atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#2471: Ye Olde Telephonic Device

The other day I thought about Exchange Street.

I don't know if it's coincidence or not that the town's telephone exchange is on Exchange street. I know that the street existed long before the telephone did; it was one of two roads (the other which was to become Route 1) which Willard Wood settled near, thus starting the town "Wood's Corners", which--at incorporation--was named "Crete", a name apparently chosen through the device of sticking a pin into a Bible and picking the nearest proper noun.

Regardless, the phone exchange is a big brick block of a building, presumably built in the 1950s and "hardened" against nuclear fallout. No idea if there was one on that site beforehand, or if (perhaps) Crete used Steger's exchange until there were enough subscribers in the area to justify the expense of a new exchange; but the architecture is pure 1950s. (Up until the late '80s it was also a designated fallout shelter.)

Before Bell Telephone upgraded to all-electronic, computerized switches, there were a few neat things about the phone system. I was a wee tyke when they stopped working.

First, you could dial "9911", hang up, and a few seconds later the phone would ring. It was nothing but a local test number, used by technicians to ensure the phone was working correctly. But after the upgrade, this went away.

Second, you were able to omit the first two digits of a phone number if you were making an intra-exhange call: if I wanted to call my neighbor across the street, I didn't have to dial 672-XXXX; all I had to dial was 2-XXXX.

Well, as long as his number was on the same exchange as mine, that is. But generally it was strictly one phone to a house and only really rich and/or important people had more than one phone line going to his house. There were literally millions of available numbers; there were no cell phones, no fax lines, no pagers; the only things that needed to have phone numbers assigned to them were...well...telephones.

(That is, by the way, why the 312 area code was big enough for the entire freakin' Chicago metroplex, including the "almost in corn" suburbs like Crete.)

Chicago Heights was the nearest town within a few miles of Crete which needed more than one exchange. Exchanges had names, rather than numbers; the first two letters of their names were selected from the appropriate number. This is why the phone keypad had letters on them long before anyone even considered the concept of sending text messages: if someone gave you his number he'd probably say something like, "It's SKyline 5-XXXX." The first two letters--SK--corresponded to 75. I could best remember my Aunt Bea's number as "SK5" rather than "755" because they'd been living there long enough that their number had been assigned as "SK5-XXXX".

Chicago Heights also had SK6--SKyline 6--and you couldn't call an SK5 number from an SK6 phone without dialing the entire weary thing.

"What?" You say. "It's only two extra digits!" Sure. Two extra digits which you had to dial. I mean rotary dial--pulse dialing--where you stuck a finger into a wheel and spun it around, then released it. If it was above five or six--well, you can dial an entire phone number in Touch Tone in the time it takes to dial 75anything with a rotary dial.

One reason Bell Telephone got rid of the convenient intra-exchange dialing feature? They wanted people to shell out the extra fee for Touch Tone. When all you're doing is pressing buttons, two extra digits isn't anything; but when you're dialing it's a whole 'nother story. It's tedious; and the machinery to decode Touch Tone took up less space than the mechanical switches that pulse dialing required. Even after the system went all-electronic, it still took more machinery (and more time) to process pulse dialing. Eventually, everyone got Touch Tone by default--and for no extra money--because it actually cost the telephone company more to have people still using pulse dialing.

(The extra fee for Touch Tone persisted long after it made any damn sense. Well into the 1990s.)

These days, of course, it's all different. The Chicago area has--what--five different area codes, now? More? I lost count. Each area code only--listen to this, "only"--has ten million phone numbers, some of which are unusuable because of how the dialing system works. (You can't, for example, have any exchange number that starts with "O11", because "011" is the prefix for making an international phone call. And that's just one issue.) After pagers and cell phones became commonplace, eight or so million phone numbers was no longer enough! So 312 was split into 708 and 312; and then they added 847 and 630 once the switch software had been upgraded. And I'm sure I'm forgetting one or two.

"Upgraded? Why?" Because--prior to that--area codes had to have either a 1 or 0 as the middle digit. Under the old system, 312 and 708 were valid area codes, but 847 and 630 were not. You can tell an old-style area code from that distinction; they changed the software because they had to: they ran out of area codes with 1 or 0 as the middle digit.

There's a ton of stuff I'm not touching on here; all this is written from my personal experience and I was never that damned interested in the telephone system. This is just me recalling how it used to be.

If your curiosity is really piqued, do a Google search on "phone phreak" and you'll discover an entire world of stuff.

Such as? Well, for one: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were phone phreaks. They built a device which would let them make a phone call anywhere in the world and charge it to any phone number, or simply to deep-six the charges entirely. The infamous "Captain Crunch" discovered that a toy whistle found in a box of his eponymous cereal emitted exactly the tone used by the phone system to select a long-distance trunk line--but because the computer switch didn't issue the tone, there was no long-distance connect charge. (This has long since been fixed.)

Phreaks got together on illicit (and free) long-distance conference calls and chatted about phone stuff, exactly the way hackers of the 1980s got on BBSes and talked about computer stuff. In fact, the hacker/cracker subculture of today evolved from the phone phreak subculture. Just being able to find and connect to the party line was proof of your phreak cred.

That was all too early for me, though; that was in the 1970s. I was still a kid.

Which is probably just as well. You don't wanna run afoul of the phone cops!

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