Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Long Distance Please
Walter Salm, Editor

Not long after I graduated from high school, my rather backward hometown's telephone system was upgraded from manual to automatic dialing. No longer did we have to pick up the telephone handset and wait for an operator to say, "Number Please." Instead, the new phone had a shiny, nickel-plated rotary dial, and when we picked up the handset, we were greeted with a buzzing noise that we were told was called a "dial tone." If we wanted to call outside of our free local dialing area, we simply dialed "0" and would be greeted by an operator who said, "Long Distance." The operator would use a plug-and-jack switchboard that dated back to the 1920s, and what followed was a drawn-out, labor-intensive process. I mention this because many of our readers are too young to have ever had that particular experience. In those days, calling Long Distance was a Big Deal, and expensive. Sometimes the operator wouldn't hit her mute switch and you could hear her contacting each successive operator in a different district going up the line and finally ending in her target city. Routing the call would require her talking to at least two, sometimes as many as four or five other operators. Our local phone company was General Telephone, not a part of the AT&T Bell system.

Finally a new type of dialing was introduced: the Touch-Tone telephone. I saw my first such phone at the 1963 World's Fair in New York City. I was amazed and pleased. This was where I also saw my first video phone, which would need another 40 years to become a practical reality. The Touch-Tone phone would only work with electronic (computerized) exchanges, and there were very few of those around at the time. Most central offices still used either cross-bar or stepper relay controls that responded to the number of clicks sent by a rotary dial. AT&T, which owned the bulk of the local phone companies, worked feverishly to upgrade these central exchanges to electronic systems.

Then in 1982, the Federal government ordered AT&T to break itself up, to divest itself of all of its local telephone companies and much of its monopoly. Soon, the market offered telephones from other companies that the consumer could purchase instead of renting from AT&T. This was virgin territory. New phones were equipped with the newfangled pushbuttons, but a slide switch on the side of the handset provided the choice between touch tone and rotary dialing. If your local exchange was not the new electronic type, you could select "Rotary" with that switch, and listen to the long dragged-out sequence of clicks as the phone emulated rotary dialing. It seemed to take forever.

This innovation collided with another new technology: third-party long distance providers. New names popped up in the marketplace: MCI and Sprint were the most notable. By using one of these services, the customer could pay a small monthly fee and get free long distance dialing anywhere in the country. Well, almost anywhere. In the beginning, there were only certain cities that were on the "free-call" list. Every month, MCI would send out notifications of new cities being added to the network. You started the phone call by dialing an 800 number to access the MCI (or Sprint) service. These services all required touch-tone dialing. If you still had an old-fashioned phone exchange, you would have to use the "combination" phone and start with the Rotary emulator. Then when the new dial tone from MCI came on, you would have to switch your phone to touch tone dialing, then dial a five-digit account number, get a new dial tone, and finally dial the number you wanted to call. That came to a total of 22 digits to dial before the connection was made. The 800 number and your account codes could be stored in your phone's speed dial memory if your phone was so equipped, but very few phones had this feature. Busy signal? Start the whole process all over again. Soon, there were electronic accessory dialers that plugged into the phone line that performed all of these functions automatically, and they filled an important niche market for just a little while. One such device came from Dictograph of Canada, and I spent several years working with this company on their publicity. This is something to think about the next time you complain about dialing 13 or 14 digits to place an overseas call.

Fast forward to the present. The costly long-distance call has vanished. We can dial up phone numbers anywhere in the world, and usually at no cost if we use VOIP. We even have picture-phones if we want to use them — our smartphones or our computers do the job so routinely, that we totally accept as normal those around-the-world videophone calls we see being made on TV programs. And most of them are made using speed-dial. Today we simply take for granted the fact that there are no operators and never again will we have to say, "Long distance, please."  

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