Pre-1990s Telephone

1970s Western Electric Model 2500 Touch Tone Telephone

To me it hasn’t been all that long ago; the 1970s seems like yesterday. Yet in reality, it’s been 50 years. A whole H of a lot has happened in that time. We went from being a vacuum tube germanium transistor culture to a thoroughly connected micro miniaturized society, well within my lifetime.

In the first third of my life, there were three primary forms of communication available to the common person. These included posting letters, being in person and the telephone. There were telegrams, but the average person seldom if ever sent them. No, for the most part, the telephone was it, both for necessity and leisure. But, it could often be a bane of human existence.

The Bell Telephone Company followed the highest standards when it came to service. Everything reliably worked surprisingly well even during power outages. Of course, they had over 60+ years to get it right. Never-the-less, it was there and available. And, it hadn’t really changed all that much since its inception. But…

Because it was the only dance in town, it could be very expensive.

Compared to today’s digital mobile technology, I remember conversations on the phone usually sounded rather clear. It was easy to recognize the other person’s voice. I distinctly recall in 1974 talking to someone long distance a hundred miles away where they sounded like they were in the next room. Their voice was clearly defined as well as the background chatter. There’s no comparison to today’s garbled sounding mobile phones. But back then, this came at a price.

Like many others, I was significantly hampered by this device when it came to talking to someone in another area code. The clock ticked as I talked.

1960-70s Bell Telephone Logo

For many today, it’s hard to imagine what it was like for telephone communications prior to the advent of the internet, especially when it came to long range communications. Relative to today, the costs in the 1970s were staggering. In 2020 dollars, a long distance call would cost a minimum of $3.50 per minute state to state. It could sometimes cost even more from area code to area code between municipalities in the same state. There was also something called toll calls in the same area code between places that were less than 25 miles apart. Then there were the overseas call costs. The least amount I saw in 1970 was almost $8.00 per minute in 2020 dollars.


To promote long distance calling in the 80s, AT&T applied different rates depending on the day of the week and the time of day. In 1980 the weekday rate between 8 AM and 5 PM for a call across the US was $0.54 ($1.70) for the first minute, $0.38 ($1.19) for each additional minute. For other times, it was 35% cheaper in the evening, and 60% cheaper 11 PM to 8 AM – and so on. The average per minute cost was equivalent to $1.25 per minute in 2020 dollars. This was based upon direct dialing; meaning the caller dialed the number themselves. Many people still felt they needed an operator to make the call for them. This could nearly double the long distance cost.

In 1950, the year of my birth, the high cost of a long distance phone call was why this company called Western Union still prospered. People would send telegrams at a fraction of the cost of a long distance phone call.


Measured Service

In 1974 when I was living in an apartment while in college, like everyone else, I subscribed to phone service. I had a choice between unlimited local calling for $23.00 ($120) a month or measured service for $7.25 ($38) a month for 30 outgoing calls. It was $.10 ($0.52) for each additional call. All incoming calls were unlimited.

To put the above in prospective, our mobile phone monthly charge for 2 phones for me and my wife is $52 a month with unlimited text and calling and a total of 3 gigs of data. That would have been $9.91 in 1974 dollars.


Party Lines

A party line (multiparty line, shared service line, party wire) was a single local loop telephone line that was shared by multiple telephone subscribers. The monthly line charge was divided up by the number of parties. The more parties connected, the lower the monthly cost. In the 1960s, $20 ($175) a month was a lot of money.

Up to 1967, our family had a party line which was shared with one other subscriber. If we had to use the phone, we would pick up the receiver and if we heard someone or didn’t hear a dial tone, we had to immediately hang up. While we were using the phone, it was obvious if the other party picked up their phone. It was basically like having an extension, but it was in another house. In the fall of 1967, our house caught fire and someone tried to call the fire department. However, the other party refused to get off their phone, so someone had to rush to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department. That put an end to the party line in our home.

One of the reasons for a Party line was there was a limited number of hard wired cables that were connected to the switching office.


Telephone Harassment

Prior to the 1970s before modular RJ11 telephone cords, most phones were hard wired into the wall.

