Co-evolving technologies: Telephones, film

Blasts from the past.

First, an AT&T advertisement — shown in theatres — in silent film.  the short introduced dial phones to part of central California in early 1927.  Historical footnote:  Some theatres had played short-subject sound films, but the famous full-length first “talkie,” “The Jazz Singer” with superstar Al Jolson in the lead role, didn’t get into production until after this phone exchange went to dials (the dial service cutover was set for May 28; Jolson didn’t sign a contract to do the film until July, and the film’s rushed premiere was October 6).

This short reflects movie conventions of the silent era.

A short time later, we get a sound version of the film instructing in the use of a dial telephone.

In 1962 AT&T promoted Touch-Tone dialing at the Seattle World’s Fair (the Fair was in 1962; the YouTube video says 1963); this is a clip from a longer film, in color; where the film was intended to be exhibited I do not know:

The longer film was a 14-minute production from AT&T, “Century 21 Calling . . .”  The longer film used the backdrop of the World’s Fair, including the monorail, to demonstrate new technologies in the pipeline, like call forwarding — technologies that were really about 20 years in the future for most people.  If you’ve got the time and want to immerse yourself in the past, here’s the whole film at CrunchGear.

We should search for earlier films on telephones.  Telephones were toys of the rich in the late 19th century.  Edison’s workable movie system started cranking out movies in 1892.  It is conceivable that there is another, earlier film on how to use a hand-crank telephone, prior to 1927.

But here we see three classic, period pieces, from 1927, from about 1930, and from 1962.  Each film ostensibly shows an advance in the user interface for the telephone, but each film also demonstrates the technology of films available at the time.  There’s a heck of an essay with a grand moral in there, somewhere.

Note on filibustering new technologies:  Virginia’s U.S. Sen. Carter Glass worked to get dial telephones banned and removed from the Senate wing of the Capitol with a resolution in 1930.  Here’s the account from the Senate Historical Office:

June 25, 1930
Senate Considers Banning Dial Phones

Senator Carter Glass of Virginia
Carter Glass (D-VA)

In the spring of 1930, the Senate considered the following resolution:

Whereas dial telephones are more difficult to operate than are manual telephones; and Whereas Senators are required, since the installation of dial phones in the Capitol, to perform the duties of telephone operators in order to enjoy the benefits of telephone service; and Whereas dial telephones have failed to expedite telephone service; Therefore be it resolved that the Sergeant at Arms of the Senate is authorized and directed to order the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to replace with manual phones within 30 days after the adoption of this resolution, all dial telephones in the Senate wing of the United States Capitol and in the Senate office building.

Sponsored by Virginia’s Carter Glass, the resolution passed without objection when first considered on May 22, 1930. Arizona’s Henry Ashurst praised its sponsor for his restrained language. The Congressional Record would not be mailable, he said, “if it contained in print what Senators think of the dial telephone system.” When Washington Senator Clarence Dill asked why the resolution did not also ban the dial system from the District of Columbia, Glass said he hoped the phone company would take the hint.

One day before the scheduled removal of all dial phones, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings offered a resolution to give senators a choice. It appeared that some of the younger senators actually preferred the dial phones. This angered the anti-dial senators, who immediately blocked the measure’s consideration.

Finally, technology offered a solution. Although the telephone company had pressed for the installation of an all-dial system, it acknowledged that it could provide the Senate with phones that worked both ways. But Senator Dill was not ready to give up. In his experience, the dial phone “could not be more awkward than it is. One has to use both hands to dial; he must be in a position where there is good light, day or night, in order to see the number; and if he happens to turn the dial not quite far enough, then he gets a wrong connection.”

Senator Glass, the original sponsor, had the last word before the Senate agreed to the compromise plan. “Mr. President, so long as I am not pestered with the dial and may have the manual telephone, while those who want to be pestered with [the dial] may have it, all right.”

A very big tip of the old scrub brush to Mary Almanza, who piqued my interest with her post of the “how to dial” video on Facebook.

One Response to Co-evolving technologies: Telephones, film

  1. Jude says:

    In roughly 1965, my Colorado town gave up the convenience of using a switchboard operator, receiving our first dial telephones. It was a huge adjustment.* Bell Telephone came to our school and did a presentation on how to use dial telephones. At that time, the presenter also told us about touch tone phones. We didn’t get them in my town until the 1980s. I’m not certain that the presenter showed us that little film, but I do remember being impressed by the idea that someday (soon) we’d be able to just touch buttons instead of dialing numbers. I remember him telling us how much faster that would be. (*My brother tells of how much easier it was to use the operator method. As a little kid, he’d pick up the phone and tell the operator, “I’d like to talk to Grandma.” The operator knew which grandma was on vacation, and whether the grandma he wanted to talk to was at work or at home, and she’d place the call accordingly. He said the operator never made a mistake; later, when he dialed a number, he frequently made mistakes, and it was a pain in the neck learning all those phone numbers).


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