approach to them has changed.

Today, my phone rings in my pocket. My husband is calling. I know this because of the ringtone. I have different tones programmed for frequent callers, my husband being one of them. He also has his own text tone, as do all the members of my family. Each of us has our own phone and phone number. We couldn't imagine sharing.

When other friends and family call, their contact information pops up on my screen. If a call comes from an unknown number, I don't answer it. I don't want to risk fielding random sales calls.

When I want to call someone, I type the first few letters of their name into my phone and the number pops up on my screen. I don't have anyone's phone number memorized. Not even my kids' numbers.

Gone are the days of busy signals and pay phones. For the most part long distance is a thing of the past, at least if you keep your calls to the 48 contiguous states. The same could (almost) be said of phone books. They've shrunk over the years and are currently almost too slight to qualify as paperweights.

Cords remain the one constant over time. Even smartphones are dependent on them and many a family has been known to experience discord over misplaced, lost, broken or stolen cords.

We may call them phones, but they've become much more than that. From cameras to games and music, from maps to payment sources, from weather predictions to location services. And more.

Still, the telephone was created to fulfill our need to communicate and that hasn't changed. The manner in which we approach this, however, continues to evolve.


If you'd like to discuss further, feel free to contact me - via email or text, please. I prefer not to take any calls.

ill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

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