Imagine if you would, a cold winter’s night, a woman alone in her apartment readying herself for bed. Suddenly, the phone rings. She picks it up and says, “Hello?” There’s no response. She hears … nothing. She hangs up and goes about her business. The phone rings again and she picks it up and says, “Hello?” only to hear nothing. She then asks, “Who is this?” Still, nothing. Again, the phone rings…

Very few people actually resorted to pulling the wires out of the wall. One of those few who did was my mother. Because I had some technical knowledge, I reconnected the phone. I believe Ma Bell would have charged for this. Later on at her behest, I went to Radio Shack and purchased a phone wall jack and plug, the old 4-pin variety. RJ11 wasn’t available yet.


Untraceable Local Calling

Today it’s hard to imagine placing a call without it being traceable. But prior to the 1990s, a person could call someone knowing it was almost impossible for it to be traced. If the authorities wanted to trace a call, it required a warrant that specified a technician to run around inside a room full of switching equipment and physically trace a call with a piece of electronic equipment.

It was after 1990 when switching equipment was upgraded such that placed called numbers and duration would be logged into a computer database. This was also the time when caller ID information could be transmitted to the party receiving the call.

But of course today, we face different challenges with the internet including number spoofing and throw-away mobile phones.
See: Do Not Disturb.



If you hang up or you hang up the phone, you end the call. If you hang up on someone, you abruptly end the phone call suddenly and unexpectedly.

Where does the term hang up come from?


Prior to the 1920s, telephones were large wooden boxes that contained heavy batteries and were securely hung on a wall. The transmitter or the part a person talks into was attached to the end of the transmitter arm which was affixed to the body of the telephone box; whereas the receiver or the part a person listens to was a hand held earphone that was connected by way of a wire to the body of the telephone.

Switch/Receiver Hook

When the phone was not in use, the receiver was hung on what is called a switch hook or receiver hook – which disconnected the telephone when the receiver was hung on its hook.

Very early telephones quite literally had a hook that the receiver was hung from. The receiver had an eyelet that was used to hang the receiver up with. The spring loaded hook was connected to a switch.

These telephones were hung up high on the wall and when someone wanted to end the call by disconnecting the phone, they literally hung the receiver up on its hook. So, hang-up, hung-up and off-hook are terms that were applied to old wall phones.

I supposed they hung the phone high up on the wall to keep children from playing with it. Also, the transmitter arm did stick out pretty far, so, having the phone high up on the wall kept it from being bumped into? Also the transmitter arm could be moved up and down depending upon the height of the person using the phone.


The Common Phone

1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s

As for the telephone itself, you didn’t own your own phone. Also, each additional telephone on the same line, called an extension, was an additional 10 to 15% monthly charge. And, you weren’t allowed to use either bogus phones or unauthorized telephone company phones. All phones were owned by Ma Bell regardless of how people obtained them. We just weren’t supposed to use them on the telephone network. But, with a little ingenuity and an understanding of phone company equipment, it didn’t stop a lot of people.

Most telephone switching equipment could detect additional phones that were connected by sensing ringer current. To get around this, people disconnected the bell wire inside the illegitimate phone.

When I was a kid, we had a number of phones around the house but only one would ring. At one time, we were caught because two of us were using two phones at the same time talking to a friend. Some technician must have noticed something, maybe a higher than normal load while we were talking. My father had to pay a hefty fine, at least that’s how he described it.


Why Not Radio

1960s 20 Meter HF AM/CW QRP Rig

During the 60s I pondered ways I could get around the long distance charges by using radio to talk to a friend who lived about 20 minutes away in the next town. In the end however, my research revealed that long distance over-the-air communications required a license, a ham radio license – both parties were required to have this license. Back then, an HF general class ham radio license required the prospective operator to pass a technical exam as well as a 13 word per minute Morse code test.

Note. Part 97 of the FCC regulations still expressly forbids any type of business related communications over the ham bands. I wonder where this regulation came from.

There was 5-watt 27MHz AM Citizens Band, but this mode wasn’t all that reliable. CB was primarily for short range line of site communications. Also back then, the FCC was much stricter in so far as CB licensing was concerned. It would be the late 70s before things started to become lax. Today its anything goes on this band – that’s if there’s anyone still using CB.


Catalogs, Order Forms, and Returns

There’s no doubt the telephone company was a monopoly. They were the only game in – the US for instantaneous interactive communications. Business was primarily a local thing and if an individual such as myself, a high school student, had to transact business out of town, it was done via snail mail.

