Voices Across the Land (Feb, 1959)

The exact same quote about being assigned a phone number at birth is used in the Mechanix Illustrated article Your Telephone Of Tomorrow (Sep, 1956). If you haven’t read that one, be sure to check it out, it pretty much predicts modern cell phones.

<< Previous
1 of 7
<< Previous
1 of 7

Voices Across the Land

Night and day I keep singing—humming and thrumming:

It is love and war and money; it is the fighting and the tears, the work and want,

Death and laughter of men and women passing through me, carrier of your speech,

In the rain and the wet dripping, in the dawn and the shine drying,

A copper wire.

—Carl Sandburg

Under a Telephone Pole Screwdriver and splicing knife hanging from his belt, the telephone man keeps history’s happiest invention humming from coast to coast. He watches over 265 million miles of wire, waging war against storm, disaster and pesky animals that chew up or nest in his equipment. He hoists his lines over mountains with helicopters, shoots them across canyons with bow and arrow, strings them through dark conduits far beneath great cities. To every home and office, he gains ready entrance, exuding courtesy and helpfulness.

He must deal with subscribers who blow apart their telephone lines by firing shotguns out the window (148 such cases in Chicago last New Year’s Eve), with farmers who harvest the lines with their crops (corn-picking time is a nightmare for repairmen), with homeowners who are jealous of their picture-window view (“They come at me like a bear,” says one foreman, “if they don’t like where I put a pole”). He must also be ready for the occasional lonely housewife who meets him in a negligee. Rule of thumb: get out, and come back when hubby is home.

He must learn to expect anything. An old lady in Washington, D.C. asked the repairman to run the new telephone wire through her parakeet’s cage so that he “would have something interesting to perch on” (refused). A Chicago woman insisted on having her wall telephone four inches from the floor so that she would be forced to exercise while bending to answer it (granted). One telephone man was called to a Chicago hotel to repair a badly frayed cord, discovered the cause of the trouble as he was leaving: sitting in the bathtub was a pet lion.

Phthisic on the Farm. The telephone has done more than diplomats, clergymen or scientists to knit the world together. Taken for granted by kings and butchers alike, it is an indispensable companion that serves without favor or prejudice. It has reached into every civilized corner of the world—and often brought civilization with it. From its wires spring the words of history in the making, the chatter of daily life. English Novelist Arnold Bennett called it “the proudest and the most poetical achievement of the American people.”

In the U.S., the telephone man has installed 66,600,000 phones, more than half of the 117,800,000 in the world. Each day in the U.S., 245 million telephone conversations hum over the wires, more than 500 calls a year for every person. At any second of the business day, more than 2,000,000 people are talking on U.S. phones. What do they talk about? In Sharon Springs, N.Y. Attorney Joseph P. Leary, stalled in a snowstorm 50 miles from court, argued his client’s case to the judge by telephone—and won. In Nevada, Mo. Louise Phillips, 17, and J. P. Ashley. 20, a coast guardsman stationed in Hawaii, were married in a transpacific telephone ceremony heard over a church loudspeaker by 125 wedding guests.

In Portland. Ore. Ross Mudge, 40, almost completely paralyzed by polio, whiles away his time on a special telephone which he dials with a foot pedal. Thousands of other invalids earn their living, attend school or chat with friends on a variety of specially designed phones. In Herman, Neb. the three operators of the tiny Herman Telephone Co. (386 subscribers ) spent much of the day answering such questions as: “Who’s got a good price on eggs today?” “How far is it to the Smith farm?” and “How do you spell phthisic?”

In his private plane between Chicago and Milwaukee, a Chicago businessman took a business call from a customer in Buenos Aires, joining thousands of fast-moving businessmen who have had phones installed in autos, boats, even duck blinds.

Changing Ears. Without the telephone, the nation’s business and pleasure would come to a virtual standstill. In Washington, the world’s talkingest city (70 telephones per 100 persons v. New York City’s 53.8), President Eisenhower can have instant contact with any Cabinet member via a black and gold phone on his desk. In the Pentagon the world’s largest switchboard handles 270,000 calls a day from mote than 50,000 telephones. Two telephones (a red one connecting with U.S. bases, a black one with overseas bases) at Strategic Air Command headquarters would flash the first orders to U.S. bombers to answer an enemy attack.

