Opinion: Telephones have led us full circle


Knock on someone’s door and ask to use their phone, and they will probably pull a smart phone out of their back pocket and hand it to you. It didn’t used to be like that.

There used to be a time when you asked to use someone’s phone and they would usher you into the living room or kitchen and point to the phone on the wall. At an earlier time they might shake their head and tell you they didn’t have a phone. But they would probably tell you which neighbor down the way did.

During my growing-up years we fell into several telephone categories. For awhile we didn’t have a phone. At that time it was not unusual for a neighbor to knock on our door late at night and tell us we had a phone call at their house. Dad would always pay them for the call because the telephone was an expensive luxury in the early 20th century.

Our first phone was a “crank-and-holler” device that hung on the kitchen wall. It was a large, wooden cabinet with a mouthpiece sticking out of the front, a hand-held earpiece hanging on a hook, and a metal crank sticking out of the side.

Turning the crank generated an electric impulse, which rang a bell at the switchboard, alerting the operator that you wanted to make a call. When she came online, you told her who you wanted to talk to. Then she connected you to that line and turned the switchboard crank, which caused the phone to ring at the other end. All in all, it was one step above two tin cans and a string.

Later we had a party line, which we shared with a half-dozen other homes. At any given time someone else might be on the line when you wanted to make a call. And when you did make a call you could be pretty certain that someone else was listening.

In the years that followed, most folks had only one telephone. It and the wires that went to it were owned lock, stock and dial tone by the phone company. It was only after Ma Bell was dissolved and we had to buy and install our own phones that folks started putting phones in every room of the house including the bathroom, laundry room, garage and the hall closet.

Then just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, along came an ever more sophisticated line of cell phones, and people started getting rid of their home phones.

So, once again you might knock on someone’s door and they would tell you they don’t have a phone.