If I wanted to order something I couldn’t find in a local store, it was done through mail-order with an order form found in a catalog. If I had to return an item, I had to write a letter describing the problem and wait for a return authorization. There wasn’t anything like Amazon or eBay. If I wanted or needed to sell something, I had to put an ad in the classified section of the newspaper or the ubiquitous Trading Post magazine. One could also sell the item at a flea market or to a pawn shop at a significant loss.


Busting up The Bell

The beginning of 1984 marked the break-up of the Bell Telephone System. Based on a judgment by a federal court , on January 1 1984, AT&T divested itself of local telephone operations and became a long-distance company, while seven Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) took control of US local phone networks. These were Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, NYNEX, Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell, and US West.

This breakup of the telephone monopoly was a big event. It led to more competition which caused companies to cut costs wherever they could. One of these cost cutting measures was to eventually have the customer provide their own telephone. At first, a subscriber still had to pay for each additional phone (extension). But, as time went on, this requirement was dropped mainly due to competition as well as the new solid state phones with much lower ringer power requirements. There were people who tried to connect more than three old style phones on an incoming line. But, depending upon how far the subscriber was from the switching office, the system couldn’t drive more than maybe 3 mechanical phone bells. Either the phones didn’t ring or the phone company office would …

NCR C260-400 F01 Automatic Acoustic Coupler Modem - lifts receiver off hook, dialed with touch tones.

There was so much we could do after the breakup of ole Ma Bell. Prior to that, the subscriber wasn't really allowed to hook anything to the phone line unless it was very costly Bell equipment.  Afterwards businesses weren’t restricted to expensive telephone company office phone equipment and programmers weren’t limited to 110 to 300 baud acoustically coupled modems. And we could also hookup other devices such as speaker phones and answering machines.

Cassette Based Telephone Answering Machine

The 80s became the anything goes era of phone equipment. This included a relatively new fad called answering machines. Depending upon the features, they were still expensive. But one could get one used for less than 50 1980s dollars. I got one like the above that needed some work for about $10.

Later inexpensive machines had a problem with terminating the call after taking a message. They would attempt to sense an off-hook tone or a period of silence to hang up or disconnect itself. It was common to hear a dial tone, a “beep beep beep” or a “please hang up… “ after the message. The more expensive machines would rely on the CPC (Calling Party Control) signal, a momentary break in phone line loop current which signaled the answering machine to hang up.


Long Distance vs. Toll Calls

There was a difference between long distance and toll calling. Long distance usually involved calling another state or between large cities. Toll calls could involve calling another area code in the same state. It also included calling another city or town in the same area code such as Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. These charges could be higher than calling across the country. Also, when other long distance carriers started offering service, they didn’t initially offer toll free service in the same area code. Eventually as they laid fiber optic cables, they could include these connections. It would almost be the late-80s before all intercity cabling was either converted to fiber optic or was acquired.


Post Breakup Toll Calls

A negative of the initial breakup of Ma Bell was toll calls became rather expensive. These baby bells were no longer one cohesive conglomerate that could subsidize the costs of the connecting trunk lines between municipalities. For some time, AT&T was the only local long distance carrier and charges continued to be exorbitant.

In 1982 MCI started giving the big A a run for its money. Soon after the breakup, MCI started offering local toll call service. That’s when competition made a significant dent in LD charges.


WATS Lines

WATS – Wide Area Telephone Service – a long distance telephone line service at fixed rates for fixed set of area codes.

A company could lease a fixed virtual trunk line between two or more area codes for business communication. They were charged a fixed or flat rate for this service regardless of how many calls were made or how long someone talked. It was common to hear, “Use the WATS line to call New York.” Large corporations used these lines to connect their corporate branches. The cost of such a line was very expensive and managers needed to justify these costs to their board of directors.


1-800 Toll-Free Service

In 1967, the first business to use an 800 number was a call center service provider that hosted numbers for existing major corporations. These were mostly national hotel chains and car rental agencies. When this company went out of business, their clients established their own call centers which used 800 numbers.

Though 800 numbers grew as a business tool during the 1970s, their usage faced one major hurdle. AT&T held a monopoly on long distance calling and charged a premium many times those of regular call-collect calls.

When MCI got into the act, competition for long-distance rates including 800 numbers began to plummet. Companies that previously couldn’t afford an 800 number found them affordable, and adopted them as a standard business practice. After this, vanity numbers emerged such that companies could choose their phone number such as 1-800-PICK-UPS.


1-900 Service

Premium-rate telephone numbers were numbers with a specific area code (900) for calls during which certain services were provided, and for which prices higher than normal were charged. These calls were billed to the caller’s monthly phone bill.

