The demise of the telephone
FTLComm - Tisdale - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

There is no doubt in my mind that the telephone invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 was one of those great inventions of all time. Though the telegraph had been around for a while and really moved the world closer together it was the voice on the telephone that really was a huge leap forward in communications.

The railroad companies needed solid communications to operate their systems and where ever there was a rail line there was telegraph. This meant that long before there was electrical power widely distributed there was the dot and dash method of communications covering almost all of the settled area of North America.

The surprising thing was that the telephone did not need the huge corporations to be propagated and little and big telephone companies popped up everywhere. Here in Saskatchewan there were rural telephone companies operating in the Porcupine Plain and Weekes area right up into the 1960s when SaskTel finally came along and tucked them into its system. Telephone, though we often think of it as a sophisticated and complex technology was relatively simple and there were telephones that ran quite nicely using lines strung along the fences.

It was really a big deal in our family when we moved into the section house in Langbank and for the first time we had a telephone. Not quite like the one on the right but similar. Ours had a regular handset which came along after this version shown with the mouth piece on the front of it. For use it was probably about 1956 or even perhaps 57, only a year before we got our first television.

In the early days of the telephone it was an outstanding tool mainly because it was so very much a manual operation. To call someone on your own line you used the handle on the right hand side of the device to "ring up" your neighbour using a series of short and long handle rotations to identify who you were calling. Our number was "2" ring "1". That was two long rings and one short one. Privacy on our party lines was simply not available. Anyone on the line and there were usually at least five parties on every line could pick up the handset and listen in. If they went to use the phone they might listen in by mistake not knowing someone was already using the line. When you finished your call you gave a short twist on the handle to "ring off" so that others would know the line was free. But if you were a kid like me and someone needed to use the phone someone might just cut in and ask you to get off the line because they wanted to call someone.

But the real heart and sole of the only party line telephone system was "central." Everyone community or local telephone company had its central office were the calls were manually connected. You pushed the button on the left side of the phone and rotated the handled and the "central" operator would answer. You told her the number you wanted or just the name of the person you were calling and she patched your line to another and hand rang the appropriate code. The system was absolutely flawless. If there was an emergency or someone paid for a commercial announcement the Central would put out a "long ring" and announce the emergency or tell you about the movie showing this week.

My second teaching job was in Bengough and the principal of the school, Roy Bailey, who later served as an MP in Ottawa was a prominent man in his community. By that time (1965) there were more and more private lines and in the town of Bengough most people were not on party lines like the farm folks but they still relied upon the "Central" to route the calls to them. Bailey used the Central operator like a secretary and if he was going away from the school he just called the operator and told her where he was going and if there was a call for him it followed him to where ever he was.

As SaskTel took over the rural phones in the province monster mechanical switching gear was installed in each central office and the wonderful central operators of the manual era were replaced. Though the dial phone was secure it was a step backward from the amazing personal versatility of the earlier system.

Getting a telephone line was a big deal and I had my first telephone in my trailer in Kipling in 1964. The down side to having a telephone was having to pay a telephone bill. Even by 1964 a long distance telephone call was a big deal and something very expensive.

From the sixties to the eighties the telephone system did not change much other than the telephone companies developing better switch gear and reducing the number of employees. During the fifties and into the sixties telephone numbers had names for the exchange and then four numbers. So in Regina the first three digits of a number might be referred to as "Lakeside" then the number. This became unworkable as the number of phones multiplied and the public was quite annoyed when they had to dial seven digits just to get someone.

The introduction of direct dialing for long distance was a big deal replacing the convention of dialing "0" and telling an operator the number you wanted. With direct dialing the call was preceded by "1".

In 1984 we had very slow but workable modems that were connected to the telephone system and we could move data over the telephone lines with our computers. I was doing my graduate studies in Regina and my family was in the Yukon and each evening my wife and I met online to chat using our computer keyboards. The data calls were substantially less than voice calls and the actual carrier for the data was the railway telegraph system which had expanded into a data transmission system.

In the 1990s the telephone made one huge leap away from land lines as the mobile phone evolved. At first there were radio telephones operated by SaskTel from towers and then came the cell phone technology that used computer technology with a tower system to link one mobile phone to a land line or to another cell phone.

The first person in our family to have a cell was my oldest son who had a beast like the one shown on the right and it was only a short time after that my father had a so-called "bag-phone" in his car. I am still using that aging device in my van. Far more powerful than modern cell phones but analog and about to be discontinued.

