Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dial Tone

Unintentional collecting, it's kind of like waking up and finding oneself with some incurable disease, as if something had been stalking you, unseen, for years, decades even, and it eventually caught up with you. Well, not really that dramatic. It's more like a sense of self-discovery; as if the discovery itself is an act of self-discovery.

I have, on my desk, opposite from the Underwood Universal typewriter, a black, rotary-dial desktop telephone. The real deal, not a reproduction. Bought it, years ago, from a local telephone repair shop, new in the box, as a curiosity. It's a 2-line phone, with a clear, crystal-like rotary switch on the lower left front corner. Makes a good counterpoint to the black typewriter on the other corner of my desk, as if straddling, like two bookends, either extreme of 20th century technology.

I also have an even older, Bakelite rotary dial telephone, that we purchased from an antique store; on it's escutcheon is the name and number to the hotel in Mexico from where it originated. It, too, is still operationally functional.

I didn't mean, intentionally, to collect telephones; but I have almost as many (2) as I do typewriters (3).

I was a telephone man, in the US Navy, back in the late 1970s. Actually, my rating was called "Interior Communications Technician," but we were commonly known as the "telephone man" onboard ship because that was among the many other shipboard communications and signal systems that we maintained.

There was a three-digit dial telephone system that was wired throughout the ship, whose terminus was the Aft IC Compartment, which also housed the ship's aft gyroscope, and a 60-400 hz motor-generator set. The telephone exchange was a series of cabinets, each housing stacks of so-called "X-Y switches," manufactured by Stromberg-Carlson.

(I saw some of these recently, while visiting a local telephone museum in Albuquerque, that brought back many memories.)

We would perform PMs - preventative maintenance - on the X-Y switches, pulling each one and soaking it in a tub of "trichlor", a now-banned solvent that's harmful to both the ozone layer and one's health.

In actual operation, when a 3-digit number was dialed, the first digit connected to one of the ten switch cabinets, the second number connected to a particular X-Y switch in that cabinet, and the third number determined how many steps out into the cable run behind the switch module the solenoid-powered electrical contacts would move, in order to complete the call's circuit. One reason why this was important was because we had the ability to trace calls. This was the late 1970s, the "New Navy," just after the cultural turmoil of the Vietnam era, and there was the usual anti-military, anti-authoritarian attitudes swarming around the youthful crew of our ship, just enough such that, on occasion, some senior enlisted man or officer would receive a crank call. Provided they did not hang up their end of the line, and notified us in time, we could trace the caller's number by back-tracking through the equipment cabinets and X-Y switches, one for the caller's number and the other for the called number, each of which would still be "hung" into their closed circuit positions.

I'm not certain if anyone was ever caught red-handed; certainly any half-intelligent prankster would call from someone else's number. But still, it gave us IC Technicians some sense of satisfation in knowing that we were able to exercise a degree of secretiveness over the rest of the crew.

Since we were familiar with the innards of telephones, we were able to fashion the guts of used telephones into test sets, of which we lacked enough commercially-made units, enabling us to address the constant clipboard-mounted list of trouble calls from the ship's hundreds of numbers.

The IC crew was assigned to Engineering Department's E-Division, which also included the complement of shipboard electricians. When the ship was entering or leaving harbor, the electricians' role as part of the "sea and anchor detail" was the grueling task of pulling, by hand, the dozens of heavy shore-power cables that provided power to the huge aircraft carrier once alongside the pier and its own steam-powered generators were shut down. The IC techs, on the other hand, had merely to pull and connect the ship's telephone lines to the pier; a much less physically demanding job. This dichotomy between job rolls provided an endless source of resentment between the ship's Electricians Mates and IC Technicians.

Several years after my initial assignment to the ship, the telephone system was upgraded to four digits. This meant that, once alongside the pier, we could be assigned a prefix, and the ship could then receive calls to and from the "outside world." This also meant that someone (an IC Technician) had to man the telephone operator's station in the Aft IC room, a duty that rotated once every 6 days between the men. You would receive an incoming call, and would have to patch it to an interior number. This operator interface was more for security reasons, I figured, since it was possible to bypass the operator all together and let our switchboard system talk directly to "Ma Bell."

I remember once, when in port, I had to go down to the pier and troubleshoot a bad phone connection; the ship had dozens of outside lines, some of them assigned directly to senior officers. I had a handmade test set with me, made from the guts of an old phone inside a project box, with a handset and alligator cliplead-terminated cord, along with my green canvas tool pouch. There was a switch on the box that would mute the mouthpiece on my handset, so I could test the circuits without interjecting unwanted background noise into the system. On this particular occasion I didn't know which connection was the one in question, so I proceeded to connect the clip-leads to each pair of incoming lines, testing them for dial tone. I happened across one line that had a live call underway. I made the mistake, out of a young man's curiosity, to stay connected for just a second or two longer than I should have, for I realized that it was our ship's Commanding Officer talking to some Pentagon brass about nuclear weapons. I disconnected immediately, then looked up to the massive ship alongside the pier and realized that the Captain's cabin was directly across from me, the round portholes that served as windows clearly overseeing my position down on the pier. I hurried away with my tool pouch, a bit shaken for having inadvertently overheard something I shouldn't have; a reluctant, unintentional spy.

