Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

Lost frames of reference... Part 1: reach out and touch someone.

By bcRIPster in Culture
Fri Jun 26, 2009 at 09:16:35 AM EST
Tags: phone, history, communications (all tags)

Here in the U.S. we have officially converted to digital broadcast and most stations (with the exception of low-watt operations) have turned off the broadcast of a signal that some have kept running for over 50 years. This got me to thinking about frame of reference and forgotten methods of communications.

Let's talk about the telephone. To start with originally you didn't own your own phone. Phones were leased from AT&T or one of the regional Bell operations until around 1982 when AT&T/Bell was forced to break-up as a monopoly.

In the early days of the Telephone you couldn't actually dial direct, you had to speak with a switchboard operator for assistance. Have you ever seen the old phone that is simply an ear cup, a funnel to talk into, a bell on the top and a rotary crank on the side? Well to use this kind of phone you would pick up the earpiece (receiver) and crank the phone to send an electrical signal down the line to alert the operator that you wished her (men generally weren't operators originally) attention. She would plug a headset cable into a jack that was bound to your residence to see what you needed. If you wanted to be connected to another local phone user she would disconnect with you, connect her headset to the other local users phone and ring that remote phone by sending an electrical pulse down the line. If the remote user picked up she would let you know that you are being connected and then run a patch cable between the two ports on the switchboard connecting the lines. That connection would remain open until she pulled the wire out (eventually switchboard had little lights on them to indicate active current so the operator could close the line when you were done).

In addition to the local switchboard operator, there were hub operators above them than handled trans-local calls. The same at the National level and even Internationally. Depending on the location and era there would be even more granularity. When you wanted to make a long distance call in the 50's you hoped that the recipient was there to answer the phone because your local operator just spent an hour working with who-knows how many other operators requesting patch links between who-knows how many switchboards just for you to be connected.

Another lost aspect of early phone network distribution came in the guise of Party Lines (not the kind of "party" you're thinking, it's more like "the party to which your dialing is not available"), where you would share a trunk line with a number of other users. This also allowed you to share the cost making phone service more economical for early users. Typically you were sharing with your immediate neighbors. Party lines worked great for outbound calls but not so hot on inbound so you would have assigned ring patterns to listen for to know if the call was for you or someone else which solved the problem well enough. FWIW, you could eavesdrop on other peoples calls if you were sneaky about it. A modern analogy would be an office where there is a single shared outbound phone line but individuals call each other's desks separate of that line using an on-site electronic switchboard.

Eventually automated switching came about which allowed direct local dialing, but for many years long distance (especially International calls) still might have required an operator to patch your call through on a switchboard (physically and the electronically).

In fact it was the early electronic systems that some of the first phone hackers (called phone phreaks) exploited to do their work since everything was controlled by one company (AT&T) the system was a trust based network. If you layered onto that social engineering practices you could get up to no end of mischief.

Another bit of phone fun you could have during the early 70's was to pickup your phone and dial your own number then quickly hang up. The latency in the early automated switchboards was enough that the automated switchboard wouldn't issue a disconnect in time to stop the connect command and the system would attempt to connect the call to your now hung-up line (which of course would ring since it was disconnected!). When you picked it up you would have a dead line. Great fun for pranking friends and family.

Did you know that in the very early days of Touch-Tone dialing, AT&T distributed little song books that showed you how to play out popular songs on the key pad. The idea was to encourage adoption, but it was also great fun for calling friends and punching out Beatles tunes.

Can you imagine having to use phones like this? Have your own thoughts on the subject? Let's get talking. Part 2 to follow if there is interest.

(Yes, I originally wrote this series for my personal blog but upon realizing that nobody will ever read it there I figured I would share.)


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o 50 years
o break-up as a monopoly
o trunk line
o phone phreaks
o social engineering practices
o Also by bcRIPster

Display: Sort:
Lost frames of reference... Part 1: reach out and touch someone. | 25 comments (14 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
Worthwhile reading, (none / 0) (#1)
by k31 on Tue Jun 23, 2009 at 09:43:01 PM EST

I'd vote it up when it escapes the Q.

Of course, I like these recent-history things.

Your dollar is you only Word, the wrath of it your only fear. He who has an EAR to hear....

We lived in Italy when I was six years old (3.00 / 3) (#8)
by MichaelCrawford on Wed Jun 24, 2009 at 09:15:55 PM EST

My father was in the Navy you see, and was stationed aboard a ship in Gaeta.

This was in 1970.

When Mom or Dad wanted to call someone back in the US, they had to call up the international operator to ask to make a call.

They then had to wait by the phone for the call to be put through. The operator would call them back when a line was available.

Sometimes they would have to wait all day.

One reason it took so long for direct international calling to be implemented was the lack of a single telephony standard. Many countries had completely incompatible electrical and logical protocols.

To a large extent that is still the case, but the switching systems are fancy enough to convert the signals.

One reason for the Internet's success is that, for each service, there is just one protocol, worldwide.

Unfortunately, many companies smell profit in proprietary protocols. That's why there are so many different, incompatible instant messaging systems. There's really no good reason that there's not just a single IM protocol.


Live your fucking life. Sue someone on the Internet. Write a fucking music player. Like the great man Michael David Crawford has shown us all: Hard work, a strong will to stalk, and a few fries short of a happy meal goes a long way. -- bride of spidy

My friend was a computer hacker (3.00 / 2) (#13)
by Vampire Zombie Abu Musab al Zarqawi on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 06:22:49 AM EST

He would bring a screwdriver and a phone handset into a telephone booth, wire his handset up to the pay phone, and speak for free. That was in the 80s.