Millions of Americans pick up the telephone to get the weather or the correct time, shopping news, stock market quotations, recorded prayers, bird watchers’ bulletins, and even (in Boston) advice to those contemplating suicide. Teen-agers could hardly live without the telephone —and many parents can hardly live with it. Twisted into every position—-so long as it is uncomfortable—teen-agers keep the busy signals going with deathless conversation: “What ya doin? Yeah. I saw him today. Yeah. I think he likes me. Wait’ll I change ears. Whaat? Hold on till I get a glass of milk.”

Echoing the life and times of the nation, the ring of the telephone resounds through U.S. literature, theater, movies. It evokes laughs (Bells Are Ringing) from the plight of an answering-service operator who falls in love with a client, horror (Dial “M” for Murder) from a homicidal husband’s attempt to lure his wife into an assassin’s hands with a telephone ring, frustration (Menotti’s The Telephone) from the dilemma of a lover whose girl constantly interrupts his proposal to answer the phone—until he rushes to a phone booth to propose.

12 Million Emergencies. Telephone lore is rich with the stories of heroic men and women who have used the telephone to save the lives of others in answering 12 million emergency calls every year. In 1908 Operator Sally Rooke stayed at her switchboard to warn the people of Folsom, N.Mex. of a flash flood until she herself was swept to death by the waters. A Chicago couple who reached a phone just before being overcome by leaking gas gave the operator who summoned help an oft-voiced tribute: “We wish to thank you for saving our lives.”

Not all calls end so happily. Infants have died because gabby neighbors would not get off the party line—and many a barn has burned down for that reason. Twenty-four states now have laws requiring party-liners to surrender the phone immediately when the caller announces an emergency. Once, when a New York City policeman called to report a fire, the operator asked his number. The policeman could not find the number in the dark. While trapped tenants screamed for help, the operator’s only answer to his plea was, over and over: “What number are you calling from, please?” She delayed the fire equipment for a vital ten minutes.

Widows’ Stock. For most Americans, the telephone is synonymous with the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., the colossus that embraces 20 regional telephone companies in a nationwide Bell System. So thoroughly has the telephone blanketed U.S. life that A.T.&T.’s stock is the world’s most famous and most widely held, owned by so many people (1,619,397) that more than 15.000 are named Smith. It is fondly known as “the widows’ and orphans’ stock” and “the stock that acts like a bond” because A.T.&T. has not missed a dividend in 78 years. Since 1922 it has faithfully paid a $9 annual dividend even in years when its per-share earnings did not equal $9.

Today. Wall Street is sitting up and taking notice of A.T.&T. as never before. A.T.&T. stock has stopped acting like a bond, taken to soaring like a growth stock ever since the company announced a three-for-one stock split, first in its history, and a 10% rise in dividends. Convinced that the split is just the first of a series of moves to raise earnings, buyers have sent the stock up 35-1/2 points—to 237-1/2 since the split announcement. By its move. A.T.&T. hopes to make it easier to raise cash in the future to make the world’s biggest company even bigger.

The biggest U.S. private enterprise, including its Bell System satellites, has $19,493,951,000 in assets (more than General Motors and Standard Oil Co.—N.J.—combined) and 725,000 employees, operates 54,684,342 telephones, more than 80% of the nation’s total. The U.S. watches most of its TV shows over Bell’s television coaxial-cable network, which reaches 610 stations in 403 cities, makes all its long distance calls over 63 million miles of A.T.&T.’s long-distance channels, puts through 2,600,000 overseas calls a year via Bell cables to Britain, Hawaii, Alaska.

War of Independents. But the Bell System is no one-party line. Though it monopolizes the service in most of the big cities, more than one-half of the U.S. land area is served by 3,798 independent telephone companies. They range from General Telephone Corp. (3,900,000 phones throughout the U.S.), the Bell System’s chief competitor, to such tiny companies as the Hinsdale County Telephone Co. of Lake City, Colo. (60 phones). which is operated from the room of a motel. Many of the independents are serving areas where the population is growing fast, are themselves growing faster than Bell companies.

