YUKON – 2
Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
a phone like we had
Pawnee Rock wasn’t anywhere near the Yukon. Nevertheless, YUkon-2 was our telephone prefix when I was a kid.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, each telephone exchange began with two letters to make phone numbers easier to remember. We had the super-cool YUkon exchange and our neighboring town, Larned, used the word ATlas, as in AT-5.
Curious about Emporia’s old exchange, I located a 1961 phone directory at the public library. DIckens was Emporia’s prefix. (Incidentally, the front page of that ’61 phone book also had a seven-point list of instructions on how to use a dial telephone.)
Eventually though, DIckens and YUkon got shoved aside for the more grown-up 342 and 982.
The reason I started thinking about these old telephone exchanges was because of an article I ran across in the New York Times which helped tell the story of telephone evolution during my lifetime.
Written by Margalit Fox, the New York Times article began: “A generation ago, when the poetry of PEnnsylvania and BUtterfield was about to give way to telephone numbers in unpoetic strings, a critical question arose: Would people be able to remember all seven digits long enough to dial them?”
In the Pawnee Rock telephone exchange, we only had to dial four digits for a local call. Every phone number in Pawnee Rock began with a 982-4, so we only had to remember the last three digits. And I can still recall the numbers of my friends Amy and Marilyn, as well as those of the post office and the dress shop where my mom once worked.
Direct dialing came to other locations before it hit Pawnee Rock in the ‘70s. Until then, every long distance call involved the operator. We had to give her both the number we were calling and our own number – which seems like it would open the door for lots of mischief, but apparently folks were honest about giving their own phone numbers. You could even ask the operator to call collect or charge it to a third number – at which point she’d dial the number and ask the party if it was OK to charge the call to them.
Anyway, the article focused on the accomplishments of John E. Karlin, a former Bell Labs employee who died on Jan. 28 at age 94. Karlin – a mathematical psychologist, electrical engineer (and professional violinist) – led Bell through the switchover to all-digit phone numbers as well as during the change from rotary dial to push button phones. Introduced in 1963, the Touch-Tone system celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Apparently a lot of thought and psychology went into the decision of how to place the buttons so as to make the phone easy to use. Karlin’s team had to decide whether the new Touch-Tone buttons should be placed in a circle like the rotary dial, or in an arc, or in a rectangle. And should the buttons themselves be square or round? They decided to place the 1-2-3 at the top of the phone, rather than at the bottom like they are on a calculator.
During my childhood, we, like everyone else in the neighborhood, had the standard black desk phone with a rotary dial. The phone was basically indestructible. Made of Bakelite, I believe, it was tough and sturdy, and if needed for protection, you could certainly clobber someone with the receiver.
Back in the days before cordless phones, there was no wandering around the house talking on the phone. A telephone conversation was a stationary event; one could not cook supper or wash dishes while conversing, unless you had an extra long cord. There was nothing to do while on the phone but sit and be fully engaged in the dialogue. Well, doodling was always allowed.
Being stuck at a desk between the kitchen and the living room, as a teenager I had no privacy for my calls. My parents could listen; my brother could walk behind me and bop me on the head (for no good reason, I might add.)
Things have changed dramatically over the past 50 years. We have progressed to answering machines, cordless phones and smart phones with internet access. No longer chained to a desk, we can talk on the phone anytime and anywhere. We are free, free, free – unless you consider that many of us are now hopelessly chained to our phones.
Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh