Before Satellites

I was born before satellites existed.  Yes before cell phones but also before computers (the Turing Machine excepted).  I remember horse drawn wagons traveling down city streets.  There weren’t many of them but there was the junk man.  He would pick up your junk and give you a few pennies for it.  Broken lamps, old broken glass, and rags.  Sometimes my mother would argue with him over prices and finally give up and give him stuff for free.  “Just take it!”  It was after all junk.

For fun sometimes, in the winter, we would hang on the back of the wagon and slide along the snow covered streets until he would spot us and yell for us to get off.  Sometimes he would have to stop and make it more than a threat.

My dad would get up on winter mornings and refill the coal furnace.  We lived in one of those triple-deckers built after World War II.  We lived on the top floor.  The owners lived on the second floor.  That way they could keep tabs on all their tenants.  In the basement there were three separate coal bins each about 5 feet by 8 feet.  And three coal furnaces that had to be kept filled and stoked.

In the back of the house there was a pail buried in the back yard where you would put your garbage.  It was the size of a diaper pail and would frequently have maggots in it.  Some poor soul with heavy work gloves would come and empty it once a week.

Our first phone was a party line.  That means you shared your phone with some other family – one you didn’t know.  Each party would have a different ring tone.  And sometimes when you went to make a call you would discover that someone else was using the phone.  We had one phone, of course, with a rotary dialer and attached to the wall, usually in the living room.  To make a long distance call you had to sacrifice a small animal and give Ma Bell a week’s pay.  Ma Bell was the nickname for AT&T who owned everything about telephones including equipment design and sales, operations, home and business phones, etc.  They were a true monopoly.

When I went to work in an office in later years I had a phone with lots of buttons.  One button was for making long distance calls which was a different button then the local dialer.  And you would often have two or maybe three buttons for incoming calls so you could carry on different conversations by putting people on hold.  If you were really important you had someone who screened your calls for you and left you pink slits with the caller’s name and phone number and sometimes a reason they were calling.  When you had a busy period of work, your pink slips would pile up.

There was also a position called a “Secretary.”  A secretary would handle all of your correspondence, filing, typing and screen your calls.  The professional (excuse me if I refer to this person as “he” because in the 60’s and 70’s and into the 80’s there were all “he’s”) would write out letters, lists, sales materials, etc. with pen and paper and hand it over to a secretary who would type it up and return it to the professional.  The professional would then review it, often correcting tying mistakes and return it to the secretary who would draft a second version.

The secretary would use something called carbon paper in the typewriter.  By putting the carbon paper between two sheets of paper you would be able to keep a copy for your records.  Sometimes a carbon copy would be made for another person.  This is where the term cc (carbon copy) stands for used in email today.  (This is a good trivia question for millennials!)

An important criteria for hiring a secretary was how many words per minute they typed since much of their day would involve typing, frequently repetitive stuff.  If you wanted to send the same sales letter to 100 people it would have to be individually typed.  Then IBM came along and invented a typewriter that had the capability of remembering a string of characters (like a letter) and you only had to type the name and address and push a button to type the rest.  Then Wang Laboratories built a word processing system that sold for close to $20,000 but would be a lot of repetitive work.  Dr. Wang made a fortune selling to law firms and insurance companies.

Phones evolved from rotary dialers to push buttons, from party lines to multiple home phones, and then to cell phones.  When cell phones were first conceived there was quite a bit of skepticism about whether it would work.  To work it meant that there had to be a cell within a certain distance (roughly within 2 miles from the phone).  Companies weren’t sure what the market for cell phones would be.  There was an early cell phone technology that could transmit farther but required a large transmitter and battery.  They were called Bag Phones because they were carried around in bags the size of a back pack or computer bag and the usage was costly.  Traveling salesmen were the primary user for these phones.

At the same time that companies like Nokia and Ericsson were promoting smaller cells, lighter phones, etc., Motorola entered a joint agreement with a satellite company to build 64 satellites to cover the entire world (the Iridium Project) and have a phone system that would transmit to these satellites.  As you can imagine it cost billions to put 66 (originally 77) satellites into orbit and by the time they were completed, cell phone technology had established itself.  There were two problems with the Iridium system.  One was that it didn’t always work well indoors and it required a large phone to transmit a signal to reach the satellite.  These phones where affectionately called “Bricks” because they were about the same size.

Iridium went bankrupt.  The technology was bought by someone and rebranded and today, as far as I know, they cater to cruise ships, the government and remote corners of the world.  If you have old stock certificates, I believe that someday they will become valuable as a collector’s item.  It cost $6 billion to build the system and the company was sold for $34 million.

One last memory from the 70’s.  Newspapers made a good business in “want ads.”  These were ads placed by a Company looking to hire additional personnel.  You could measure the strength of the economy by counting the number of pages in the Sunday Boston Globe’s want ad section.  A typical Sunday might have 40 pages of ads.  Somewhere around 1975 I remember the Globe changed the name of their sections from Male and Female to Professional and Business and Technical.

Prior to 1975, jobs were divided between those for men like Accountant, Engineer, Manager and those for women like Bookkeeper, Secretary and Assembler.  Less than 50 years ago!  And 30 years after Rosie the Riveter.   I worked in Human Resources and in the years since that barrier was broken women have entered the field and today dominate its ranks.  But that is the material for an entirely different post.

What’s a memory that you have?