A friend asked me a good question: Does a POTS phone use the same wiring as U-Verse VOIP? The answer is, it depends. Outside your house, no it doesn’t. But that’s not your problem. Outside, that’s AT&T’s problem.
Another year, another cordless telephone/answering machine.
I bought a cordless phone to replace an aging and failing 2.4 GHz model this week. Our luck with modern phones makes me long for the old days.
I like the old Western Electric 500 (also known simply as “The Bell Phone”) because it was specifically designed not to break.We own three. My wife and I both have a habit of picking them up when we see them cheaply at garage and estate sales. I see at least five a year, but I only buy if it’s cheap. Maybe there’s some book somewhere that says a Model 500 in a common color is worth $20, but I won’t pay that much for one.
They’re annoying to use for dialing, of course, since they’re strictly old-school pulse. But we can use the cordless phone when we need to dial, or the green Southwestern Bell Freedom Phone I bought for my first apartment, which somehow still works after 10 years.
When it comes to just answering the phone and talking on it, they’re just like any other corded phone, except the handset is a bit heavier.
The other annoying thing is that they don’t ring, but tonight I found a cure for that. Opening the phone up and moving one wire usually cures that problem. (Follow the link and scroll to the last section of the page.)
How reliable are they?
Well, tonight I opened up the one I keep in my office to rewire the ringer, and I found it was made in 1957. After 51 years, it’s still going strong.
We have one in the bedroom too. It’s a later model, made by Stromberg Carlson under license, dated September 1978. Although it looks just like a Western Electric, it feels a little bit lighter and less rugged to me. Nevertheless, after 30 years it still works fine.
Those are really good track records, in an age when we tend to think of things as nearly indestructible if they manage to last five years.
And I’ll admit I like the retro look they have about them. Although I’m not old enough to remember the days when it was illegal to plug anything not made by AT&T or a subsidiary into your phone jack, these are the phones pretty much everyone had up until 1984, when the government temporarily broke AT&T up. My parents and grandparents used these phones. And when my house was built in the mid 1960s, it was almost undoubtedly equipped with a 500 too, and I’d be willing to bet that 500 served as its primary phone well into the 1980s.
I wouldn’t want to trade everything in my house for 1949 technology, but just like my old IBM Model M keyboards, I definitely have a thing for those heavy old-fashioned phones.
I heard on the radio this morning about an 82-year-old who up until two months ago was still paying AT&T $29.10 a month to lease a rotary phone.
I’m just barely old enough to remember those arrangements–when the government broke up the AT&T monopoly (the first time, before it rebuilt itself) consumers were given the option to opt-out. They could even buy the phones they had been leasing, if they desired–or they could return them.I actually own two of those old rotary phones. I like their looks, and they’re built like tanks because they were designed to operate trouble-free for decades. At a budget of $29+ a month, Western Electric could afford to build them like that, and it was cheaper to build them to last than it was to repair or replace them.
Dialing on a rotary is a bit of a pain, so I usually call out using a modern touch-tone phone. But if the phone rings, and the phone in the room I’m in happens to be one of those Western Electrics, I’m just as happy talking on that as on any modern phone.
I have some advice for her: If she wants her rotary phone back, she can get one. They’re considered collector’s items these days, but the phones we used from the 1960s onward aren’t terribly expensive. I think my wife got the two we have for $5 each. I see them at antique malls all the time, priced anywhere from $10 to $30. Unused or refurbished Western Electrics cost $50 from oldphones.com. While $50 is awfully high compared to the $8 phone from the store down the street, it’s still less than it costs to rent one for two months.
And I’d rather buy those old phones than buy the new stuff. I’ve had to replace at least two phones since I went away to college 13 years ago. The only thing that really ever goes wrong with those Western Electrics is going out of style.
There is one drawback to those old Western Electrics though: both of the phones I have have the ringer disabled. The story I’ve heard is that it cost extra to have ringers on more than one phone, so when people wanted multiple phones, they would disable the ringers to save money.
Supposedly, from what I’ve read on Usenet, it’s not hard to re-enable the ringers, but I’ve never found good instructions for how to do it. I could take one of the phones apart and look around, but then I run the risk of not being able to get it back together again. But I suspect that disabled ringer is the main reason most of those phones ended up in the basement.
At at any rate, if you’re one of those 750,000 who’s still leasing a phone because you like them, cancel the service and go find yourself a secondhand replacement this weekend. You’ll save lots of money and not sacrifice any quality.
Someone I know house-sat this weekend for a couple who are slightly older than my parents. Their youngest daughter, from what I could tell, is about my age, and they have two older daughters. All are out of the house.