From 1984 onward we used the computer connected to the telephone system to send e-mail and transfer files. The cool thing about the computer connected to the telephone system was that it could also send faxes and for that reason we never ever had a fax machine. It was not until 1995 that SaskTel made the Internet and its various services available to the public in Saskatchewan. Quite remarkable really when you consider that this was only fourteen years ago come this May.

We began our computer business in 1995 and during the first few years did quite a bit of business with the school systems in the province which involved advertising. With our computer system this was an easy thing to do and I would fax schools with advertising using the fax/modem. I remember that not all schools were happy to receive advertising by fax and we also encountered some negative feedback when we advertised using e-mail.

The most recent evolution of the personal telephone is the development of text messaging. Teenagers especially love this hand held form of person to person communication. When you go to a movie that attracts young people you can look down from the screen at any moment and see dozens of little lights as young movie goers share that moment with each other "texting."

Then we have the remarkable "smart" cell phones. The Canadian developed Blackberry is almost a business standard. of my three sons two of them depend on their Blackberries to keep them part of the work experience they do each and every day. The technology of the smart phone is interesting because essentially a smart phone is a hand held computer and my computer screen shows when my sons Blackberries are available for me to send a text message from my computer to their screens.

The most sophisticated smart phone is Apple's iPhone. This expensive device has been available in the United States for almost two years but only became useable in Canada this past year. Two of my sons have these things. They are full blown computers able to surf the Internet, send and receive e-mail, play games, do all sorts of computer tasks, do the work of a GPS (global positioning satellite) and when necessary be a telephone. The draw back with the iPhone is that the carriers who support it are limited in the service area here in Saskatchewan. Mind you that is true also of all cell phone usage in Saskatchewan. There are enormous areas of the province where no service by any company is available.

So after all this evolution what is the problem with the telephone? All of the above. The telephone and its remarkable ability to connect us all together has made it a monster that no longer services the public. The evils of the telephone system are mostly excesses by users who have found ways to take those capabilities and destroy the functionality of the system.

As I pointed out we had our computer hooked up to the telephone system in 1984 and I remember one of my sons fiddling with some software that he partly made and partly borrowed and he got the family computer to call up every phone in the community. That is not what the telephone was designed for but because it could be done, sure enough it was done. Now it is done every single day. Your phone rings once and you pick up the phone only to get a dial tone, you check to see who rang your phone (last call dialed can be established by dialing "star 69") and you discover that the phone that called you is not available. Then later your phone rings you pick up the phone and there is no one there, you wait sometimes more than a minute and someone in India or where ever is wanting to sell you something or claim you have won some contest you never entered.

Spam telephone calls now account for far more than half of the calls to most telephone numbers. The no call business brought in by the government of Canada has helped but we still get those annoying calls. I just hang up and I recommend you do to, there is no need to be polite to invasive advertising and outright scams.

Now just suppose you want to call your local bank, or any major company with which you do business. Give it a try and your call is answered by a computer that dishes up a menu of things that seem to be meant for no one and you give up and push a number and then you wait and wait. The other day my wife had to call about Income tax and another organisation. Her two calls cost her twenty minutes wait time each.

The last thing about the telephone that really makes it useless is direct dialing. How I long for the days of being able to ask "central" for someone and getting the call completed. Each day my phone rings at least once for Shelley, sometimes for Dave, sometimes for the Co-op or somebody else. Wrong numbers are amazingly common so much so I really often feel no guilt whatever in wearing a head set to listen to television and thus be unable to hear the phone ring.

That brings us to the last evil of the useless telephone. If you don't get me when you call the machine answers, before we had a machine we had SaskTel's voice mail. either one meant that when someone call us no one answered. How often it is we call someone and get an answering machine or voice mail, what is the point of the phone.

With e-mail I have a written copy of the message and my poor hearing does not impede the communications process. If you need to call me, send me e-mail.

The telephone as we know is totally dead. With an Internet connect and e-mail the telephone is really just something we have for nostalgic reasons. When I want to talk to someone my preference is voice over IP. With our Macintosh systems we can talk face to face on screen with no head set and at the same time pass pictures and data back and forth during the conversation, way better than a telephone and no long distance charges of any kind.

One of my sons disconnected from SaskTel and uses a telephone on his Internet connection. A regular telephone but it uses the inexpensive switching built into the Internet to direct his telephone calls anywhere in North America toll free. It is just a matter of time until most of us disconnect from the regular telephone system and use voice over IP, it is better, cheaper and simpler.

The telephone has evolved and devolved to the point where it no longer is really functional. It was a great idea but its time has passed.

Timothy W. Shire

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Editor : Timothy W. Shire
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