Once this would have been resented by powerful A.T.&T.. which for decades battled fiercely with the independents. But now there is peace. A.T.&T. has agreed not to raid the independents, makes generous revenue splits with them on interchanges of calls ($190 million in 1958). Fearful of Government antitrust suits (it narrowly squeezed out of a 1949 suit), A.T.&T. is only too happy to have the independents around as proof that it is far from a nationwide monopoly.

Nonetheless, A.T.&T. constantly worries about its bigness. It has devised the most skillful public relations campaign in U.S. industry to sell itself to the public. No one at A.T.&T. would ever dream of saying that what is good for A.T.&T. is good for the country; A.T.&T. is doing its best to make it hard for the public to tell where A.T.&T. leaves off and the country begins.

Public service has long been a company religion, preached with such saccharine slogans as ”Working Together to Bring People Together” and ‘”Togetherness by Telephone.” But A.T.&T. practices what it preaches. It holds “town meetings” to tell about the company, sends executives to visit stockholders, continually polls the public about its opinion of the telephone company. A quarterly report from the New England Tel. & Tel. Co. listed this three-month activity in “customer relations”: 330 talks by company officials. 1,271 company films, 501 talks with films, 587 displays, 7,305 customer interviews, 167 lecture demonstrations, 54 exhibits, 67 dial demonstrations. A.T.&T. executives proudly quote former (1951-56) President Cleo Craig: “We must make sure that the people who carry on our business do not think of the company’s interest as one thing and the community’s as another.”

Acid Test. A.T.&T. has not only grown up with the nation; it helped it to grow. Every moviegoer who saw Don Ameche star in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell knows how the first telephone call was made. Bell was no electrician but an elocutionist and teacher of the deaf. He thought that he could devise a mechanical gadget like the human ear to transmit and receive voices by electrical impulse, had a crude instrument made according to his specifications by his assistant, Thomas Watson. Bell was fiddling with the instrument in the attic of a Boston rooming house one day when he spilled acid on his clothes. Cried Bell: “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” Watson, at the end of a receiver in another room, heard Bell’s voice clearly over the phone—and came arunning.

Bell was quick to realize that the whole world would some day talk with his invention. (He hoped that the entire nation would one day sing The Star-Spangled Banner in unison over the telephone.) But he left the commercial development of his gadget to a group of friends and associates, retired to his laboratory to improve his magic box, continued his work for the deaf.

Repeatedly Bell was called out of retreat to testify in more than 600 patent lawsuits before his patents expired in 1893-94. Western Union, which had a monopoly on telegraphic communications, at first turned down an offer to buy Bell’s patents. When Bell’s invention began to hurt its business, it came out with a better transmitter developed by Thomas Edison, went into competition with Bell. Dozens of independent telephone companies sprang up, creating what one observer called “a state of enthusiastic uncertainty.”

Bell’s Napoleon. The man who put the stripling Bell system out ahead—and assured it of staying there—was Theodore N. Vail, a onetime Western Union telegrapher and Government mail superintendent who became general manager of the new Bell Telephone Co. when it was founded in 1878, later became president of A.T.&T. Vail won the biggest battle in the patent wars by proving that his old employer, Western Union, was infringing on Bell’s invention, and forcing Western Union out of the telephone business. As the Bell interests developed through several companies, they bought Western Electric (now one of the biggest U.S. firms, with $2.2 billion in sales) to give Bell its own equipment manufacturer.

The newspapers of his day hailed Vail as “the Napoleon of communications.” He envisioned a huge interconnecting system of telephones—and set out to create it. He swept all the Bell interests into one company, gobbled up faltering independents. He kept control by buying up stock in the operating companies, held onto all long-distance lines, and continued the company’s early practice of licensing all services—the framework under which A.T.&T. still operates.

“Undertaker’s Dial.” To the nation’s fast-growing telephone industry, a Kansas City undertaker named Almon B. Strowger made one of the greatest contributions. Strowger was convinced that a competitor was bribing the operator, trying to beat him out of business by snatching death calls intended for him. To eliminate the operator, Strowger invented the first, crude dial system, set up his own company after a Bell official turned down his system. Not till the independents had widely installed the dial did A.T.&T. go along. Many people protested the move.