1-900 numbers weren't just for sex lines and psychics, although they were probably most likely used for this. They were a way of getting information in exchange for money. They were used for things like jokes, music, games, fan club information, and even PC computer support.

I knew a coworker whose son ran up a bill of over $3,000 in 1990s dollars. She said her son was calling a sex line at night.


Telephone Calling Cards

The first phone card was introduced in 1975 with the idea of offering people a way to pay for calls when they didn't have the cash. In 1976 there was a huge coin shortage in Italy that really set off the use of calling cards. The calling card did not officially appear in the United States until 1987 when business people started using the cards when they were on public telephones. The World Telecom Group was the main force behind the early calling cards.

Phone Phreaks

Phone phreaking was a methodology of hacking into the phone system to obtain free service, place toll and long distance calls for free and whatever else the hacker desired. Phreaking got its start in the late 1950s. Its glory days were between the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A phone phreak was someone who explored the telephone system and experimented with it to see how it worked. These people spent a lot of time dialing around the telephone network to understand how the phone system functioned. They listened through their phone to the sounds the switching equipment would make so as to figure out how calls were routed. They would read obscure telephone company technical journals. They also learned how to impersonate operators and other telephone company personnel. They would go so far as to dig through telephone company trash bins to find tossed out documents. They even snuck into telephone company buildings and wired up their own telephones. They built electronic devices to help them explore the network and make free phone calls.  The most common device was something called the Blue Box that enabled the caller to make free long distance calls.  See: Wikipedia Phreaking Box. They would also hang out on early conference call circuits and "loop arounds" to communicate with each other. They even wrote their own newsletters.

A number of these people were blind. Two noted Phreakers include:

  • Joybubbles (Josef Carl Engressia Jr) A student at the University of South Florida in the late 1960s, he was given the nickname "Whistler" due to his ability to place free long-distance phone calls by whistling the proper tones with his mouth.
  • Matthew Weigman who in 2008 used his heightened hearing ability to help him deceive telephone operators and fake various in-band phone signals.

Being blind in America meant a young person had a lot of time on their hands. While sighted kids were out riding bicycles, playing sports or romping around, a blind person led a more complacent life living primarily indoors. With the telephone at hand, it became something to explore.

Exploring the telephone network wasn't illegal. But phone phreaks would use their skills to make free telephone calls, which was illegal. Some phone phreaks would go so far as to wiretap telephones or steal telephone company equipment, which inevitably led to their arrested.

A book called Exploding the Phone - The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley tells the story of a misfit group of technophiles, blind teenagers, hippies, and outlaws and explains how they figured out how to hack the telephone system.


Who Was Ma Bell

The Bell System was the group of companies that was led by the Bell Telephone Company and later by AT&T. This conglomerate dominated the telephone services industry in North America for over 100 years from its creation in 1877 until its antitrust breakup in 1984. The system of companies was often colloquially called Ma Bell (as in "Mother Bell"), because it held a vertical monopoly over practically all telecommunications in the United States as well as Canada.


New Horizons

In the early-90s, several parallel developments in communications were occurring. This included the Internet, mobile telephone, and bidirectional cable. Yes, these three alternative forms began to take over the communications world.

After the 80s transition to open telephone service, things really didn’t change all that much until the mid to late-90s when people really started subscribing to direct-connect internet services as we know it now. It was also when everyone started buying a home PC so they could cruse the web. Today, very few people have hardwired telephones in their homes. Also, long distance is virtually free – even to another country using a video app such as WeChat, Messenger, etc.


Mobile Phones

Up to the late 1960s, mobile telephone equipment was rather bulky and the equipment was a permanent installation in a vehicle. These were kind of single frequency two-way radios. Later on duplex duel frequency simultaneous transmit and receive phones were developed.

1968 Livermore Data Systems LAP-2000

There were portable phones such as a kind of briefcase phone called an Attaché Case Telephone, but these were a rarity, a bit impractical and rather pricy.

    In 1973, Motorola introduced a handheld mobile phone called The Brick. But its cost was a whopping $4000 in 1970s dollars. And the mobile phone service was also costly, something like $40 a month in 1970 dollars and $0.30 to $0.40 per local call. Also, there were a limited number of radio channels that were available. These included two channels per call, which meant that with 6 allocated frequencies, only three customers in any given city could make a call at the same time. Finally, because of the limited band allocation, mobile phone service was limited to only so many subscribers resulting in waiting lists. One had to justify their need for this service.

