A Trip to the Telephone Museum



A Fun Time Looking Backward

By Annette Rey

Can you imagine this little side trip to be interesting to anyone, adult or child? Yet, it was just that. And more. The Telephone Museum is the type of place that appeals to many types of minds; those who are mechanically inclined, history buffs, the technologically curious, the aged for a reminiscent look back, the uninformed child, the writer (see my other site, https://writersblocknomore.com/2017/01/29/writers-seek/).

One of the first telephones that amazed me was an 1876 unit (on right in photo). It held a container of acid in its casing. The chemical 100_7549reaction in the container generated electricity that enabled voice to travel over wires. As the chemical reaction weakened, the voices faded out. I can’t invent a better hairpin, so I am in awe of even this dated technology.

A later model used batteries instead of an acid container (on left in photo). Notice the three large batteries wired to the cabinet below the mouthpiece.

As early as 1878, pay telephone stations were available at places like hotels. I found it humorous that the attendant locked the caller in a booth until he received payment for the call. All the bulging eyes and foot-kicking from the inside of the booth did not deter the attendant. It was a no tolerance policy and, with such a new technology, people had to be made to understand they were buying a service and payment was due.

Service in rural areas was non-existent unless an 100_7530entrepreneurial spirit took the reins. Generally, a farmer connected his house with his nearby family. A whole two houses would be on that circuit. Another farmer made a side-business out of the new technology. He bought three switchboard units and installed them in each of his daughters’ bedrooms. Twenty-five households were on that rural circuit. One of the units is pictured here.

At first glance, the museum is just a place of glass cases full of pieces of equipment staring blankly back into the room. But the guided tour makes the displays come to life. That’s interesting in itself, isn’t it? Inanimate objects can be given life by language. In addition to years, words make them antiques, pieces of history. As if by osmosis, in the presence of an object that came from another period, I feel a connection to that eventful time and place. I am transported, and my imagination pictures the scene; the lonely country road with the first telephone poles, the farmhouse wall holding the new crank unit, the candlestick model on the harried newsman’s desk. How many fancy flappers, G-men and gangsters, doctors and dockworkers, came to depend on this miracle invention?

100_7528I saw the large switchboard that was wheeled out of storage for each of four presidential visits to my city, from Johnson to Carter (pictured at the left).

A U.S. Army, olive-drab, World War II, field telephone sits behind the glass and I wonder, what soil did it lay in? Normandy? The Battle of the Bulge? What young soldier depended on it, turned its trusty crank, and urgently called for heavy artillery support?

As time marched on, telephones became lighter in 100_7514weight, and changed in color, shape, and size. In the 1960s the car phone hit the scene, but was not commonly used by the everyday telephone customer. They depended on home, business, and pay phones in telephone booths.

The 1990s saw novelty telephones on the market, but again, these did not replace the preferred home and business models.

Today a telephone is loosely referred to as a cell. It can be flat, just a few square inches in size, and weigh only ounces. Verbal communication reaches from the earth to space stations and back. The people of the eras behind us could not imagine such things, and millions of people who live today cannot imagine what life was like for people who had to travel hours and miles just to see a heavy, new-fangled, communication gadget adhered to a wall.

A look at history is intriguing and fun. Education is not boring. Take your kids to these out-of-the-way places and show them another way to look at commonplace items that are in their lives today.

Perspective is everything.





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