It was like walking into a time warp in a lot of ways. There’s an old Zenith console TV in the living room. My aunt and uncle had one very similar to it when I was in grade school, and it spent several years in the basement after it lost its job in the family room. First there was an Atari 2600 connected to it, and later a Nintendo Entertainment System. My cousin and I used to spend hours playing Pole Position and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and various baseball games down there.
The living room housed a modern JVC TV, armed with a modern Sony DVD player and RCA VCR. But in the other corner was a stereo. The Radio Shack Special 8-track player was the stereotypical 1970s/early 1980s brushed metal look, as was the graphic equalizer. The tuner was also a Radio Shack special, styled in that mid-1980s wanna-be futuristic style. If you lived through that time period, you probably know what I’m talking about. But if you’re much younger than me, you’re probably shrugging your shoulders. Beneath it was a Panasonic single-disc CD player in that same style, and a Pioneer dual tape deck. A very nice pair of Fisher speakers finished it off. It was definitely a setup that would have turned heads 17 years ago. (I have to wonder if the Fishers might not have been added later.)
It seems like there are only two genres of music capable of being emitted by an 8-track player. Once genre includes Led Zeppelin and Rush. The other includes John Denver, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. Their collection was on the latter side, which sent my curiosity scurrying off elsewhere.
But I had to try out that stereo. I kind of like The Carpenters, but I have to be in the mood for them, and I’ve heard enough John Denver and Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow to last me forever. So I checked out the CDs. Their CD collection was an interesting mix, but with a good selection of contemporary Christian (albeit mostly pretty conservative contemporary Christian). I popped in a CD from Big Tent Revival. I don’t remember the title, but the disc was from 1995 and featured the song “Two Sets of Joneses,” which I still hear occasionally on contemporary Christian radio today.
About three measures into the disc, I understood why they hadn’t replaced that setup with something newer. It blew my mind. I heard a stereo that sounded like that once. In 1983, we moved to Farmington, Mo., which was at the time a small town of probably around 6,000. We lived on one side of the street. Our neighbor across the street owned the other side of the street. Any of you who’ve lived in small midwestern towns know what I mean when I say he owned the town.
Well, in addition to owning the biggest restaurant and catering business and tool rental business in town and a gas station, he also owned a mind-blowing stereo system. Hearing this one took me back.
I almost said they don’t make them like that anymore. Actually they do still make stereo equipment like that, and it costs every bit as much today as it cost in 1985.
And Big Tent Revival sounded good. If I’m ever out and see that disc, it’s mine.
Upstairs in one of the bedrooms, I spied a bookshelf. It was stocked with books of Peanuts cartoons, but also tons and tons of books I remember reading in grade school. Books by the likes of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, and books by other people that I remember reading 15 or even 20 years ago. The only things I didn’t remember seeing were S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel, but as I recall, those books hit me so hard at such a period in my life that I didn’t leave those books at home. Or maybe Hinton and Zindel were a guy thing. I’m not sure. But seeing some of the names that made me want to be a writer, and being reminded of some of the others, well, it really took me back.
Next to that bookshelf was a lamp. Normally there’s nothing special about a lamp, but this lamp was made from a phone. This reminded me of my dad, because Dad went through a phase in life where there were exactly two kinds of things in this world: Things you could make a lamp from, and things you couldn’t make a lamp from. Well, this was a standard-issue wall-mount rotary phone from the pre-breakup AT&T Monopoly days. One just like it hung in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen well into the 1980s.
The computer was modern; a Gateway Pentium 4 running Windows Me. It desperately needed optimizing, as my Celeron-400 running Win98 runs circles around it. Note to self: The people who think Optimizing Windows was unnecessary have never seriously used a computer. But I behaved.
I don’t even know why I’m writing about this stuff. I just thought it was so cool.
But I remember long ago I wrote a column in my student newspaper (I’d link to it but it’s not in the Wayback Machine), which was titled simply “Retro-Inactive.” Basically it blasted retro night, calling it something that people use to evoke their past because their present is too miserable to be bearable.
Then I considered the present (which was 1995). Bill Clinton was setting a benchmark for hypocrisy that will stand for years to come, and I didn’t trust the media or the government or, for that matter, the guy who lived across the hall from me or the guy who lived to the right of me. Then I thought about the 1980s. We had problems in the 1980s, but they were all overshadowed by one big one–the Soviet Union–that kept most of us from even noticing the others. We had one big problem and by George, we solved it.
So I conceded that given the choice between living in the ’90s or living in the ’80s, well, the ’80s sure were a nice place to visit. Just don’t expect me to live there.
I’m sure people older than me have similar feelings about the ’70s, the ’60s, the ’50s, and every other previous decade.
And I guess I was just due for a visit.