Forever changing culture-our phones

By Caryl Clem:

On March 7, 1876 the son of a hearing impaired mother and instructor of elocution father patented a device to transmit sound.  On March 10, 1876, a ground breaking first-phone call from Alexander Bell to his electronics assistant, Mr. Watson was executed. Alexander Graham Bell had the simple desire to transmit sounds. He was a Professor instructing deaf mutes in Boston, Massachusetts. His beloved wife was an ex-student.

Fast forward a few decades while the marketing of the telephone for business and consumer use was growing by leaps and bounds.  From an article entitled, Telephone Tribute, the first directory had 21 listings in 1878, by 1900 over 856,000 telephones were in use.  1881 – Mr. Eckert, who ran a telephone company in Cincinnati, said he preferred the use of females to males as operators. “Their service is much superior to that of men or boys. They are much steadier, do not drink beer nor use profanity, and are always on hand.”  As inventions increase distance and quality, owning telephones becomes a priority instead of a luxury. Telephones symbolize overcoming communication distance with speed. Compared to the horse and carriages, early cars, and mail of the early 1900’s, a phone call seemed like a lightning bolt.

American music even reflects the impact of the telephone. Glenn Miller in 1940 releases Pennsylvania 6-5000, a popular jazz ensemble piece.  By the 1940’s code exchanges were developed to aid remembering a phone number. I grew up in a northern suburb of Chicago, during the 1950’s and I recall using MAjestic 3, and ONtario 6.  By the 1970’s, phone use was taken for granted.  From an Oscar winning hit  written by Stevie Wonder, “ I Just Called To Say I Love You “ 1984, or “Last Call” song  by Lee Ann Womack in 2008, and “ Hello” by Adele in 2015, demonstrates phone use remains a part of our lifestyle.  If interested, there are 100 songs with telephones as a theme through the decades.

Superman needed to change his clothes in a phone booth, not to mention the unforgettable adventure in 1989 of Bill and Ted in a phone booth traveling through time.  Movies such as Midnight Cowboy and The Birds have various phone booth shots. The first phone booth was in a bank in 1889, and the customer paid for the call after its completion. Within a span of 10 years, the new improved telephone booth used a prepaid system that stuck.  The first outdoor booth was present in 1905. The glass door models I hunted for while in college in the late 1960’s were introduced during the 1950’s.   According to this author, Nathaniel Meyersohn from CNN Money Watch on March 19, 2018, 100,000 phone booths still remain. During a natural disaster pay phone use stays active while other services tend to disappear.

My favorite phone improvement (1971) was being able to turn on an answering machine.  I could screen my calls eliminating worrying about a missed call and better yet, ignoring the calls you did not want to answer.  Ironically, the answering machine was available in the 1940’s but the fear of decreasing phone use delayed product development. I spent the first 40 years of phone use worrying about the length of the cord. New York Times archives in 1983 ran an article stating that “Cordless Phones Were Catching On”. I can’t imagine feeling chained to a phone again.

A cell phone that weighed 2.5 pounds was the last game changer for phone use. Inspired by Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk who had a communicator in his hand. Martin Cooper in 1973 invented the wireless, handheld cell phone. He hoped it would increase safety and freedom for consumers.  The bulky cell phone took several years to gain popularity before Motorola introduced a winner.  Voicemail and advancing internet technology keep advancing what cell phones accomplish.

Currently Smartphones, a minicomputer at your fingertips, dominate the market. Worldwide cell phone use keeps increasing, thanks to a room to room call made on March 10, 1876.