Years later, after I was out of the Navy and working as a TV Repairman (a trade I later learned on the same ship, after I was assigned to the TV Repair Shop, another of the IC Technician's duties) that I read Howard Blum's book "I Pledge Allegiance," about the John Walker spy ring. In this book I found out about Walker's co-conspirator, Jerry Whitworth. The name range a bell (no pun intended) because I remembered a Senior Chief Whitworth was on the same ship as I, at the same time. He was a Chief Radioman, and had been stealing crypto secrets, giving them up to Walker, who sold them to the Soviets. It kind of shook me up, thinking about those days as a sailor, in the Cold War, and how serious and determined we were to actually fight -- and win -- a possible nuclear conflict, and how, in retrospect, knowing our entire military's communications had been compromised; what a waste it had all been.

Now, looking back on it all, it seems so quaint, this black, rotary-dial telephone, sitting adjacent to my netbook computer, that brings with it so many of those old memories that seem like just a few years ago. But it has dial tone, this black phone, and still works. The local phone company, Quest, still supports pulse code on our phone line, so I've been able to show my grandson how to actually "dial" a telephone call.

Somehow, it feels fitting to bring up these old memories, talk a bit about antiquated technology that's only decades old, now that we're awash in a sea of wireless digital communications. And across the desk, on the other side, sits my Underwood, with a note card threaded in the platen, a to-do list half in the making, eager as always to do my bidding, imprinting inked letters onto paper, as it has done since before the Second and First Gulf Wars, since before the Cold War, since before Vietnam and Korea, since before the Second World War, mechanically programmed to do but one thing, and to do it well.

(Via Alphasmart Neo.)


Blogger James Watterson said...

I hope they never get rid of pulse code. I love my rotary phone and when I get my own house would love to use it. Right now it is 2000 miles away from Texas at my Moms house. I wonder though if I got it out here, we have one of the internet/phone cable modems. Do you think it would work?

How are you loving the Neo by the way! I love my AS2000 and use it all the time. I would buy a Neo if they weren't so much $$$ Plus my 2000 does everything I need it to do. Older eyes though might prefer the Neo with its adjustable sizing on the screen. I don't personally wear glasses nor do I know if you do but I can see where that could be an issue for some people.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice story. They recondition or recase in plastic housings, the rotary dialers in the UK and convert the signal. I see that 'heads of state' are still using the traditional phones for their symbolic power. Don't know what the bat phone looks like these days.
It used to be the case that if your parents had a phone lock on the first finger hole, you could still tap out the number using the cradle pins.
None of my selenium meter cameras ever worked (stupid ebay!).

3:12 AM  
Blogger Joe V said...

@James: I'm not sure about the cable modem boxes, you'd have to contact them. I'm certain the 'baby Bells' have this feature because it's cheaper not the change it, dating from back in the legacy days of the phone system.

As for the Neo, I love is so much that my fountain pen doesn't get any use. Really the best keyboard writing experience I've found. Although for editing I like to see more lines of text at a time. For this article I imported from the Neo to the blog via the 'Send' button, then did some last-minute editing in the dialog box prior to posting.

Maybe I should try changing font size to smallest when in 'edit' mode, would give me a few more lines of text on the screen.

@Shute: That hook-switch dialing trick is neat; I first found out about it in high school computer class, early 1970s, when the phone that was used to dial up the Mainframe (Digital PDP-10) also had long-distance capability. I found this out when I starting slamming the hook-switch at a rapid rate and ended up calling someone in Montana!;)

BTW, that's what the dial does on a rotary phone, it interrupts the dial tone, one pulse for each number, with about 1/10 sec or so gap between each pulse. We used to have to retime the dial mechanisms in some phones, there was a special tool used on the contacts.

Regarding selenium meters, the one in the Olympus Pen D pictured in the article works, although the one in my Retina IIIC doesn't. I have a handheld meter to use in that case.

Thanks for reading.


11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just remembered something else that is weird. Our landline is pretty weak, with a light crackle; I always put it down to the very old wires on the external pole etc. A few months ago I found the phone off the hook slightly and it had been like that for about a day, perhaps more, without the 'offhook tone' or 'howler' as it is called in the UK, coming on at all. (I panicked a bit, because it used to be the case that if you left your phone off the hook on purpose, BT could charge you for it because they would have to manually reset the main box near your house, or something like that.) I did hear that they were going to discontinue the howler at some point but I doubt that is the case so it is either a bad line that doesn't flick the switch at the main connections or the SPOOKS are onto me! Never bothered trying to figure it out, I just made sure the cradle lug is pushed out (as if the phone was wall mounted against gravity slip etc). That is the modern phone, with the ringer turned off so that the old fashioned bell phone on the other socket does all the ringing!
No hand meter: I have to do 'sunny f16' or more like 'sunny f11' in the UK.

2:30 PM  

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