Friday, June 02, 2006

E.T. Phone Home...1971 style!

I'm a little amused by all the media coverage this week on the changes in Ireland in last 20 years since 1986. I understand and agree with the sentiments expressed but relatively speaking at the time I thought the mid 1980s were not that bad. The 1950s, 60s, and even 70s were considerably worse. Here is a little memory of telecommunications when I was 16...

I was in West Donegal in summer of 1971 camping for a few weeks with my cousin. We cycled there and we spent our time fishing and snorkeling and some rock climbing etc. We had hardly any money and had almost been surviving on what fish we caught! Money got too tight to survive by end of first week so I needed to make a phone call home to Dublin for help. The process of phoning home went like this....

I cycled a few miles to the small Kincasslagh Post Office - making sure to be there at a time when the postmistress was in attendance. In the outside phonebox there was no dialing facility - just a crank handle which generated ringing and alerted the reasonably elderly Postmistress. When she got finished selling some stamps to a customer the Postmistress answered my call...


"I want to make a call to Dublin."

"Dublin!!?" She was almost in shock.

"Ye-yes, please". I was getting a bad feeling.

"Oh God, I can't connect you to Dublin. Is it important?"

"Well, I need my Dad to send me money, I've hardly any left."

"Ach I see. I'm going to have to try to get you through to Lifford first and they can connect to Dublin. Hold on a wee minute." The high pitched but warm West Donegal accent was offering some hope.

I could hear clanking and crackling in the background and then a dull distant ring. A male voice answered as "Lifford".

The postmistress pipped up....

"Hello Lifford. I've a wee fella here who wants to phone Dublin, can you help him?

After exchanging a few pleasantries with Lifford the postmistress hung up and left me talking to the Operator in Lifford.

"So you want to call Dublin?" There was a hint of amusement in his voice. "Well, I got a few calls through to Dublin earlier, so fasten your seat belt! What's the number?" I had a faint worry that he might have misheard me as saying Dubai or some such remote part of the World. But no, he knew I meant Dublin, Ireland.

I could hear him dialing the number I gave on his rotary dial set. On first attempt nothing useful happened. Then he tried again. After a seemingly long pause and crackling I could hear a faint ringback. The Operator was pleased....

"Ah it's ringing!" he exclaimed with glee. I was starting to feel a form of unexpected honour and I began to share his enthusiasm.

I should explain that the number ringing was in a neighbour's house in Dublin as we didn't have a phone in our house. There were a few reasons for this. The initial reason was that we couldn't afford it. In 1971 I would say only maybe one in five of our neighbours had a phone in the house. However my parents then figured it was important and we had applied for a phone earlier that year. The waiting list for a phone line was up to 5 years in those days and we eventually got a house phone in 1976!!

Anyway, our neighbour Mrs. O'Farrell answered the phone and the Operator guy chirped up...."Put in 2 shillings please Caller!".

After I put in the coins the Operator let me go ahead and I asked Mrs. O'Farrell politely if she wouldn't mind going next door to get one of my parents. She always was very obliging for important matters like this. After quite awhile (and another shilling requested by the Operator) I got talking on the poor quality line to my Dad. I managed to get his agreement to help and gave him an address to send some money - Dad was always generous if he had any money to spare.

I ended the call with my last coin used up and a major relief came over me from the success of this titanic struggle. I had to remember to crank the ringer handle again to alert the Postmistress in Kincasslagh that I was finished the call - so she could pull out the cord on her ancient switchboard.

I then watched for the post over coming days to a nearby house. The post in those days was probably better than today and the cavalry were soon seen coming over the hill!

I was in the same part of West Donegal recently. I recalled the above incident (and many others like it) with a smile as I used my PDA mobile phone to downloaded e-mails and talked to anyone in the World I wanted to. Now THAT is what I call change!


-Ann said...

Great story, well told. Kicking around the house somewhere, we found an atlas/almanac of Ireland. It has all sorts of fantastic maps and charts showing things like telephone ownership in various decades or the existence of indoor plumbing in various decades. It was pretty amazing to us to see that in the 1970s, well within our lifetimes, indoor plumbing was not a given.

John of Dublin said...

Thanks Ann.

Another big change I recall in 1970s was when I started studying for engineering degree in 1973. The Head of Engineering told us to go out and buy Slide Rules for mathematical calculations. He said there was no truth that the newly talked about electronic calculators would eventually replace Slide Rules. By the time we were doing our finals in 1977 - everybody in the exams had scientific calculators and there wasn't a Slide Rule in sight!

Slide Rules are so passe now that you probably don't know what I'm even talking about! They were a sliding triple ruler device used for multipications and other calculations and were a tool of every engineer for many centuries before their death to calculators in the 1970s.

-Ann said...

Funny enough, I do know what a slide rule is, but only because my grandfather was a civil engineer. :) Don't worry though, you're WAY younger than he is.

Kim from Hiraeth said...

Hello, John of Dublin,

I found you through my friend, MissMellifluous' blog.

I am crazy about all things Irish (my heritage is Irish and Welsh) and hope to visit someday.

I got such a kick out of this post; I am 50 and I can remember still having a party line when I was in high school (probably 72 or 73--we moved to the city in '74 and got a private line).

My children were amazed and bewildered at the thought of one line ringing to our house and our neighbors' with only the different ring to tell them apart.

True funny story; I was given an electric typewriter by my parents for graduation from High School. It had long since been set aside for our seeminly never ending consecutive parade of one computer after another. One day, when I was cleaning the basement, I came across the typewriter and showed my son, then about 7 or 8, how to put in a piece of paper and type. He ran upstairs to go to the bathroom and didn't come back and so I went over and switched it off. When he finally came back and found that I had turned it off, he was shocked and dismayed--"Mom! Why did you turn it off? I didn't save my work yet!" : ) The computer saavy kid couldn't quite reconcile the old technology!

Even funnier, I told the story to my mom, who is not a computer user, and she did not understand what was funny about the story. . .a real technology disconnect.

John of Dublin said...

Thanks Kim. Yes it's fun watching how fast technology changes and how kids react to older stuff. I watched a TV episode of Home Improvement where the Dad was showing an old dusty device to his kid.

"What's that, Dad?

"It's a gramaphone player."

"What's a gramaphone player?"

"Well it's an older type of record player,"

"What's a record player?"

"Geez, kids! Well it's an older type of CD player."