When dial phones were installed in the Capitol in 1930, Senator Carter Glass even tried, unsuccessfully, to push through a resolution to ban dials. Said he: “I object to being transformed into one of the employees of the telephone company without compensation.” Cracked Humorist Will Rogers: “They want nothing connected with the Senate in any way where the responsibility can’t be shifted.”

The next man to make a big mark on A.T.&T. was President Walter S. Gifford. a financial wizard and career telephone man who came up from the bottom. Gifford steered the burgeoning company from 1925 to 1948 through boom, depression and World War II, laid the foundation for its explosive postwar growth. During Gifford’s reign, the Bell System’s operating revenues rocketed from $655 million to $2.2 billion, and its phones multiplied like little black Shmoos from 11.2 million to 28.5 million. Gifford guided A.T.&T. intact through a federal antitrust investigation during the ’30s, pushed the employee stock-purchase plan that has made company stockholders out of 45% of A.T.&T.’s employees. In 1927 he opened the first commercial service between New York and London over the radiotelephone circuit, and in 1935 sped the first call around the world— and back—to a vice president sitting only 50 feet away.

Trouble-Free Gadget. Today, still riding the crest of a tremendous postwar telephone boom, A.T.&T. is a vast, sprawling creature of wondrous efficiency. Since war’s end, it has hiked its take on each U.S. phone from $5.25 to $8—while managing to cut long-distance rates between New York and Los Angeles from $4 to $2.50, and on shorter calls in proportion. Much of that money has gone into $19 billion for plant investment and new equipment, on which A.T.&T. now stands to cash in with dramatic earnings gains.

A.T.&T. has developed the most nearly trouble-free gadget yet devised by man. On an average, the telephone man has to repair a phone only once every two years. The party line, that inspiration of jokes and gossip, is all but gone. About 94% of U.S. telephones are now on the dial system, and 8,000,000 customers in 758 communities have direct distance dialing, which enables them to dial some 2,500 cities across the U.S. without going through an operator. This year Washington will become the first big Metropolitan area to have complete direct distance dialing, and by the mid-1960s the Bell System expects 95% of all its phones to be on direct dialing.

Nothing to Chance. A.T.&T.’s efficiency goes far beyond machines. Almost every employee agrees that the company is a good place to work; it offers interesting work, stock purchase and pension plans, security and job advancement. But few deny that it is the nearest thing to regimentation in a private company. Says one employee: “When you join the telephone company, your whole life changes.” A.T.&T. drills “duty” and “service” into its employees; it inundates them with dozens of handbooks of instruction. They tell employees what to do to meet almost every conceivable problem, from flying a task force of linemen into a hurricane-devastated area to giving instructions for saving a choking baby. Says an employee: “The company doesn’t leave anything to chance.”

A.T.&T. operates a comprehensive checking system that records almost every working move made by a Bell System employee. In hundreds of tasks he is judged on how closely he hews to the book; a monthly “Green Book” gives system-wide ratings on such jobs as speed in putting through long-distance calls (average: 64 seconds), the number of uncollected bills, subscriber complaints, errors in bills (99% are error-free). The records go to Manhattan headquarters, where company efficiency experts analyze them and rate both employees and operating companies.

One office is also being rated against another, one man against his colleagues. Occasionally, headquarters hikes the base of the index to make it harder to get a good score. So thorough is the system that tape recorders are used to take down every word of some operators, played back at month’s end to get their efficiency ratings. Said a harried wire chief in a Massachusetts office: “They measure us like a hawk.”

This is the system that propels talent to the top of A.T.&T.’s rigorous hierarchy, measuring each person against the best performance elsewhere in the company. It is no accident that Bell System executives show similarities in personality, background and philosophy. They all started at the bottom, had the rough edges ground off, were carefully switched through a variety of jobs on the way up. “We want to be sure,” said a top executive, “that it is the man and not the system that is doing the good work.” A.T.&T.’s top brass not only rates junior executives on how well they do their work, but even suggests where they should live (one of the New Jersey commuter towns for New York executives)—and then rates- them on how they fit into the community.

