Times and things have changed: Part 1

Depending on how old you are and where you come from, some aspects of our lives have changed a lot over the years — largely due to advances in science and technology. For example, when I was a kid in the early 1950s, practically everybody on our block used a “party line.”

If you don’t know what that is, then you’re a lot younger than me and you might find what follows interesting. If you know exactly what I’m describing, you might enjoy reminiscing for a few moments.

For the uninitiated, back in the day (and maybe still in some places) a number of households used to share service on the same telephone line, a-k-a a “party line.” That meant when it was “busy,” you could literally hear other people talking, or worse, eavesdrop on their conversation. Of course, the other parties could usually hear the “click” of your interruption, so sometimes they would tell you to wait, or get off the line. Over time, most families upgraded to a “private” line but, of course, that cost more.

This might seem kinda’ weird today, but back then it was just normal phone usage, and the local phone company assigned a distinctive ring so each “party” or customer could tell who an incoming call was for. I vaguely remember ours was two short rings together: We would also hear other ring sequences, but those calls weren’t for us.

The idea of using a phone in those days for more than making a call was barely imaginable, although the comic book character Dick Tracy did have a wristwatch phone (or was it a radio?) with TV, yet.

Speaking of costing more, in those days most families we knew rarely made long-distance calls because they cost more — this at a time when five cents bought you an unlimited local call on the ubiquitous payphones. Also, direct-dialing was still quite far in the future: You had to dial 0 (zero) and ask the operator to place a long-distance call. On a payphone, the operator would tell you how much to deposit in the slots for the first three minutes…and break into your conversation to tell you to deposit more when your time was about up. Consequently, you had to be prepared with a handful of coins to feed the phone, and most people used to rush long-distance calls so they wouldn’t cost as much.

As the population and the number of telephone customers grew over the years, phone companies soon had to add more numbers. For example, I remember our phone company (and many others in the U.S.) first added two new numbers to the front of everybody’s four-digit phone number in the 1950s, and to make the transition to that new six-digit number easier to remember, they used a mnemonic word: Ours was INgersol. That is, we had to add 4 (I) – 6 (N) to our number, but for quite a while we would still write our phone number as IN-5555 or say INgersol-5555. Later, the phone company added yet another digit right after the I-N, giving us the now-familiar basic seven-digit phone number: xxx-xxxx. Soon after, of course, phone companies all over the U.S. dropped the clunky mnemonics and started the still-prevalent three-digit area code system: xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Then there were my experiences with phones overseas: When I was a Mormon missionary in Samoa for two-and-a-half years in the mid-1960s, for example, there were very few phones and I didn’t get one phone call the whole time I was there. In fact, I can count the number of calls I made on one hand. Ten years later when I was an English language Fulbright lecturer in Bandung, West Java, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta used to have to call one of only three neighbors who had a phone and leave a message, or leave a message with the dean’s office at the university where I taught when they wanted to get in touch with me.

Now flash forward to just a few years ago when I was at the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, China — so far northwest of the main coastal towns that most of the people aren’t even Chinese (they’re Turkic Uighurs)…but hundreds of them crowded the cell phone market: It turns out that it makes excellent sense in underdeveloped places to install a small number of cell phone towers compared with the countless miles and miles of ugly utility lines that scar the view planes of our beautiful island and almost every other place in the U.S.

Speaking of small numbers back in the ’60s and 70s for larger organizations and businesses, the capacity for incoming and outgoing calls was also a problem. For example, when I was a Church College of Hawaii student in the late 1960s, only a limited number of people could call off-campus at any one time. I don’t know how many outbound lines CCH had, but it was frustrating because there weren’t very many. I also recall that each of the six dormitories had two payphones for the hundreds of students who lived on campus. That was good when someone occasionally had to make a call, but on inbound calls, they would ring and ring — nobody wanted to answer them because such calls were almost always for someone else, and then the person answering might have to go looking…or more likely, yell loudly to see if so-and-so was in the dorm.

In the 1970s and 80s prepaid phone cards came out and gained popularity. I used to pack one in my wallet, and we would buy them for our kids. In fact, I think they’re still used in a lot of places. Back then some payphones also used credit card swipers…and before cell phones started becoming practical, a lot of people would rush off airplanes to get to the large banks of payphones in the waiting areas to let their families and friends know they’d arrived. Now everybody’s making their cell phone calls before they even get off the airplane.

Today, at least in the U.S., personal and prepaid cell phones have largely replaced phone cards and even payphones…and with the advent of modern digital and other phone systems, few people in the U.S. hesitate to make a long-distance call.

Speaking of telephone progress, my, haven’t the devices themselves changed a lot. When I was a kid our family used a basic black rotary dial phone for years. Later, of course, push-button models became prevalent.

Anyone remember those early cell phones? I first used one in 1983: The president of the Polynesian Cultural Center let me use his (of course, he had to tell me how to do it). With the charging unit, it was about the size of a shoebox — a heavy shoebox, and the handset was about 10″ X 2″ X 2″, not counting the three-inch antenna: It was like holding a brick compared with the clam-shell cells that eventually replaced them…and no comparison at all with today’s modern smartphones and blue-tooth connections. For example, my current iPhone that I usually carry in my shirt pocket can do more than my first three-or-more computers…and who knows what its replacement will be like in five years.

But here’s a hint: I attended a future technology workshop a couple of years ago in which the presenter talked about research and development work on cell phones that will work anywhere in the world — no, not satellite phones which already do that but look something like those early cell phones with extended antennas. He was referring to the pocket-sized cell phones we’re familiar with today, and he said their batteries will last about a year.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep charging my iPhone periodically and using it to check the Internet, send and receive email, watch videos, write and dictate notes, find places on a map, look up phone numbers anywhere in the country, check the latest movie listings and reviews, find the temperature in Las Vegas (or wherever in the world), keep my personal calendar and to-do list, carry a comprehensive library of Latter-day Saint publications and resources, FaceBook my friends and family, record interviews, play games, take pictures and video, text messages, etc., etc. and, of course, make phone calls.

— Read Part II, How things have changed: The Sound Scene…

Read Part III of this series: Way back when…


  1. […] Read Part I of this series…   « Documenting the Laie Temple re-opening | […]

  2. […] — Read part-I: Times and Things have changed… […]

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