Sunday, December 22, 2019

Land O’Lines

In The New York Times, Roger Cohen writes about missing the landline:

I remember my son asking me how I managed to meet anyone in the pre-cellphone era. I could hardly remember. I said you arranged to meet a friend at a certain place at a certain time and you showed up. He was skeptical.
In 2010, also in the Times, Virginia Heffernan wrote a wonderful elegy for the landline.

[Neither writer mentions what any dedicated user of the phone of yore will remember: waiting until “the rates” went down to make a long-distance call. And even then, the astonishing cost of the occasional forty-five-minute long-distance call.]

comments: 7

Slywy said...

I called my parents from college once a month, on a Saturday when the rates were lower. I don't want to sound old fashioned but I have to say having to limit phone calls and such made them that more special and also made me focus more on the day to day (since I wasn't staring at a device constantly).

On the other hand, no one I know, including family, does video chat, and most hardly text or do email. I'm lucky to be acknowledged on Facebook. We're such a social species. ;)

Michael Leddy said...

Yeah, a phone call like that used to be an event. If you heard from someone at an unexpected time, you’d wonder right away what was up.

Now I’m curious about how colleges’ promotional materials manage phones. Students walking past beautiful lawns, each student staring at a screen? I doubt it.

Richard Abbott said...

Over here in the UK, back in the olden days, calls used to be charged at a rate depending only on the last leg of the call. Now most folk did not know that, and simply used the area code (what we called the STD code) and personal number, and so paid the long distance rate. But each area had its local code, typically valid within 30 miles or so.

So, if you were super well informed, and had access to lots of the relevant information, you could place the call as a series of individually very short legs - essentially calling 10 or 20 miles at a time, step by step to reach your destination. Then you only paid a local rate...

Ironically, the sequence of local codes that you needed to replicate the long distance code would be absurdly easy to find out nowadays, what with the internet and all, but such a process is no longer possible now that the system has been cleaned up. I was once told that the method was considered unfavourably by the authorities, but the main block was simply being able to track down the code sequences!

Michael Leddy said...

Richard, I find your account fascinating, but I’m not sure I understand how this trick worked. Was it a matter of dialing all the individual codes all at once, in front of the number you wanted to reach? Or did the call go through an operator?

Richard Abbott said...

Michael, this was in the days after operator-placed calls and before the full current system. It relied on a quirk of the routing system at the time... let me try to explain better.

Suppose I wanted to call from Godalming (where my parents lived, roughly half-way between London and Portsmouth) to Cambridge. Then the full long-distance code for Cambridge was 0223, so I could have called say 0223-123456. But that would cost me long-distance rates. But as well as long-distance codes, each calling location had some shorter codes for places near at hand. So to call from Godalming to Guildford you just put prefix 9, rather than the full code 0483.

Then comes the trick. Instead of going Godalming -> Cambridge, I could place the call Godalming -> Guildford -> Woking -> Windsor -> Watford -> St Albans -> Stevenage -> Cambridge, so long as I knew the short codes for each of those hops. I can no longer remember anything except Godalming -> Guildford, but using some invented numbers you might go 9-42-7-21-6-11-17-123456, and you'd end up only paying for the Stevenage -> Cambridge call.

Of course, if you got the intermediate sequence wrong, your call would go somewhere entirely different... and it wasn't all that many years before all of the local short code stuff was eradicated, and you could no longer play that particular game. And in any case, we all get whatever number of free minutes nowadays, so the need has gone away!

Richard Abbott said...

(And, by the way, Happy Christmas to you and all the other readers here who enjoy your blog as much as I do)

Michael Leddy said...

What a neat way around the phone system. It reminds me of the way phone phreaks used to go from operator to operator to place calls going around the world.

And Happy Christmas to you too.