Carbon Copy. If A.T.&T. scientists fed all the qualities of an ideal telephone man into a computer to get a model telephone executive, the result would be a good fit for the man who now runs A.T.&T.: Frederick Russell Kappel (rhymes with apple), 57. A big (6 ft.. 204 lbs.) man with powerful hands and a jutting jaw, Kappel looks out of place in his elegant suite in A.T.&T.’s Manhattan headquarters at 195 Broadway—a building inspired by the Parthenon and the Temple of Amon at Karnak. But Kappel is clearly at home. A telephone man’s telephone man, he is the very model of all the telephone virtues—competent, conservative, hard-working, self-made, community-minded, and as impersonal and efficient as one of his gadgets.

“I don’t recall any time since I was old enough to think about it,” says Kappel, “that I wasn’t interested in getting into some kind of electrical work.” The son of an Albert Lea, Minn, barber, Kappel was a quiet, hard-working youth who fiddled with ham radio sets, seldom dated, worked his way through the University of Minnesota (in engineering) by waiting on table and playing the drums in the university band. He began at A.T.&T. as a $25-a-week groundman for Northwestern Bell (“Our main job was to dig holes faster than they could put poles in”), has never left the Bell System.

With energy, enterprise, and a knack for learning fast, Kappel conquered 14 jobs to reach the rank of vice president of Northwestern Bell in 1942. Then came a call to New York, where his mettle was tested in a variety of jobs in operating and engineering. He did so well that in 1954 he got the second biggest job in the Bell System: president of Western Electric. In 1956, to no one’s surprise, he was tapped for A.T.&T.’s top job to succeed Cleo Craig.

Boss for the Boss. Kappel lives modestly for a man of his position and salary ($200,000 a year). He dresses conservatively, usually in blue serge suits. His modest four-bedroom house in Bronxville, N.Y. is distinguished only by its six telephones, which cost him nothing. He and his wife, a University of Minnesota girl, have two daughters. An elder of the Dutch Reformed Church, Kappel does not smoke, drinks rarely—but can play shirtsleeve poker (a quarter a raise) with the best.

Kappel is a demanding boss, but he softens visibly when he talks about the public—which he still considers his boss. “If anyone needs to be sobered up about his responsibilities in this job,” he says, “he just has to realize what kind of people own stock in A.T.&T. Half of them are women, and many are widows. They depend on this thing.”

He makes a point of having a listed telephone number just like the average telephone subscriber—and so do the presidents of his subsidiaries. They also answer their own phones and make their own business calls. Walter Koch, president of the Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co.. sometimes gets up at night to answer his telephone, sometimes finds on the line a drunk who berates him for some imagined wrong. He has heard more than one turn and shout to his fellow tipplers: “Listen to me give hell to the telephone company president!” Says Koch philosophically: “It does them good to let off steam.”

Hard Core. Behind this extraordinary tolerance is A.T.&T.’s conviction that revenues can be raised much faster by increasing the use of the phone rather than trying to expand geographically (it has all but ended such expansion) to keep up with population growth. A.T.&T.’s soft sell has a hard core. In streams of enticing ads it pushes telephone extensions (“What a beautiful way to save steps!”), phones in color (more than 8,000,000 in the U.S.), and frequent use of the longdistance wires to call Granny (three or four kids are usually pictured waiting to get on the line—and they usually do). “There are still elderly people who worry about when their three minutes are up,” says Fred Kappel happily, “but young people pay no attention.”

Bell executives recently ran a test in Baltimore, discovered that telephone salesgirls sold 112% more department store goods than floor salesgirls, at a cost 51% less. They do not intend to let merchants forget it. Says A.T.&T. Assistant Vice President James V. Ryan: “We will soon launch an advertising campaign to persuade more people to shop by- phone. The merchants had better get ready to handle the phone calls,” i.e., install more, phones.

Look, No Hands! The telephone company never tires of introducing new gadgets. Last month A.T.&T. introduced a “call director,” a desk-size switchboard that enables a businessman to handle a large number of incoming calls at once right from his desk. The company is pushing (in test markets) a home-communications system with a built-in control panel that can hold a call, switch it to other parts of the house, or enable the householder to talk to someone at the door. A new, small bedroom phone with a built-in night light is now on trial in several cities.

