Inside the Brown Bag

The Test

By Peg Brown

Locker combination? Secret code?

No—my telephone number at the home of my youth.

The telephone was a heavy black metal base, with a round white circle on the front displaying your number (and not digitally). Attached to the base was a receiver, shaped like a banana with a listening piece on one end and speaking piece on the other—all attached to the wall—with a long cord if you were lucky so that you could conduct your conversations in private by walking into a closet or sitting on the cellar stairs with the door closed. (There was only one phone in the house—no extensions for privacy.) To place a call, you picked up the receiver, waited for an operator to say “number please,” (picture the Saturday Night Live Lilly Tomlin character), and then waited to be connected—BUT, only if someone else was not already talking on the phone. Many had party lines in those days—lines shared by households. If you were lucky enough to pick up at just the right time, you could hear some interesting conversations—until the other party realized that their civil rights and privacy were being violated, and yelled at you to hang up!

At some point in my junior year of high school, rotary dials were introduced in Ogdensburg. I remember clearly a full assembly of students and teachers in the auditorium receiving instructions from “Ma Bell” representatives on how to use the new system. I also remember Dad coming home that evening and lamenting—“if you’re not careful you could dial California!”

Pay phones that were activated by depositing a dime were the communication tools of the street and most public places including our dormitories when we went to school. At my college we had one phone on the entire floor. If it rang, we hoped someone answered it and tracked us down—we were always convinced that we had missed a possible date night because of that system.

It was the same phone we used to call our family—collect. The operator would ask the party on the other end if they would accept the charges. Family accepted those calls—well, almost always. The only hint we might have had at the future was comic strip hero Dick Tracey’s wrist watch radio/phone. There was some talk about future phones having screens where you could see the caller—our biggest worry? How could we answer the phone in our pajamas! The biggest innovation of our youth with phones? The slim-line princess phone that actually came in colors and was found in only the most affluent homes.

I have already mentioned in previous columns that electric typewriters were just appearing on the scene. Again, if your family could afford it, you might get one as a graduation present for all of the upcoming term papers. I took Dad’s old manual typewriter to college and then graduate school. I would put the case on the floor, place the typewriter on top, surround myself with books and papers and bang away—and bang away was the operative word—if you typed just a little bit fast, the keys jammed, and it took several minutes to unhook the mess—all the while trying to avoid the black ribbon that left big smudges on your latest brilliant copy.

We also mentioned televisions—small, attached to an antenna on the roof that never really quite lined up with the signal—three stations—no remote—black and white—you get the idea. I do remember some early discussions about “pay T.V.”. I am going to admit to a pure lack of imagination on my part as I spent more than a few minutes trying to figure out how they would mount a coin box on the television that would require you to input quarters much like a parking meter. I was technologically challenged even then.

And video games? Are you kidding? There was no Xbox, Play Station, Party Up or any other gaming system anywhere. When you played games, there were on a board, with dice, cards, and pieces—no lights flashing unless during the game Operation you touched the sides while removing a body part and a red light flashed. However, lest you think our generation was completely backward, it should be noted that the first video game console was developed by a Ralph Baer in 1967. He played the first two-player video game in 1967—and lost.

And if it hadn’t been for a Douglas Engelbart who invented and patented the first computer mouse in 1964, our communication systems might be very different. When he first demoed the device, he said he had no idea why he called it a mouse. Other less noteworthy inventions of our day?—audio-cassette, silicone breast implants, AstroTurf and—hold onto your hat—Valium! Who said we weren’t creative and thinking about the future?

Author’s note: Today there are still 500,000 pay phones in use in the United States.