Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Off the hook

“Off the hook” has never had anything to do with a telephone. But it is my sincere wish for the young of every future generation to have an opportunity to place a call on a rotary telephone.

There is something deeply satisfying in the heavy whir of the dial as your finger carries it around, and the heartbeat of the pulses ticking in your ears as it spins back into place. It's a device you don't plug into an electrical socket, doesn't require a battery or AC adapter, has no microchips or electronics of any kind and yet it will connect with you someone anywhere else in the world.

The rotary telephone is a reminder that once upon a time, the making of electromechanical devices was a craft, akin to watchmaking or woodworking. Someone machined those brass fittings and the wheels, oiled them, fitted them into the housing, soldered the wires to the ringer and the transformer.

When the youth of some future generation take for granted the technological marvels previous generations designed, I hope something makes them pause to consider how it all began, with the first autonomous electromechanical networked device, the common ancestor of the diversity of species of beeping, buzzing, blinking trinkets.

This is a telephone and it has a number. You spin this dial by an amount corresponding to one of the ten digits in the number you are dialing. As the dial spins back it will quickly connect and immediately disconnect the phone a number of times equal to the digit you dialed. Each disconnect click causes a single wheel in an array of wheels fitted with relays to spin in symphony the same number of times with each wheel corresponding to one of the digits in the number being dialed. The relays will close one after another, connecting through the myriad of combinations of possible circuits, connecting one swtich to another, the signal slitting over copper across countless kilometres, relay after relay, like electric gears clicking and whirring in unison, until somewhere far away a final series of relays spin closed, connecting all the previous connected lines to this final line which corresponds to a number.

And that number belongs to a telephone, and that telephone will ring a bell prompting a person you could not otherwise see or hear to lift the receiver and hear your voice vibrating along impossibly long solid copper cables uttering some variation of that very first call:

"Watson, come here. I want to see you."

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