Hello Central, Give Me Heaven

Less than two years after Alexander Graham Bell made his famous call to Watson, a commercial phone service in New Haven had over 400 subscribers. The company put out a 40-page phone book listing 391 names of individuals and businesses, but no numbers – at that time, requested calls were connected by the central office. Christie’s auctioned a copy of an 1878 phone book in June for $170,500.

Christie’s website described some of the intriguing contents of that early phone book:

The instructions provided in the Directory for correct use of the telephone, the first such directions ever published, include much sound advice: “Never take the Telephone off the hook unless you wish to use it….Should you wish to speak to another subscriber… you should…commence the conversation by saying ‘Hulloa!’ When you are done talking, say ‘That is all!’, and the person spoken to should say ‘O.K.’ … While talking, always speak slow and distinct, and let the telephone rest lightly against your upper lip, leaving the lower lip and the jaw free…” The push button phone bore slightly different requirements: “After speaking, transfer the telephone from the mount to the ear very promptly … When replying to a communication from another, do not speak too promptly … Much trouble ensues from both parties speaking at the same time…. No subscriber will be allowed to use the wire for more than three minutes at a time, or more than twice in an hour, without first obtaining permission from the main office… Any person using profane or otherwise improper langauge, should be reported at this office immediately.”

According to the New York Times, in 1878 phone service cost $22 a year, payable in advance. Customers were limited to three minutes a call and no more than two calls an hour without permission from the central office.

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One thought on “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven

  1. I once saw a telephone directory from circa 1918 that contains instructions for using the new feature of direct dialing. Place your finger in the hole corresponding to the correct digit, turn the dial steadily clockwise until all the way up against the catch, release and let it return all the way to rest before dialing the next digit, etc etc.

    It seemed hilarious when I saw it, maybe 30 years ago, but it occurs to me that a lot of people facing a dial phone today could use exactly those instructions.

    This makes me feel better when facing incomprehensible computer instructions.

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