How The Bell System Was Built

We’ve often thought that while going to the moon in the 1960s was audacious, it was just the flashiest of many audacious feats attempted and accomplished in the 20th century. Imagine, for a minute, that the phone system didn’t exist today, and you stood up in front of a corporate board and said, “Let’s run copper wire to every home and business in the world.” They’d probably send you for a psychiatric evaluation. Yet we did just that, and, in the United States, that copper wire was because of the Bell system, which [Brian Potter] describes in a recent post.

The Bell company, regardless of many name changes and divisions, was clearly a very important company. [Brian] points out that in 1917, it was the second-largest company in the United States and continued to grow, eventually employing a whopping 1% of the entire U.S. workforce. That’s what happens when you have a monopoly on a product that is subject to wild demand. In 1900, Bell handled 5 million calls a day. By 1925, that number was over 50 million. In 1975, it was just shy of 500 million. If Wester Electric — just one part of Bell — was its own company, it would have been the 12th largest company in the U.S. during the 1970s.

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SIPing A Vintage Phone

Something that’s a bit of fun at hacker camps such as the recent EMF Camp is to bring along a wired phone and hook it up to the on-camp copper network. It’s a number on the camp network, but pleasingly retro. How about doing the same thing at home? Easy enough if you still have a wired landline, but those are now fast becoming a rarity. Help is at hand though courtesy of [Remy], who’s written about his experiences using a 1960s Dutch phone as a SIP device.

The T65 was the standard Dutch home phone of the 1960s and 1970s, and its curvy grey plastic shape is still not difficult to find in that country.  The guide covers using various different VoIP boxes between such an old machine and the Internet, but there’s more of interest to be found in it. In particular the use of an inline pulse-to-tone converter, either the wonderfully-named DialGizmo, or perhaps closer to our world, a PIC-based kit.

So if you can lay your hands on a VoIP box it’s completely possible to use an aged phone here in 2024. Remember though, a SIP account isn’t the only way to do it.

J. de Kat Angelino, CC BY 3.0.

Why Your Old Phone Sounded The Way It Did

The mobile phone may be sweeping away the traditional wired phone, but that doesn’t change the fascinating history and technology of the older device. At [This Museum Is Not Obsolete] they have a fully functional mechanical telephone exchange as one of their exhibits, and they’ve published a video examining the various sounds it’s capable of making.

When a voice synthesiser was the stuff of science fiction, exchange status couldn’t be communicated by anything but a set of different tones. If you’ve ever encountered a mechanical exchange you’ll recognise the harsh-sounding low-frequency dial tone, and the various sets of beeps denoting different call status. These were produced with a set of oscillators being switched in and out by shaped cams, and the bank of these on their exchange is most of the subject of this video. The common ones such as the engaged tone and the dial tone are explained, but also some we’d never heard such as the one signifying the exchange as out of capacity.

We may never own a mechanical exchange of our own, but we’re glad that someone does and is sharing it with us. You can see the video below the break.

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The End Of Landlines?

Imagine if, somehow, telephones of all kinds had not been invented. Then, this morning, someone entered a big corporation board room and said, “We’d like to string copper wire to every home and business in the country. We’ll get easements and put the wires on poles mostly. But some of them will go underground where we will dig tunnels. Oh, and we will do it in other countries, too, and connect them with giant undersea cables!” We imagine that executive would be looking for a job by lunchtime. Yet, we built that exact system and with far less tech than we have today. But cell phones have replaced the need for copper wire to go everywhere, and now AT&T is petitioning California to let them off the hook — no pun intended — for servicing landlines.

The use of cell phones has dramatically decreased the demand for the POTS or plain old telephone service. Even if you have wired service now, it is more likely fiber optic or, at least, an IP-based network connection that can handle VOIP.

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POTS At A Hacker Camp

For those of us off the Atlantic coast of Europe it’s a frigid winter as our isles are lashed by continuous storms. Summer seems a very long time ago, and the fun of the EMF 2022 hacker camp is an extremely distant memory. But the EMF team have been slowly releasing videos from the talks at that camp, the latest of which comes from [Matthew Harrold]. He was the force behind the public POTS phone network at the camp, providing anyone within range of one of his endpoints with the chance to have a wired phone line in their tent.

We’d love to imagine a mesh of overhead wires converging on a Strowger mechanical exchange somewhere on the field, but in a more practical move he used an array of redundant Cisco VOIP gear, and a multi-modem rack to provide dial-up services. Even then there were a few hurdles to overcome, but on the field it was definitely worth it as an array of unusual phone kit was brought along by the attendees. Our favourite is the Amstrad eMailer, an all-in-one phone and internet appliance from a couple of decades ago which perhaps due to its expensive pay as you go model, failed commercially. The video is below the break.

It’s a good time for this talk to come out, because it’s reminded us that the next EMF camp is on this summer. Time to dust off an old phone to bring along. Meanwhile, we’ve seen [Matthew] before, as he refurbished a sluggish dial mechanism.

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Retrotechtacular: Rebuilding A Fire-Ravaged Telephone Exchange

Those who haven’t experienced the destruction of a house fire should consider themselves lucky. The speed with which fire can erase a lifetime of work — or a life, for that matter — is stunning. And the disruption a fire causes for survivors, who often escape the blaze with only the clothes on their backs, is almost unfathomable. To face the task of rebuilding a life with just a few smoke-damaged and waterlogged possessions while wearing only pajamas and slippers is a devastating proposition.

As bad as a residential fire may be, though, its impact is mercifully limited to the occupants. Infrastructure fires are another thing entirely; the disruption they cause is often felt far beyond the building or facility involved. The film below documents a perfect example of this: the 1975 New York Telephone Exchange fire, which swept through the company’s central office facility at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan and cut off service to 300 blocks of the East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods.

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Dial Up A Tune On The Jukephone

What do you do when you find a nice corded phone with giant buttons out in the wild? You could pay $80/month for a landline, use a VOIP or Bluetooth solution instead, or do something a million times cooler and turn it into a jukebox.

Now when the receiver is lifted, [Turi] hears music instead of a dial tone or a voice on the other end. But playback isn’t limited to the handset — there’s a headphone jack around back.

To listen to a track, he can either dial one in directly, or call up a random track using one of the smaller buttons below. A handy directory organizes the tunes by the hundreds, putting children’s tracks between 1-99 and the intriguing category “hits” between 900-999.

The phone’s new guts are commanded by a Raspberry Pi Pico, which is a great choice for handling the key matrix plus the rest of the buttons. As you may have guessed, there’s an DF Player Mini mp3 player that reads the tracks from an SD card. Everything is powered by a rechargeable 18650 battery.

Jukephone is open source, and you’ll find more pictures on [Turi]’s blog post. Be sure to check out the very brief build and demo video after the break.

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