07 March 2007

Can You Hear Me Now

In the interest of exposing a bias on this subject, you should know that my very first job out of high school and for the next five years was as a telephone operator. Yes Virginia, there used to be these huge rooms in virtually every town filled with extremely patient women who assisted you in dialing the county next to yours, not to mention across the country and around the world.

They were governed by a rule book of statements and procedure set in stone courtesy of Ma Bell, and a violation of those rules could lose you a job.

In rural locations even in the 1960s there were phones that required an operator to "ring down" with a specific code so they knew which house on an eight party line needed to answer the telephone. They were the ones who called naval bases to find out which submarine was docked attached to which battleship and then waited forever because it was a "person to person" call.

In the days before 911, they were 911. When it took almost an hour to trace a call, they got to talk to strange people with odd telephone habits to keep them on the line until the police could find their telephone booth. If there was an emergency on the level of Katrina, whoever picked up that call got to stay with it for as many hours as it took for a governor to talk to the powers that be (Ask me about the Alaskan Earthquake sometime).

In the middle of the night they listened to the lonely and suicidal, dealt with drunken fraternity brothers being witty, and looked up numbers as they became "information" after midnight. Since they were information there was always some student hoping the operator was smart enough to come up with an answer for the term paper due the next day. They talked and listened, talked and listened, and talked and listened until the sound of a human voice was almost intolerable.

I always said that if I ever got to heaven and ran into Alexander Graham Bell, I would kick him off his cloud for full time residence in a much warmer climate. Well today is the anniversary of his receiving a patent for his infernal contraption. Despite my prejudice towards everything Scots, Bell doesn't get a pass on disturbing the peace and quiet for almost 100 years. This invention directly lead to people strolling down streets imitating the mentally ill and messages on movie screens to turn off your phones as if being unavailable for two hours would be the end of the world.

Bell imagined great uses for his telephone with special emphasis on services for the deaf, but would he ever have imagined telephone lines being used to transmit video images? Since his death in 1922, the telecommunication industry has undergone an amazing revolution. Today, non-hearing people are able to use a special display telephone to communicate. Fiber optics are improving the quality and speed of data transmission. Bell's "electrical speech machine" paved the way for the Information Superhighway, and now "wireless" makes world wide transmissions of speech from even the most distant of locations.

Yes it was a great invention, but don't expect me to answer the phone unless I love you a lot, and even then it will be a very short conversation.


vanillabirdies said...

Oh god, I screen calls!

That is a job I am thrilled you survived and didn't take a gun into work with you one day.

It's a brilliant invention. I dislike certain technology but others you can't help but be amazed over.

Sheila said...

This was a perticularly fun piece Jamie. Thanks for the heads up! Now what about the Alaskan Earthquake?

Jamie said...

I handled the call between the Lt. Governor, Hugh Wade, who was in Covina, CA and the Governor, William Egan who was in Alaska in 1964. I'll email you the details.

Marcia said...

Jamie, I was a long distance operator straight out of high school. Lasted at it long enough to go from cord boards to the automated ones where we just pushed buttons. Never handled an earthquake, but did have a kid call in with a bomb scare once. I dumped our home phone when we moved out here and just kept a cell phone, easier so far than monitoring calls.