Yes, he did use a blue box as well, in addition to common fraud. Come to think of it, he was more of a common criminal than an actual hacker.

[ Parent ]

One could tape record the nickel signal (none / 0) (#14)
by MichaelCrawford on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 11:25:13 AM EST

There was a beep for every five cents, so a quarter would get you five beeps. I think those blue box gadgets would just make the beep.

I read an article in 2600 a while back, about using the electronic recorders in fancy birthday cards to make the beeps.

But then The Phone Company discovered out-of-band signaling.


Live your fucking life. Sue someone on the Internet. Write a fucking music player. Like the great man Michael David Crawford has shown us all: Hard work, a strong will to stalk, and a few fries short of a happy meal goes a long way. -- bride of spidy

[ Parent ]

That's redboxing (none / 1) (#19)
by some nerd on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 05:24:32 PM EST

Blueboxing was directly controlling the CCITT 5 signalling system. Superficially both were a route to phr33 c411z, but blueboxing was much more advanced and let you route calls anywhere in the world.

I say "was" because since SS7 and improved payphone security both are basically impossible in the west, however some poorer countries still use digital incarnations of C5 and last I heard could in theory be boxed through if you can get past their bandpass filters (mix tones with white/pink noise, apparently) and painstakingly work out their secret, non-standard timings. A lot of work when you could just hack a PABX outdial though.

Home Sweet Home

[ Parent ]

Cap'N Crunch method (none / 0) (#23)
by Armstrong Hammer on Mon Jun 29, 2009 at 06:08:02 PM EST

I heard that the original Cap'N Crunch cereal had a red whistle ring that made the 2600 hertz nickle drop signal. A person would blow the whistle on a pay phone and get a nickle for every toot made. The Hacker/Phreaker who discovered this called himself Cap'N Crunch.

Later on the 2600 number was used for the Atari VCS and the Hacker's Quarterly magazine named itself 2600 over the hack.

Learn about the true liberal agenda in the United States of America.

[ Parent ]
Yes, I remember party lines (3.00 / 2) (#9)
by blackpaw on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 12:29:47 AM EST

Rural New Zealand, early seventies. Eight person party line and the old crank phones (no dial). Our phone number was 68M - the "M" was the initial of our last name. Fortunately everyone on the line had different initials :)

The operator would get peoples attention by ringing the line in Morse code two dashes for "M" etc.

One of the families kids used to listen in on conversations, you could hear them giggle. Snot nosed little shits too.

Man that takes me back, it was a great time to be a kid on a farm in NZ.

POP-CORN (3.00 / 2) (#10)
by MichaelCrawford on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 01:10:19 AM EST

In the US at least, dialing POP-CORN got you the time. It was the most-accurate way to set a clock, if you didn't have a short wave radio to get the National Bureau of Standards' time broadcast.

Back in the mid-80s, a friend of mine moved to Seattle and later complained to me that the time number there was a toll call.

I think it's totally gone now - but I find that my cell phone always knows what time it is, even if I travel to different time zones, or daylight savings kicks in or what have you.


Live your fucking life. Sue someone on the Internet. Write a fucking music player. Like the great man Michael David Crawford has shown us all: Hard work, a strong will to stalk, and a few fries short of a happy meal goes a long way. -- bride of spidy

was going to give you FP (3.00 / 7) (#11)
by GrubbyBeardedHermit on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 03:08:58 AM EST

then you mentioned that you had a blog


But I didn't link to it :P (1.00 / 6) (#15)
by bcRIPster on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 01:22:01 PM EST


[ Parent ]
that's why you got section (none / 0) (#22)
by GrubbyBeardedHermit on Fri Jun 26, 2009 at 03:05:28 AM EST

[ Parent ]

-1 (1.00 / 20) (#12)
by I Did It All For The Horse Cock on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 05:43:52 AM EST

* g o a t s e x * g o a t s e x * g o a t s e x *
g                                               g
o /     \             \            /    \       o
a|       |             \          |      |      a
t|       `.             |         |       :     t
s`        |             |        \|       |     s
e \       | /       /  \\\   --__ \\       :    e
x  \      \/   _--~~          ~--__| \     |    x
*   \      \_-~                    ~-_\    |    *
g    \_     \        _.--------.______\|   |    g
o      \     \______// _ ___ _ (_(__>  \   |    o
a       \   .  C ___)  ______ (_(____>  |  /    a
t       /\ |   C ____)/      \ (_____>  |_/     t
s      / /\|   C_____)       |  (___>   /  \    s
e     |   (   _C_____)\______/  // _/ /     \   e
x     |    \  |__   \\_________// (__/       |  x
*    | \    \____)   `----   --'             |  *
g    |  \_          ___\       /_          _/ | g
o   |              /    |     |  \            | o
a   |             |    /       \  \           | a
t   |          / /    |         |  \           |t
s   |         / /      \__/\___/    |          |s
e  |           /        |    |       |         |e
x  |          |         |    |       |         |x
* g o a t s e x * g o a t s e x * g o a t s e x *

  \ \        ^.^._______  This comment brought to you by the penis-nosed fox!
    / /    \ \
    \_\_    \ \

Okay, who let this puppy out of editorial? (none / 0) (#24)
by fenris on Sun Jul 12, 2009 at 10:10:04 AM EST

(not the kind of "party" you're thinking, it's more like "the party to which your dialing is not available")

It auto moved from edit to vote :( (none / 0) (#25)
by bcRIPster on Mon Jul 13, 2009 at 10:45:13 PM EST


[ Parent ]
Lost frames of reference... Part 1: reach out and touch someone. | 25 comments (14 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:


All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!