Long distance night driving is bad enough, but compounded with rain and construction barriers makes is that much more trying. Imagine listening to the radio when unexpectedly interrupted by the buzzing alarm of the emergency broadcast system with a message of a severe thunderstorm, high winds and possible hail. Several towns are announced along the route you think you are traveling including mile markers in the path of the storm. The problem is you can't see the markers because of the concrete barriers. Fortunately, a cell phone at your fingertips allows you to call ahead to a family member to see if you are indeed driving into the oncoming fury. Communication has certainly come a long way since the days of the letter and early technology of the telegraph and first telephones, giving instantaneous connections to distant points. "Can you hear me now" can even be "Can you see me?"
To hear a voice over the first telephone wires certainly had to seem miraculous. Early home phones with cranks and town switchboards connected people in these initial conversations. One place to see some of this early American nostalgia is the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. In addition to the tower itself, our virtual tour series thus far has taken readers through the kitchen, experiencing the wood burning stove, wash tub, ice box and water pump. The old phone on the wall is at the exit of the kitchen with an old switchboard in the communication room next door. From the old days of Cease's Commissary in Dunkirk, the Bell System 556A PBX made by General Electric, is reminiscent of not only the days of when the caller actually had to dial numbers, but even before when lifting the receiver connected to an operator.
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The Dunkirk Lighthouse has an old-time telephone switchboard in the communications room.
Someone like Harriet Oleson or Gladys Kravitz come to mind when sitting at the switchboard. From the television series "Little House on the Prairie," Harriet was a switchboard operator in the late 1880s and ended up knowing all the town gossip from listening in on conversations. Gladys, from the television show "Bewitched," was the nosy neighbor who also knew what everyone was up to by peeking through curtains and looking into yards. It seems the switchboard operator certainly had the opportunity to become the town crier as she connected callers. The switchboard was a technology where an operator manually joined callers with a system of cords, keys, and lamps. They were used a short time after the invention of the telephone in 1876. Small towns often set up the switchboards right in the operator's home so she could direct calls 24 hours a day. Most often women, switching the keys forward and backward let the operator speak with the caller and connect that person to the proper destination. In the old days and in small towns, the operator was often known by name. Didn't Andy and Barney on the Andy Griffith ask Sarah the operator to call various people and she would try to engage them in conversations?
Cities and long distance calls were more complicated requiring large switchboard systems and numerous operators. It seems it wasn't that long ago when an operator had to be called to place such a call. Party lines were also in the not so distant past when neighbors shared a line, often to save on the monthly bill. The clicking during a conversation either meant that there was someone listening or if incessant, to let you know that it was time to hang up and free up the line! Of course, the telephone itself has gone through many technological advances from the crank, the candlestick, rotary dialing, push button dialing, cordless, and all from black to many fun colors and designs. How amazing it was to have a private conversation anywhere in the house instead of stretching the cord around a doorway when trying to talk to a boyfriend or girlfriend. A child of today only knows of cellular phones with internet access and texting; something not so long ago that few people could ever imagine possible.
Next time you see an old television show like "The Waltons," and see how they had to go down to the general store to take a call or see Erin in her job as an operator, remember how far we have come in communication options. As great as it is though, somehow telephone land line to land line seems to have a more clear connection. Unfortunately, if that was the only option, a quick call from a car about a dangerous storm would never be possible. Make it a good week and consider touring the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum while it is still open through the month of October.
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#1 The Dunkirk Lighthouse has an old-time telephone switchboard in the communications room.
#2 The kitchen in the Dunkirk Lighthouse has an old telephone that had to be cranked to reach the operator.