A Switchboard to the History of the Telephone: The Bell System Memorial Website
In the golden days of the Bell telephone monopoly, telephones did not beep, chirp or yodel. Telephones made only one sound: they rang. In those golden days, there was no confusing variety of telephone providers, vying with each other to offer better long distance deals. There was one provider for local and long-distance calls, and this was Bell.
Ma Bell, the company of companies, was much more than a telephone provider: it was a symbol of American enterprise, of innovation and progress. Bell was not a company in the strict sense, but was an aggregate term for AT&T encompassing 24 Bell operating companies that provided local phone services. Under the umbrella was also the AT&T long distance service, an equipment manufacturing arm known as Western Electric, and the research and development division "Bell Laboratories." At the time of its break-up after de-regulation in 1984, Bell was the largest employer in the United States. Bell had not only provided a telephone for the majority of American households, but also a regular income for over a million workers.
The Bell System Memorial website is dedicated to an era of the telephone that was lost with de-regulation. It is a memorial to the technology of the telephone, and a memorial to the workers who made the phones ring. The website is a labor of love by David Massey, a private telephone enthusiast who was not associated with any of the former Bell companies.
The design of the website is clear and intelligent, resembling the functionality of a telephone switchboard: The main index site provides four options for different groups to enter the site: for students and teachers, for former employees, for historians and researchers, and for hobbyists and collectors. By providing these different entrance points, David Massey manages to address a wide audience, and at the same time tailors more specific information to a variety of groups.
When entering through the former employee button, visitors can access a fascinating collection of stories by former AT&T, Western Electric, Bell Labs, and Bell Operating Company employees. In this section, former employees recall "the wonders of working at Ma-Bell." They write about the stages of their careers at Bell, their most extraordinary work experiences, and the comradery among Bell employees. Not all stories reflect a harmonious relationship between the employer and the employees: Peter W. Koch, a former Western Electric installer, tells of a long strike in 1952 to raise the per diem rate for traveling installers by one dollar. In 1958, due to a recession, "about a third of the installers were laid off." Among them was Peter W. Koch, who "was never recalled." This section also gives a sense of the skills that were lost in the course of technological progress. Mary Clemence, who worked as a switchboard operator in Michigan in the mid 1960s, recalls her skills in handling a switchboard from the 1920s. "I've realized for some time that I had an incredibly unique experience using that kind of equipment, at a time when most of the country had direct dialing for local and long distance calls."
In addition to these stories, visitors can access a wealth of material through a navigation bar on the left hand side: a short history of the Bell logo, recordings of Jane Barbe's voice, Yellow Pages for telephone collectors and much more. A search engine helps to find pathways through Bell's A-Z. A What's New page keeps regular visitors up-to-date about additions to the site.
For historians of technology, for students and teachers, for anyone who has phone-nostalgia and wants to have a good time, the Bell System Memorial is the place to go. This website rings.
Center for History and New Media
April 22, 2004