One of Bell’s newest innovations is a repertory dial phone, with an automatic device for dialing frequently used numbers. The subscriber simply selects a number on a selector wheel, presses a button —and his number is dialed automatically. Also in use on a limited scale: the Speakerphone, a combination microphone and loudspeaker that permits the user to talk and listen from any point in an average room.

This year A.T.&T. will push a new coin phone with a slot that accepts all types of coins (to make it easier to pay for long-distance calls) and a centralized ringer with three tones that can be made to ring low or chime when the householder is in the house, ring loud when he is in the yard.

Tomorrow’s Telephones. The men who dream up better ways to entice the public are the 10,800 scientists, engineers and other employees of Bell Laboratories, the world’s largest and best industrial laboratory. There scientists are free to range through fundamental research so long as it has the least connection with communications—and the art of communications is so broad that there are few areas they cannot probe. Bell’s scientists have twice won the Nobel Prize, made such basic scientific breakthroughs as the invention of the transistor, the technology that led to radar, and the demonstration of the wave-nature of matter.

In a block-square building in lower Manhattan and a 230-acre “research man’s paradise” at Murray Hill. X.J., Bell’s scientists are busy at work extending the frontiers of communications science and planning the telephone’s future. What have they planned? Tomorrow’s telephones will be smaller; Bell scientists have already developed a miniature phone. Pushbutton dialing may become standard practice—if the public wants it.

Subscribers’ frequently used numbers may be stored on memory drums in a central telephone exchange. When a subscriber wants to call the druggist, for example, he will simply push a code symbol. Phone-vision will eventually permit the average subscriber to see as well as hear his caller. The day is far distant, but Bell scientists are convinced it will come.

Even farther down the road is the ultimate dream in telephone service once described by Harold S. Osborne, former chief engineer of A.T.&T.: “Whenever a baby is born anywhere in the world, he is given at birth a telephone number for life. As soon as he can talk, he is given a watchlike device with ten little buttons on one side and a screen on the other. When he wishes to talk with anyone in the world, he will pull out the device and punch on the keys the number. Then, turning the device over, he will hear the voice of his friend and see his face on the screen, in color and in three dimensions. If he does not see him and hear him, he will know that his friend is dead.”

  1. Chris Radcliff says: December 15, 20093:36 pm

    My favorite future-phone prediction comes from Heinlein’s 1948 novel _Space Cadet_. His protagonist doesn’t just have a cell phone, he turns it off and sticks it in his bag to avoid having his parents call and embarrass him while he’s with his new friends.

  2. S Jones says: December 15, 20094:37 pm

    The cover is by the great 20th century commercial surrealist, Boris Artzybasheff. You’ve got to give credit to Time’s art directors for using him for so many corporate/industrial/military covers. No one before or since could bring inanimate objects to life like Artzybasheff.

    See more examples at: http://www.animationarc…

  3. Charlie says: December 15, 20096:26 pm

    S Jones: If you click on the tag for the article (http://blog.modernmecha…) you can see all of his work that is on the site.

  4. john says: December 15, 20096:35 pm

    What amazes me is that they were able to get away with such blatant corporate propaganda.

  5. pcarney says: December 15, 200911:17 pm

    Who would have though that, fifty years later, actually speaking over a phone would be almost totally supplanted by “texting”

  6. Toronto says: December 15, 200911:57 pm

    PCarney: Really? I don’t think actually texting has beat out voice yet, or are you lumping email in with that?

    It *is* a problem in the modern office – or at least my modern office – to get some people to actually pick up the phone and talk to someone instead of emailing back and forth all week long.

  7. carlm says: December 16, 20092:44 am

    I think it would be even better to go to a technology called morse code. You only need one finger to send the text message. It totally does away with the need for a keyboard.

  8. jayessell says: December 16, 200912:31 pm

    In “The President’s Analyst” (1967)
    phone numbers were to take the place of names.

  9. Hip2b2 says: February 14, 20114:35 am

    “Assigned a telephone number at birth…” Just one? Hardly seems enough nowadays.


Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.