The first generation (1G) analog cellular system called the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) went on line in October 1983 in Chicago which opened up mobile phone service to a lot more people. However, it was still quite costly. It would be the late-80s when I saw for the first time a mobile phone in the car of a physician. It would be in 1996 when I subscribed to analog cell service from Nextel.

When I ordered the phone, a fellow dressed in a suit and tie literally came to my office to show me several phones and to demonstrate how cell service worked. I’ve had mobile phone service ever since.


The Internet

In 1992, I would use a US Robotics modem to dial into bulletin boards (BBS) to send emails and such. A number of these BBSs had interconnected Gopher based hierarchal servers.

The first time I saw the graphical internet was in 1993 where the company I was contracting to had a T1 connection to the web. My terminal to the DEC VAX mainframe I was programming was a ProComm telnet application running on a Microsoft NT based PC. I could cruise the web with Mosaic, and later on I used Netscape. I didn’t subscribe to an internet connection until 1998 because I could use my companies dial-in service.

Yes, I was by no means one of the first to do anything with communication technology. In fact, I consider myself a late comer. I mostly did this stuff out of necessity rather than playing around.


The PC

My first home based computer was a 68000 UNIX based business computer I bought used in 1980 for way too much money. Before the 1981 IBM PC bust, I used it for an automated billing business I was working to build up. But then a little while after the announcement of the IBM PC, my clients decided to purchase one for their own businesses. By 1985, a bunch of microcomputer makers went out of business.

In 1986, I bought an AT clone with a 40mb hard drive and PC-DOS from a fledgling computer store for about $1,200. Except for dialing-up to a BBS and a word processor, this thing wasn’t all that useful.

I never really paid anything for all the software I had on it – except for Borland C++. I ended up developing my own word processor which I used for many years. I designed this word processor to use a kind of markup language. It wasn’t a WUSIWYG word processor.

The first Windows based PC I had was obtained via mail order in 1993. It was a 486-16/33MHz mini tower Taiwanese clone with a turbo button. I originally installed IBM OS/2 but the IBM drivers wouldn’t work with this particular clone. I then installed Windows 3.1 which I later upgraded to 3.11 by installing an Ethernet card and Microsoft NetBEUI TCP-TP network protocol drivers. I subsequently upgraded this PC a number of times, including installing a new Pentium motherboard, more memory and 2 1-gig IDE hard drives. I still have this PC buried somewhere in the attic. It has one of the first consumer LCD displays.

Subsequently, I’ve had dozens of PCs, laptops and tablets. I’ve been through all the versions of windows including 2, 3, 3.11, NT, 95, ME (Migraine Edition), 98, 2000, Vista, Server 08-R2, 7, 8 versions, and 10. I’ve even gone through several iterations of Linux. I never really did anything with Mac OS.

Anyway, we kind of got off topic here. We’re talking about communications.

Today the methods I use to purchase or sell things are mainly via eBay, Amazon, and dozens of other buying and selling websites. I also use YouTube, email, Messenger, Zoom, Google Voice and a mobile phone voice and text. What I don’t use is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, etc. I also don’t have any TV services including OTA. I do host and maintain the web site which has been up since 2002.



A lot of us don’t know how good we really have it. We are connected in so many ways that was unfathomable even up to Y2K. However, it seems we’ve given up something in the process. These methods of communication have seemingly separated a lot of us from each other. I’m not poo pooing our wonderful communications technology. I’m just wondering, are we giving up something in return.

Life should be easier today. Instead, I get the impression life is really hard for a lot of people. Could it be we have way too much to choose from?

I think not. Instead, we should do what I did during the era of the telephone. And that is, enjoy what we have and look forward to an even brighter future with even more fantastic inventiveness.

Back then, we didn’t have anything near what you have now. Not only has communications been significantly improved – and is free. Even television has been expanded to include the amateur producer – YouTube. Your computer is now pocket sized – not to mention, it’s a pocket sized TV. Other examples include photography which is available to all without the costly and dangerous development of the resulting pictures and movies. The list is endless.

Just imagine what the future will bring – a car that drives itself leaving you time to – sleep on your way to work or watch TV while returning home from work.

I still have lots of time left and I’m look forward to what is coming.

Having more fun than an elderly guy should be allowed to have,

S February 14, 2021