The Evolution of Telephones

selective focus photography of black rotary phone
Photo by Pixabay on

As a child I remember being one of the first families on our block to have a telephone. All the neighbors came over to marvel at this shiny piece of black plastic that connected us to the world. The phone had it’s very own piece of furniture in our dining room that consisted of a small table with a chair attached so you could sit while you were talking on the phone.

Back then you could dial “O” for the Operator and you would be immediately connected to a pleasant sounding girl for free. Now days if you dial “O” you have to navigate a recorded answering system to try to get in touch with the operator. You will eventually get hold of an operator but it’s going to cost you.

Our phone was connected to a party line. No, I don’t mean one of those 1-800 numbers advertised on late night television. A party line was a telephone circuit that was shared by several telephone subscribers.  Your phone would ring whenever anyone on your party line would receive a call but every user had an individual ring pattern to let you know if the caller had dialed your number.

There was no privacy on a party line. If you were on the phone with someone, anyone on your party line could pick up their telephone and listen in. Also, if anyone on your party line was using their phone, you could not make a call. There were laws that required all parties to hang up if someone announced that they had an emergency but that didn’t mean everyone complied and it didn’t prevent someone from telling you they had an emergency every time they wanted to make a call.

The other problem was if someone on your party line was busy chatting, nobody could reach your phone, they would instead hear a busy signal.  To prevent these problems subscribers would pay an extra monthly fee to upgrade to a private line.

A rotary dial telephone would have a number card installed in the center of the dial plate. This would enable whoever was using the phone to know what number they were calling from. Our original phone number consisted of a two letter exchange followed by four numbers. The printed label on our phone number read “AREA CODE 716 / AMherst 5964”. To call us, you would use the rotary dial to dial the A, the M, followed by the four numbers. Other exchanges I remember were PArkside and MOhawk. By deciphering these exchanges, you could tell where the number you were calling was located.

Eventually, Buffalo converted to a seven digit phone number (two letters and five numbers). This was met with a great deal of consternation in our house because you now had to learn all new phone numbers. I failed to see what the problem was because our number just changed to TF2-5964. Buffalo was allegedly one of the last major cities in the United States to changeover from six digit to seven digit telephone numbers.

At one point, Bell Telephone sent out a small “Blue book” that would fit in your wallet to keep your important numbers. Mine was filled with girl’s names with a coded rating system. Eventually, the phone companies dropped the letters in the phone numbers and just went all numbers.

When you moved, no matter how far, even just next door, you had to get a new phone number. You couldn’t take your old number with you. When we moved to Getzville, a suburb of Buffalo our new number was 688-9473. Today you can take your phone number with you if you move within the area code, the number belongs to you.

You rented the phone and the phone wires in your house on top of your monthly service bill but in the early 70’s, you could buy your phone and the wiring and eliminate the monthly rental charge. You could also buy a phone of your choosing at the store and wire it up to your “Interface” yourself.

I wired several phones in my house and had a phone hookup in every room except for the bath room. I even had one in the basement and two in my man cave in the attic. The difference between renting the phone and wiring and owning them was if you owned them and had a problem and it turned out to be a problem in your house, the phone company would gladly bill you for the repairs.

The area code used to let you know where a number you called was located geographically. But these days, due to cell phones, even area codes don’t mean a thing. We have friends in North Carolina that moved from Lockport that still have a 716 area code on their cell phones. I have a granddaughter in Denver Colorado that has a 716 area code on her cell phone also. Calling both of these people is a “local” call despite the long distances that separate us.

Yes, phones have come a long way since those phone booths on the corner. The days of being able to get a phone in any color you wanted as long as it was black. The days of rotary dials and party lines are gone. Communication has never been easier but we seem to have lost just sitting down and talking with each other face to face.

Norb is a septuagenarian (look it up) from Lockport. He has seen a lot of water go over the dam.

Tagged with: Party line, Rotary dial